“Though wisdom is hard to pin down, Scripture presents some common habits of wise people.”
We live in an age where almost everything is a finger’s touch away. Consider this: Today, more information is generated in 10 minutes than all of civilization generated from the beginning of time to this point. In some ways, this is good. But for all the answers at our fingertips, the Information Age cannot answer most of the questions that matter.
Even though we’re swimming in a 24/7 stream of news and media, personalities and opinions, I wonder if we’re not drowning, or on the verge of drowning. For me, the constant barrage of information is overwhelming most days. What’s legit? Is anyone reporting the truth? Who can I trust?
I’m not the only one overwhelmed. Statistics say we’re the most anxiety-plagued, depression-ridden culture in the history of the world. We’re more informed, more educated than any culture in the history of the world. But something is missing, something Google can’t answer and universities can’t teach.
That something is wisdom.
Wisdom is a strange thing. It’s difficult to describe but easy to spot. It’s natural to equate knowledge or intelligence with wisdom. Natural, maybe, but wrong. Wisdom and intelligence are, in fact, two different ideas.
It’s also natural to equate wisdom with age. Again, seeds of truth here. Wisdom often grows slowly in the soil of time and experience. But not always. You probably know a young person who “gets it.” While you’re not exactly sure what “it” is, you know when someone—young, old or otherwise—has it. And you’re sure it matters.
The Bible talks often about the elusive but valuable reality of wisdom. And as a follower of Jesus, I believe any pursuit of wisdom must parallel a pursuit of God. Though wisdom is hard to pin down, Scripture presents some common habits of wise people. Here are nine of them.
1. Accept uncertainty and unknown.
“For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” (Prov. 2:10)
Wisdom isn’t about what you know. It’s about how you see. Wisdom happens when you take knowledge and apply it to your life in a such a way that adds meaning and promotes the common good.
Your mind collects, organizes, and processes facts and information. But only the heart can handle life’s paradoxes—things like love, death, suffering and God. Think about the first time you fell in love. Explain the emotions you felt. Explain the rationale behind your actions. Don’t worry … I can’t, either.
Ever been in the waiting room when the doctor informs the family that their son didn’t make it? I have. There’s not a self-help guide or sermon anywhere that can make sense of tragedy and death.
What about God? A few nights ago, I tried explaining God to my boys. With every answer, they became more confused. I mean, really, what makes sense about a God who’s everywhere but also inside us? What about a God who is three but also one?
And that’s exactly the point. God doesn’t make sense. Wise people don’t need to make sense of the world. They have relinquished the futile quest to control everything.
2. Seek humility, and embrace wonder and curiosity.
“Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor.” (Prov. 15:33)
Knowledge alone puffs up, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8. Enlightened people refuse to stand in awe of anything. Information says humility is weakness. Wonder and reverence are childish virtues.
You will never meet a wise person who isn’t humble. A sage never draws attention to himself, but when he’s in the room, his presence is undeniable. He doesn’t walk with swagger, but his confidence is undeniable. His words are few, but when he speaks, everyone listens. This is true because wisdom practices reverence.
3. Don’t allow success to define you.
“Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise.” (1 Cor. 3:18)
Thomas Merton once said we spend our whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find the ladder leans against the wrong wall. There’s nothing inherently wrong with climbing this ladder. But you won’t find wisdom there. To use Richard Rohr’s words, “After the age of 30, success has almost nothing to teach us.”
Even though I’m hardly on the other side of 30, I’ve found these words to be true. I learn much more about myself from my mistakes or failures than my successes.
4. Accept the finality of life.
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12)
Death’s inevitability doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of the wise. Wise people neither deny their mortality nor do they waste energy fighting it.
We live in a time when exercise and eating right are idols blinding us from the inevitability of death. I’m not against either. Both are important to our well-being. But I have also witnessed firsthand the idolatrous temptation that comes with physique and health.
I once heard a pastor say we would never get serious about anything if our days weren’t numbered. He’s right, I believe. Numbering your days gives you perspective, drive and purpose. It challenges you to spend your mist of an existence doing something that matters.
5. Value character over reputation.
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17)
Wisdom from heaven has no agenda. Its only allegiance is to truth. Its motives are pure, which is the foundation of integrity.
I won’t expound on every word, but I do want to focus on “peace-loving.” Shalom is what we’re talking about here. Wholeness. Reconciliation. Unity.
Peace isn’t passivity. This is particularly important to note in our time. Wise people fight, but not with the world’s weapons. They fight with love. Wise people are radically inclusive and obedient. They forgive anyone for anything, even their enemies.
6. Listen and ask questions.
“Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” (Prov. 19:20)
Wisdom implies listening. I struggle with listening. I want to be heard. True sages don’t struggle with this. They have much to learn, and you can’t learn with your mouth open.
7. Never lose hope. Ever.
“That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints …” (Eph. 1:17–18)
Wise people are always hopeful—to a fault, some might say. Why? Because hope isn’t circumstantial. Hope is eternal. Nothing external can alter it.
Hope separates knowledge from wisdom. Many knowledgeable, intellectual people aren’t hopeful. If you look around, hope doesn’t make much sense. But when you look up, trusting in an eternal God, you realize hope is the only option.
Wise people always grow in hope because their hope is always in God. If you’re not growing in hope, you’re not growing in wisdom.
8. Surround yourself with hopeful, life-giving people.
“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (Prov. 13:20)
“Show me your friends, I’ll show you your future” is cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I’ve watched this principle play out in my life. For years, I surrounded myself with negative voices. Some of these were church leaders, I’m ashamed to say. After leaving ministry, I spent a year unemployed. It was a cynicism detox, and I thank God for it.
I still battle cynicism, but I see it coming now. You can’t fight an enemy you can’t name, identify or recognize.
Wise people surround themselves with life-giving voices, people of integrity who live with passion and meaning.
9. Learn from the past, but never live there.
“Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (Eccl. 7:10)
Wisdom doesn’t entertain nostalgia. Nostalgia is a dirty liar. You almost always see the past through rose-colored glasses. Here’s why: The past is known. Even if it wasn’t that great, you see it in hindsight through a positive lens because humans crave certainty. A negative past eats an unknown future for lunch. This is why the Egyptians begged Moses to go back to slavery in Egypt and why some people return to unhealthy, even abusive, relationships.
The past is for learning, not living. Here’s the thing about the past, though … God isn’t there. God moves people forward. You can’t live in the past and become who you were created you to be. Wise people get this. They don’t abandon the past. They learn from it, rather than living in it.
Of course there’s more to say here. What habits or qualities define the wise? Leave a comment below.
Frank Powell is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside Church in Granite Bay, California. He is also a husband, father and Jesus follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee. You can find more of his content at Blog.BaysideOnline.