A Biblical Matrix for Finding Wisdom
by Robert C. Crosby
As pastors and Christ-followers, how are we to know the way of wisdom? When the Bible does not provide a clear answer, how can we be clear? Here are seven characteristics of a wise decision.
“Make a three-point turn right here,” the road test official insisted.
Before attempting the much-rehearsed maneuver, I checked the rearview mirror of my Chevy Impala and saw a problem. A car was right behind me on the two-lane country road. For the life of me, I could not remember anything in the driver’s manual about what to do in that situation.
“What about the car behind me?” I reluctantly asked, perspiration beading on my brow. “What should I do?”
The official turned toward me and peered knowingly over his wire-framed half-glasses.
“Young man, you just do whatever you think is right.”
The knot already in my stomach tightened more. I was 15 and, in my mind at least, this was more than just a driver’s test. It was a rite of passage. My manhood was on the line. Beside, just a month earlier I had failed the road test. This was my second try.
Ahead of me the road was clear. Next to me, the judge was watching. Behind me, a fellow driver was waiting for me to make up my mind. I saw two choices: I could execute the three-point turn while the driver behind waited, or I could motion for him to pass and then start the turn. My brain did a rapid search of every sentence in the driver’s manual I could possibly recall, but I found myself in a situation the book had not specifically addressed. How would I decide on something about which the manual was unclear?
Have you noticed that life and pastoral ministry are full of situations and conflicts the Bible specifically addresses and others that it simply does not? After all, where is the passage that tells me which grade of carpet we need to put in the church foyer and how much to spend on it? What verse will instruct my wife and me on whether we should take our next vacation alone as a couple or together with some friends? Which passage reveals how much time each week I should devote to study and prayer and how much to rest and recreation?
In ancient Israel, as people faced moral decisions and dilemmas on which the Torah (or Old Testament) was not specific, religious leaders added to the Law by writing exhaustive requirements in the Talmud (a long list of extra-biblical, extraneous rules). These became incredibly burdensome loads.
Jesus accused the leaders of being “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). These religious leaders majored on life’s minors. In doing so, Jesus said they had neglected “the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (verse 23). While turning their personal convictions into sweeping codes of expectation for others, these leaders missed the importance of values-driven decision making — and the way of wisdom.
Better Than Rules
God-honoring leadership calls for something more than an exhaustive collection of rules. The best leadership decisions are also the wisest ones. Ultimately, we have rules because we so often do not have wisdom.
Think about it. From where do God’s principles and guidelines proceed? They flow from His character. In other words, God does not need rules to function because He has something better. He has perfect character and, therefore, perfect wisdom. His decisions flow from who He is. Since He bears the intrinsic quality of pure wisdom, He does not require the extrinsic motivations of rules and consequences.
But, as pastors and Christ-followers, how are we to know the way of wisdom — especially in those split-second, three-point-turn decisions of life and ministry? When the Bible does not provide a clear answer, how can we be clear?
Two Kinds of Wisdom
When James wrote his New Testament letter, he wanted to help readers understand how to steer their lives with godly wisdom amid the morally slippery Roman roads of culture.
He wrote in James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
The good news is we have an instructor right next to us on life’s road tests, and He won’t hesitate to answer our requests for wisdom.
James goes on to warn that there is more than one type of wisdom. There is earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom — wisdom “from below” and “from above.”
“But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:17,18, NLT1).
In his characteristically practical form, James holds up contrasting X-rays of two different hearts — two contrasting kinds of wisdom. He reveals that godly wisdom is more than a set of road rules to guide the choices we make; it is the kind of heart God wants to grow within us.
As we look at these two hearts held up against the light of God’s truth, some key themes emerge about the nature of wisdom. These characteristics form checkpoints through which we can run our decisions if we genuinely want to make sure our leadership decisions are wise. You could say James gives us a decision matrix for wisdom.
As you read through these checkpoints, consider a particularly challenging decision you are currently facing or one you have recently faced. Hold it up to the scrutiny of Scripture.
1. A wise decision is pure. Samson was one Old Testament leader who bypassed the pure checkpoint in the decision-making process. Although he started out with so much — a godly family, God’s favor, incredible strength, and acclaim — he made a series of decisions that guaranteed moral failure. Consider a few. First, he chose to be a loner, separating himself from godly counsel (Proverbs 11:14). Then he dangerously and unadvisedly entered enemy territory (Judges 14:3). He tragically ignored, or undervalued, God’s call on his life, preferring instead to pursue personal pleasures. And failing to learn from past mistakes, he jumped from one relationship folly to another (Judges 16:1–4).
At no point in the biblical record do we see this leader ask, “Is this pure? Is this consistent with God’s moral code? Can I pursue this with a clean conscience?”
Ultimately, Samson’s failure to make decisions with purity in mind was his undoing.
2. A wise decision is peace-loving. Several years ago I found myself upset with a parishioner. He had made some comments to visiting guests that were unkind and quite hurtful. Having arranged to meet with him one afternoon to discuss the escalating situation, I intentionally arrived an hour early. Somehow I knew that having this conversation with him was right, perhaps even wise, but I also knew that how I was feeling about it was wrong.
For years I had watched Christians abuse the biblical admonition of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) by simply offering some preemptive comment such as, “I love you, brother, but … ” and then firing with both barrels verbally. I feared I might do the same.
As I prayed, I sensed the Lord encouraging me simply to do what the verse says — to actually speak the truth in love. I needed to be completely truthful with this brother, but in a loving way. Being loud and angry would help no one (James 1:20), but being truthful and kind might just do a world of good.
Much to my surprise, it worked. With God’s help, I calmly told this man how hurtful his words and actions had been. He apologized. We prayed together, and then we moved on. This action emotionally disarmed the conflict. That day I experienced the truth that if a decision is truly wise, it is also peace-loving.
3. A wise decision is considerate. Paul instructed us to put the interests of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). As leaders who live in a world where every man looks to his own interests, and not to the interests of others, the quality of being considerate sparkles. It is a rare gem but also a vital checkpoint in determining the wisdom, or lack thereof, in our decisions. Wise decisions consider the other people involved, including their perspectives, their stake in the matter, and their feelings.
4. A wise decision is submissive. We make wise decisions with a sense of humility. Wise decisions keep in mind our roles as leaders and the authority figures our decisions impact. James reminds us to “keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (James 2:8). While New Testament scholar Scot McKnight calls this following the “Jesus Creed,” James simply calls it wisdom. Is your decision truly submissive to others?
5. A wise decision is full of mercy and good fruit. I faced a challenging decision in the middle of a Communion service. Gathering with a group of fellow church leaders, the retreat director instructed us to pick a person with whom to share Communion. As I thought about it, I knew immediately the person God wanted me to ask. It was not a close friend or someone standing nearby. It was a leader with whom I’d had a sharp disagreement years previously. Although we had made some efforts to resolve the conflict, a bitter root remained.
In my mind there was a long list of reasons why I did not want to take this step. After all, he had been the angry one, not me. Shouldn’t he take the first step? With him being older, shouldn’t he take the initiative? But in my heart, the Holy Spirit was making His own list.
One of the hardest journeys I have ever taken was the brief path I walked across the room that day. But it was clear this was the right decision, the wise one. Any other decision would not have been full of mercy and good fruit.
As this brother and I shared Communion around the sobering symbols of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, God was powerfully present. The tensions we had felt melted, grace emerged, and we built a bridge. Mercy led the way in making my decision that day a wise one.
6. A wise decision is impartial. In some ways this checkpoint may closely resemble the earlier one of being considerate. Yet while seeing through the lens of the people involved in your decisions is important, this particular checkpoint of wisdom is something more. James’ admonition to impartiality in decision making adds a sense of fairness to our considerate acts.
Let’s face it. One great temptation pastors and leaders face is that of showing favoritism. It is often easy to lend unfair advantages to people in our circles, to those who curry favor, to families and networks — not based on their merit and character, but rather on things such as nepotism and cronyism. While these decisions may add to our sense of comfort as leaders, they likely make the people we serve quite uncomfortable. Wise decisions are impartial ones.
7. A wise decision is sincere (without hypocrisy). The best decisions we make do not flow from mere strategic advantage; they come from our values and convictions. Wise decisions flow from a deep place within our souls – from God, His Word, and His kingdom values. We do not quickly “put on” wise choices for immediacy or for our own advantage. Rather, we draw them out of a constancy of communion with God and the insights that result from this communion. They come from a true place within us. Wise decisions are honest-to-God ones.
More Road Tests
As my road test ended that day, I pulled the car over and awaited the official’s verdict.
“I am sorry to tell you, young man, but you failed. Instead of motioning for the car behind you to pass you on the three-point turn, you went ahead and did it while he waited and watched. What should have been most important to you in that situation was the safety of each of the passengers involved. Better luck next time.”
The instructor had, firmly fixed in his mind, the answer I could not find in the driver’s manual. While I had focused solely on trying to remember the written-down rules, the instructor was even more concerned about the intrinsic values that drove my decision.
One month later, and wiser, I finally passed the third driver’s test. In the final analysis, the wisdom I needed that day was not found in the driver’s manual. It was somewhere else. In this case, it was not in a word but in a value.
James warns us that life and leadership will include many road tests.
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors” (James 1:2,3, The Message2).
Get ready. There’s another test just around the corner. But this time you know something far better than the rules; you know the characteristics of a wise decision.
1. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright Â© 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
2. Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.