I recently heard an insight from a friend during a conversation that in his long experience, he had earlier seen the Bible as merely a guidebook and was now seeing the Bible also as a wisdom book. When I asked for explanation, he said that the difference is this: the Bible as a guidebook is telling us how to live, as a wisdom book God is showing us how to think about life. Like the book of Proverbs, wisdom principles are stated as general truths, not promises or specific requirements to follow in every example. The point of wisdom is to learn a perspective on life circumstances and to gain a proper viewpoint with God’s lenses for how to see what is going on.
The Bible does tell us how to live, and particularly the useful content about behaviors that are evil compared to good. These points of guidance are also practical wisdom for life and well-being in contrast to death and avoidable suffering. The Bible shows many things about how to live in the commands to people during the Old Testament period (such as keeping the Sabbath), and commands to people in time since then (such as casting our cares on God through prayer, 1 Pet 5:7). Beyond these how to live commands we may listen to the ways God is forming us through his Word for how to think about life. We need both the content and the perspective.
Consider some of the statements about suffering troubles in daily life (James 1:2-8; Romans 5:3-5; Romans 8:16-29; Hebrews 12:1-14; 1 Peter 1:6-9; 2:21-25). Some Christians might take these statements as commands to be obeyed: when Christians experience various troubles in daily life, they must rejoice and consider it joy to have these afflictions. The Bible includes these statements in a way that sounds like commands, but the point is not that we are to attempt to put a happy face on ourselves when hard times hit, and that we somehow make ourselves joyful. That interpretation would be a mistake of seeing these passages in the mode of telling us how to live in the terms of performance and behaviors. God has no interest in pretense, and it does no one any good. Pretending our experience because we read commands that way can harm us to believe we are experiencing God when we are not. When we substitute our performance for God’s work in us, the thing we have done is actually to turn away from God to our own devices.
Instead, the ear open to wisdom for how to think about life takes these same biblical statements listed above as telling a complicated framework of suffering as part of God’s work in the Christian. The counter-intuitive and unnatural response of joy in hard times follows from seeing with a larger lens that God’s work to accomplish good in Christians occurs by means of difficult troubles in daily life. The response of joy is provided by God to arise in the Christian because of assurance that God is at work. We experience God’s nearness and care in our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:3-11).
The Bible is teaching people to see the invisible activity of God with the eyes of faith and a theology of providential works for our sanctification. We are tempted to desire our own happiness in the first place, but God teaches us to desire humility that he produces in us, such as through experiencing failure in goals we attempt or being weakened by sickness. When we can see God’s hand working for our good, that wisdom can bring a smile to our face and energize our hope in his continued care. In the cross God shows us that evil events unwittingly bear his good involvement for good results (also Genesis 50:20). When we see the changes for humility, empathy, and our increased receptivity to God as the result of troubles in life, the unnatural responses of gratitude and gladness often overcome us. We see this shift develop in Paul as God’s work of afflictions brought him to humility and gladness (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
Another way we can miss the wisdom purpose of many biblical passages is to see narratives as merely examples of human obedience or disobedience. We might enjoy imagining ourselves as modern people with a metaphorical Goliath to fight like David faced, but this would reduce the Bible to merely instructions for behavior and eclipse the heavier purpose of showing God’s work in varying conditions. Many have said that God is the hero of all the biblical narratives, so wisdom would be to listen for God’s providence as shown in those historical times and in our times alike. Those biblical people were God’s handcrafted results just as we are (Ephesians 2:10), so the message according to how to think about life can be our reassurance because of God’s providential care to us in our days.
Similarly, the many ways that the Bible commands people to love others and love God can be read as behaviors we must work up in ourselves, but a better way is to see that God is working to persuade us to desire this other-centered mode of life as what we desire for ourselves. Surely we are warned that coveting and murder are clear evils, but the warnings about them are to point by negative boundaries to the worldview God would form in us to want to care for others. Our natural orientation is inward, to our desires and satisfaction—how we may fulfill our agenda. We may even attempt to use the behavioral notices in the Bible pragmatically to achieve personal success and avoidance of God’s wrath against evil. God’s goal is larger for us to have a share in his way of looking at and operating in life with others. He aims at making his love the orientation and power of our actions.
Finally, the authority of the Word of God has often been twisted to evil agendas. I notice that many people look for content in the Bible according to what we want to see there. In recent times, people who were polluted by evil agendas of racism, slavery, polygamy, and male superiority were able to construe spurious material in the Bible to support their evil presuppositions. The extreme darkness of these examples shows that the goodness of the Bible and the power of God do not prevent us from misusing the Bible. Perhaps it is God’s humility that he makes his Word vulnerable to evil applications. Under that warning, we can see the possibility of misusing biblical statements as behavioral requirements when they were intended for our wisdom. For this reason, we all need the help of God to listen to his Word as he intends for us. Often this help comes through the community of the saints, fellow Christians gathering with us around the Word of God to be enlightened, reassured, warned, and motivated for closer reliance upon him in daily life.