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How Do We Become Wise?

How Do We Become Wise?

In her dazzling poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks a poignant question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

We all know that life is precious, yes, and that there are moments of great serenity and gentle joy. We know the soft touch by the delicate hand of an aging grandmother, and we know the quiet glory of a sleeping newborn. The dew found blanketing the earth every morning, with absolutely no human effort, still amazes me and stirs my soul to praise. All I have to do is walk outside to find fresh mercy.

But for all its preciousness, life is also, at times, uncon­trollably wild. Have you ever thought about how much a human being goes through on this pilgrimage around planet Earth? Life races along the route of the wildest roller coaster, heaving and thrusting, twisting and turning its way through all those dark tunnels of trauma. The sacred marriage that was once sealed in vows and meant to last a lifetime is ended with the stroke of a cheap pen purchased in bulk at Walmart. Some of the children who were trained up in the way that they should go are now — like the prodigal son in Luke 15 — sleepwalking their way through a far country while Dad sits on the porch weep­ing. The business venture that seemed so unsinkable, so Titanic, is taking on water. And we’re seeing it now — pandemics unexpectedly arise and change the world overnight.

Life is not colored neatly between the lines but is more like the confluence of two mighty rivers crashing together. The good creation that gives us groves of irrepressibly yellow aspen trees is the same creation that is sitting on top of fault lines that will soon shift and destabilize an entire region. The ecstatic celebration of a new birth is often followed by our attendance at an unexpected funeral.

Scores of people think they have a game plan, a coher­ent and thoughtful approach to life. But we all know that a plan doesn’t mean anything when something goes horribly wrong. Or, as Mike Tyson once quipped, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”1

Yes, life moves on us. Things shift, disruptions occur, and economies unexpectedly tank. The sturdy life we thought we had was, upon closer examination, more like a frag­ile house of cards than we would like to admit. If this is true, the question then becomes, How do we become the kind of people who know how to handle whatever life throws at them? How do we learn to think on our feet and navigate the terrain we never expected to traverse? In short — and this is the question at the heart of my new book — how do we become wise?

The ancient prophets of Israel gave us a clue:

This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’ — Jeremiah 6:16, emphasis mine

In the book of Job, we read:

Ask the former generation and find out what their ancestors learned, for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow. Will they not instruct you and tell you? Will they not bring forth words from their understanding? — Job 8:8–10

Both Jeremiah and Job tell us to pursue the older saints that have discov­ered The Way. Ask them where the good way is and find out what their ancestors passed on to them. Pursue the ones who have found strength in God to get back up after having fallen down. Pursue the ones who have overcome the unholy ambitions of their youth. Pursue the ones who have climbed the mountain of God.

In our information age, though, this discipline of asking for help is in disrepair. We are largely untrained in the art of conversation. It just takes too much work. Human beings can be so complicated, so we go online for a quick search. We hope to find the right information. Maybe there’s a how-to video that’ll help us. But with all the crucial questions in life, you don’t need a search engine; you need a sage. In the moments where critical discernment is needed, you don’t need an “internet pastor”; you need the true communion of saints who will do the slow work of discerning the way of the Lord with you.

But very few in our society will encourage you in their direction. We live in the days of the glorification of youth. We live among those who praise slim bodies instead of sound minds. We live in an age that loves pop stars and forsakes old war veterans. We follow the tabloids for news of the latest celebrity marriages while missing out on the wis­dom of the old married couple sitting in the pew next to us. The extent to which we continue in this direction is the extent to which we forfeit one of God’s great gifts.

Still, the ancient paths can be found. There is a life of elemental wholesomeness and vitality, a kind of life that can rise above the besetting sins and cheap seductions that have thrown many lives off course. There is a life that can weather every storm. And isn’t that what all of us are longing for?

So, just ask! Don’t play the fool. You don’t always have to learn the hard way. Look around the landscape and find someone who has a life worth emulating. Buy them a meal. Come prepared with a legal pad and four or five good questions. If you’ll take the time and do the work, you’ll find sages along the way who can save you a lot of heartache. In short, make it your goal to spend the rest of your life chasing wisdom.

Adapted for Devotionals Daily by Daniel Grothe, author of Chasing Wisdom.

  1. Mike Berardino, “Mike Tyson Explains One of His Most Famous Quotes,” Sun-Sentinel, November 9, 2012,


Your Turn

Who in your life has lived with wisdom, is steady in following the Lord, and has persevered through struggle and trial? You may not be able to bring a legal pad and take them out to lunch today, but there are other options — Zoom, a phone call, texting, Google hangouts. Let’s ask where the good way is from those who have walking it before us with the Lord! Come share your thoughts on our blog. We want to know who your sages are! ~ Devotionals Daily