For new entrants to the job force, there’s a bit of a paradox: many jobs require a certain amount of experience in that job. Think about that for a minute…how could someone obtain experience in a specific trade without working in that trade? Sometimes, an aspiring tradesman or other soon-to-be-skilled worker can seek out an apprenticeship or internship, but I appreciate that not everyone has the liberty to work without being paid (at some minimum level), especially when we have responsibilities to take care of others.
With that in mind, take a look at this verse from the book of Proverbs (a book that contains both imperatives that we should obtain wisdom, as well as a lot of recorded wisdom on various topics).
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom.
Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
Proverbs 4:7 NIV
At first read, we might feel that this is a paradox. If we need wisdom to get started with acquiring more wisdom, how do we get wisdom in the first place? (To be fair, there are some other readings of the Hebrew here that interpret the first line as emphasizing the importance of getting wisdom. I don’t think that either reading is inconsistent with the rest of Proverbs.)
This scenario is sometimes called “recursion”, where the outcome of one function depends on the same function. We use this concept in the sciences. For instance, in mathematics, a recursive function often needs somewhere to start: a set of initial conditions. In computer programming, a recursive function often needs somewhere to stop. (Otherwise, a stack overflow is likely to occur, which has happened in my code before.) In biology, life comes from life.
The good news is that God gives us the initial conditions for getting started on a journey of wisdom.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
To him belongs eternal praise.
Psalms 111:10 NIV
So, there is a starting place for wisdom: “The fear of the LORD”. We start by respecting God, recognizing His sovereign authority over His creation (including us, despite our haphazard use of the free will that He gave us), and appreciating that He has both perfect knowledge and great love for us. With this context, and the observation that He has reached out to humankind personally (through Jesus), it only makes sense that we would seek out what He has to say to us.
When we do so, we do indeed start to accumulate wisdom. God has a lot of facts in the Bible, but wisdom is more than just data. God gives us guidance on the right choice in complicated situations (sometimes by giving us an example of a person who made the wrong choice), and we can obtain access to situation-specific wisdom through the Holy Spirit.
If we don’t have the fear of the Lord in our hearts (and here, I don’t necessarily mean being “scared” of God, but rather giving Him respect and recognition that He is owed), then why would we expect to have the same level of wisdom? Human beings have a long track record of skewing their so-called “wisdom” towards what makes them feel good in the short term, or what is trendy at the time. Furthermore, human wisdom can never exceed the limits of the human condition, not only due to our finite knowledge of how the universe works (constrained to what we can observe), but also in being able to only see the past (rather than God’s view that includes the future).
In fact, if we find something truly wise in the teachings of people who haven’t yielded their lives to God, I think that a closer inspection will often show that it either overlaps with something God already said (i.e., the purveyor of wisdom stumbled upon one of God’s truths), or had its roots in God’s Word from the beginning (i.e., the origin just got lost to history, and a person mistakenly thought that it was their own idea). That may be a bold statement, but it’s testable. And, for human “wisdom” that contradicts God’s revelation, I feel confident in predicting that we’ll find it wasn’t so wise in the first place.
Finally, if we get wisdom from wisdom, how much more can our wisdom grow once we get started, especially if we keep investing in it? Yes, if we want our wisdom to grow, we must take the wisdom that we learn from God and use it to gain more (and who wouldn’t, except maybe those who don’t want to put in the effort?). However, if we keep taking the wisdom we have and applying it towards the acquisition of more wisdom – which I believe is more than just knowledge, extending to wise actions as well – there is virtually no limit to how much we can accumulate! Once we know how to get hired in at the base of the “wisdom corporate ladder” (so to speak), we might say that we have essentially unlimited “wisdom earning potential”.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.