From the Bottom of the Ocean Floor

We could probably write a what-I’m-grateful-list for each other.

It seems we all start out with that same basic list of thanksgiving: we are thankful for our family, our friends, good food, and our warm home. And our job and our car. Maybe a couple of other things, but most lists of gratitude include these—and they should. These are things we should be grateful for.

But what if we don’t have them? Is our gratitude at the Thanksgiving table this year dependent on the people around us, the food we eat, and the roof over our table?

The People of Puny Hope?

Christians are different from other people. Like the ancient Jewish leaders who sized up Peter’s bravado and his unlikely eloquence and remembered he had “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13), people around us should be able to tell that we are different because of Christ’s work in and on us. They should ask us, Peter later wrote, about the hope that is in us—sensing that there is an anchor in our lives beyond what other religions or messages have to offer.

Paul wrote to early believers about the unquestionable truth that Jesus did rise from the dead, and will one day raise us, too. Jesus’ death and resurrection are central to our faith; without them, Paul asked, what hope do we have? “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). If all we can hope for is a good life here and now, we have a puny, pitiful hope.

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For the Fools We Are

Jesus once said that anyone who hears His words but doesn’t apply them in life is a fool; someone like that might as well be building their house on the beach with only shifting sand to hold it up (Matthew 7:26). In another parable, He told the story of a rich man who made plans as if he could guarantee his own future—but died that night (Luke 12:20). Another fool.

In the first eleven verses of Proverbs 26, there are ten unflattering references to fools and the choices they make. But before we rest in our self-righteousness, we read there’s more hope for a fool than for some of us.

Surely not us, right? We remind ourselves that we know what we are doing and we know how to make wise decisions and avoid foolish choices. We convince ourselves we’re really not that far off from the goal—not realizing how close our steps come to the edge of the precipice.

“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).

Wisdom Never Comes From Us

Ask most Sunday School teachers about wisdom and they’ll point you to the book of Proverbs. Israel’s King Solomon, possessing “wisdom and understanding beyond measure” (1 Kings 4:29-30), wrote out common-sense sayings full of wisdom for whoever would listen to take to heart.

At first it all seems easy enough: Read the book, follow the rules, make common-sense decisions, and you will succeed beyond any fool who doesn’t listen. This is where we usually think we have it figured out.

“‘Who has made man’s mouth?’” God thundered after Moses’ list of excuses (Exodus 4:11), and we know He gave us even more than that. Who gave us any ability to think and reason and learn? Where did we get common sense, or even the guiding principles in the Bible itself? “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asked the Corinthians. “If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

While all this is true, we forget something even deeper than the source of our common sense. Perhaps we’ve reached the highest point of foolishness when we weigh all our “wisdom” and think it can get us home.

What is Wisdom? Really?

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” Solomon wrote (Proverbs 9:10). Too bad he forgot that.

Solomon’s wisdom was so great that it drew attention from far countries, yet he foolishly threw away his own kingdom by letting his heart stray from honoring God. He followed other gods and left the only God who gave him his kingdom and his wisdom.

Solomon’s problem wasn’t just that he acted without wisdom—he left the Source of the wisdom he had.

In the beginning of his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul points out that all the wisdom in the world never led anyone to God.

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

Like Solomon who—despite his unsurpassed wisdom—left God for lesser things, all of our human reasoning and ideas don’t get us any closer to God. All the arguments and reasonings and writings and speeches of experts and philosophers and any other human beings never get us anywhere we need to go. All our collective wisdom is pointless.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon was right, even if he didn’t always live what he wrote. It is only through accepting our complete inability to find wisdom on our own and then trusting in the truth He has revealed that we will ever have any true wisdom.

When we do that, it won’t look like “wisdom” to most people.

Become a Fool

“Let no one deceive himself,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise…” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23).

There are only two paths, just two choices. Wide and the narrow. Building on sand or building on solid rock. Following the world and its dead ways or following the living God. If we choose the narrow path, with its rocky terrain and walls on each side, we will probably look like fools to most people. Are we ready for that? Are we prepared to be called a fool (or some other name) in order to follow the narrow path and truly become wise?

When the world’s idea of common sense diverts from what we know is God’s leading, the only wise thing to do is silence the call of the crowd and build on rock instead of sand. When we walk away from our own “wisdom” and embrace the words of God, as foolish as we may look to others (and sometimes feel ourselves), we are wiser than we ever were on our own.

Hope

Jesus told a story of two men praying at the temple. One, a self-righteous teacher of Jews, prayed with pomp and pride and puffiness, reminding God that he was actually a pretty good person if you look at it right. A tax collector stood next to him, despised by his fellow citizens and essentially excommunicated by religious leaders, offering a simple prayer:

“‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13b)

The tax collector wasn’t pretending to humbly refuse what he secretly felt he had earned, but was bluntly acknowledging truths he admitted he saw in himself. This wasn’t false humility or even common sense, but a right understanding of himself, of God, and of mercy. And wisdom.

We will never be as wise as we sometimes think we are, and that’s okay. There is hope for all of us in the encompassing and inescapable love of God and His gentle guidance. He knows our failings, loves us anyway, and leads us by still waters so as not to throw us off (see Psalm 23). As we go about each day, making foolish decisions and forgetting wiser options, His grace never changes or runs out and He never changes His mind about us. We are wiser in this path of grace than on any road of common sense.

Father, be merciful to all of us sinners. All of us fools.

“You Are Special”: A Short Review of a Short Book

We are afraid of each other. Hopefully we are walking away from that fear and into fear of God, but we know and have often felt the deep pull of worry about what other human beings think about us—perhaps even as children. Stories can be so helpful as we work through heart issues, giving us hope and encouragement for continuing on, and, in this case, showing us just how ridiculous this people-fear really is.

You Are Special, by Max Lucado, may seem like just a simple story for children. But simplicity can yield deep insights–often showing us just how uncomplicated our issues really are–and, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.”

The short book opens with a description of life for the wooden people in Wemmicksville. Day after day, the citizens mill about their town while sizing each other up and pronouncing their own verdicts: if a Wemmick seems especially worthy they give him a gold star sticker, but if he fails or flops or is generally ugly, he is shamed with a gray dot sticker.

Punchinello always has dot stickers, never stars. After trying so very hard to somehow earn a star sticker, he finally resigns himself to his lot. But then he meets Lucia.

Lucia is different. She doesn’t give other Wemmicks any dots or stars, and curiously, they can’t seem to give her any, either. Not for lack of trying—some give her dots and some give her stars, but they all fall off. They won’t stick to her. Punchinello is intrigued, and decides to visit Eli the woodcarver, who Lucia insists is the secret to her sticker-free life.

It is Eli who gives Punchinello confidence that it doesn’t matter what stickers other Wemmicks try to give him; it only matters what Eli—his maker—thinks about him. While Punchinello doesn’t immediately turn into another sticker-free Wemmick like Lucia, he is given confidence to begin walking toward that goal. And he will be sure to visit with Eli more often.

You Are Special is a sweet and freeing look at fear of people and freedom from it. The story has its drawbacks: Eli seems to be a somewhat weak and distant representation of God, and there is no mention of the gift of Jesus’ righteousness that our worth is based on.

With those caveats in mind, Lucado’s story is a gentle introduction for children learning to fear God rather than people. And we will find much to enjoy in it as well, perhaps reentering daily life with Eli’s words echoing in our hearts: “The more you trust my love, the less you care about their stickers.”