For 12 years I worked as the chief student life officer at two Christian colleges. One of my responsibilities was to hold students accountable for violations of the student conduct code. My goal was to treat students fairly and with respect and make decisions that brought about justice. For that I needed wisdom.
The book of Proverbs teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of, and instruction in, wisdom (1:7, 15:33). It is the foundation for the development of wisdom. Christ is the source of all wisdom; our obedient and thankful response to Christ’s sacrifice is for us to live as wise people and to seek to understand God’s will.
The purpose of wisdom is “for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair” (Prov. 1:2-3). Wisdom is an essential bridge between fulfilling the love commandments to love God and our neighbor and the desire for shalom, which is, according to Neal Plantinga, a universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.
Throughout my experience I have identified what I believe are some important principles for wisdom as we seek to be salt and light in a world that is too often seeking easy answers.
1. Remember that, in the Heidelberg Catechism’s words, “I am not my own.”
Our culture consistently and persistently suggests that life is all about me. Satan tempted Christ by telling him to put himself first. He tempts us in the same way. The wise person builds her house upon the rock of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. In humility she values others above herself, looking not to her own interests but to the interest of others (Phil. 2:3-4).
2. Acknowledge that there is much that I do not know or understand—and that I may, in fact, be wrong.
I am keenly aware in my own heart and mind that this is so. I resist living according to this reality because doing so seemingly puts me at a disadvantage to others. I therefore often act as if my knowledge and understanding are greater than they actually are.
The reality is that we are often wrong. And frequently stubbornness and pride prevent us from being willing to acknowledge our errors. I once made a decision to suspend an athlete from playing in an upcoming football game because of an altercation in his residence hall—only to have another student subsequently tell me that the student I suspended had not done what I thought he had done. It was difficult for me to acknowledge that I was wrong.
I have found that an authentic desire to be true to myself and acknowledge my errors and weaknesses opens me up to the blessings that God offers.
3. Embrace complexity and mystery.
Paul acknowledges that it is through our faith in Christ that we can begin to understand the mysteries of God’s will. There remain, however, mysteries and complexities related to living out that faith. We encounter these complexities in our everyday life as we seek to raise our children, live in Christian community, and participate as citizens in our increasingly divided and contentious political environment. We need not be afraid of complexity and mystery but can embrace them as part of our abundant life in Christ.
4. Have a right regard for mutuality and otherness.
We are imagebearers of our Creator God. Our common identity and human mutuality form the basis for understanding and celebrating our otherness. Otherness, the ways in which we are different, because of our ethnicity, race, education, family background, work experience, and the like, is too often used as a basis for seeing someone else as “less than.” As imagebearers we are called to appreciate and respect each and every person, even, perhaps especially, those who we perceive as different.
5. Seek first to understand and then to be understood.
I believe that seeking first to understand (a principle highlighted by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) is one of the most important but least practiced principles of living our life together. I find it too easy to dismiss the perspective of the other person and move directly to making my own views known. I need to take a step back and consider how I feel when this is done to me.
Sometimes in my work, students have charged that I did not listen to them when I dealt with them. Other times students and staff made statements about me that I felt were undeserved. These statements hurt, but they made me step back to consider whether there was any truth in them.
6. Work closely with others.
As the body of Christ, we all have gifts and abilities that together contribute to our obedient response to what God has done for us in Christ. Unfortunately, we are all too prone to try to go it alone.
I found in my work that I needed to rely on the experiences and insights of others to help in my decision-making. I also benefited from the counsel of friends and mentors. Wisdom reminds us again of our need to work together.
7. Communicate with grace.
In our most honest and self-reflective moments, we recognize the way in which our words, spoken as well as written, can be unhelpful and hurtful. The book of James speaks forcefully about the destructive nature of the tongue and its ability to “corrupt the whole person” (3:6). It is equally true that gracious words and prayers can be healing and can build others up.
We communicate with grace by being willing to say “I’m sorry” and to be thankful. A proper understanding of wisdom helps us recognize how life-affirming saying “I’m sorry” can be. We are, of course, also to give thanks to God with a grateful heart for all God has done for us. I believe that it follows that we should also be extravagant in giving thanks to others.
8. Be strong and courageous, and act.
I am often prone to inaction because I recognize my own failings and limitations. I can be a perfectionist and want to be sure that my decisions are the best ones possible. I need to remember that in the midst of “seeing through a glass darkly” I am called to respond in obedience to God, prayerfully asking for wisdom and trusting God to guide me. I need to heed the words of David to his son Solomon: “Be strong and courageous, and act; do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord God . . . is with you.” (1 Chron. 28:20)
I am convinced that applying these wisdom principles in our life and leadership will make a remarkable difference in our ability to bring healing and shalom to our broken world. We can begin by prayerfully asking God to fulfill his promise to give wisdom. It is a gift that can only be fully developed through awareness and practice. Then we can begin to know, and seek to bring about, what is right and just and fair.