More wisdom

It’s hard to say exactly what wisdom is. Just as it’s hard to say what a chameleon is. ‘Surely it’s not difficult with a chameleon. Look, there’s one – that blue old-world kind of lizard. And another one – oh, oddly that one’s yellow. Maybe, then, yellow ones are not chameleons… Wait a minute, there’s something else that looks like a chameleon but it’s green. Too confusing. I’ll stick with the blue one. But hang on a minute. It’s not blue any more – it’s red.’

Of course, as most know, chameleons have a remarkable ability to change colour – using various combinations of pink, blue, red, orange, green, black, brown, light blue, yellow, turquoise, and purple. Sometimes they change to camouflage themselves, sometimes to regulate their temperature, sometimes to look aggressive to predators, and some may even use colour to signal to other chameleons. All that variety makes it hard to say what colour a chameleon is. But, of course, there’s something at the core – the DNA – that is always chameleon.

I think of wisdom like that. Dictionaries can use words like ‘experience’ or ‘knowledge’ about wisdom, but they just describe how wisdom appears, like blue or red is how a chameleon might appear.

When we’re talking about wisdom we have to be content with that. In the last blog I wrote that wisdom is something which is practised, in other words the way wisdom shows itself. We see attitudes and actions we recognise as wise. So, this time, I have listed five characteristics of wise people.

They use knowledge well

My son sent me a concise example of that: ‘Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.’ Hard to argue with that.

Knowledge is usually a wonderful thing to have, but wisdom happens when we do good with what we know.

So, I know my car could reach 100 mph, but I’m foolish if I go that fast. And I know I could simply pick up and cut down a (small) tree with my electric chainsaw, but I’m an idiot if I don’t put on protective gear before using the chainsaw. And, when the children were very young, I knew they’d go anywhere I took them, but I’d have been reckless to run across a busy road hoping they’d follow safely.

Wisdom is not simply about having knowledge, but about doing good with knowledge.

They have strong self-awareness

The Apostle Paul wrote this: ‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…’ (Romans 12:3)

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, 1720 – 1788
Portrait in Public Domain

If only Bonnie Prince Charlie had had such wisdom. In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart[1] crossed from France to Scotland believing he’d get massive support across Britain to restore the Stuart monarchy. He had early success, winning battles and taking troops into England as far south as Derby. But support in England was low, and Charlie withdrew his army back to Scotland. On 16 April, 1746, two armies confronted each other on a rugged moorland at Culloden, near Inverness: the Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the British government army under the leadership of the Duke of Cumberland. The day ended with a rout of the Jacobite army, Charles fleeing the battlefield, eventually escaping to the western highlands and islands, and then by ship back to France.

Why such a defeat? As with all battles, there were many factors and still many opinions. But one is that Charles wanted to prove his skills as commander rather than let his generals get the glory. But he took exhausted men into battle after a failed overnight mission, then waited while many were cut down by enemy artillery fire before hand-to-hand fighting had begun. His chosen battleground was boggy and unsuited to the ‘Highland charge’ which in other places had overwhelmed the enemy. The day was decisively lost, with many dead and wounded. Afterwards Jacobites were hunted throughout Scotland and many put to death. Bonnie Prince Charlie was welcomed back in France, but his later life was not good: he had several affairs, fathered illegitimate children, and became an alcoholic. He died in Rome in 1788, aged 67.

Forty two years earlier, at Culloden, he believed he was a better leader than he really was. It was disastrous for him and his supporters. Wise people exercise sober judgment.

They treat others well

One style of management centres on the willingness of a boss to perch himself on the edge of a colleague’s desk and simply talk. Not a business meeting; not a conversation with an agenda. Just a chance to get to know the staff member, who they are as well as what they do. Perhaps ground-level insights about the business will emerge, but the fundamental purpose is just to be interested. That style of leadership can be overdone, of course. An employee desperately trying to finish a project before a deadline won’t appreciate a chat about last Saturday’s football. But valuing people, knowing them, being interested in their views – that’s wisdom.

It’s even good for people’s health. Apparently research shows there’s great value in direct interaction with colleagues because it releases hormones which improve mood, trust and the ability to learn and remember. The same doesn’t happen via video, messages or emails.[2]

It makes sense that the more you know someone the more able you are to work together. My guess is that there would also be fewer fights between neighbours if they were friends rather than just ‘the people who live next door’.

They have good instincts

In the last blog I mentioned King Solomon’s prayer: ‘…give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.’ (1 Kings 3:9) God answered that prayer, and from then until now Solomon has been thought of as one of the wisest people who ever lived.

Two parts of that prayer relate to good instincts. One is to have a discerning heart and the other the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

To discern is to see something clearly, perhaps to have a sure grasp of facts, or perhaps what we call a ‘sixth sense’, an ability to know something without using the five ordinary senses.

To distinguish between right and wrong seems clear. Often it is. But not always. Situations can be ambiguous. Someone’s hurt and I’m driving them to the hospital. If I exceed the speed limit they’ll get help more quickly, but if I exceed the speed limit I might cause an accident, more injuries and possibly deaths. What do I do? Or, another example, a colleague’s language is borderline racist or misogynist. His words aren’t directed at me, but I’m offended and others could be seriously harmed. Do I report him? Do I try and correct him? Either of those will end my relationship with him, but if I do nothing his inappropriate language will continue and do real damage.

In both these examples I could argue the case for either course of action. I hope I’d end up doing whatever my instinct told me was right in the specific circumstances. Like Solomon I’d be praying for discernment and to know what would be right and what would be wrong. Wisdom is having an instinct for hard-to-resolve issues that occur constantly in our lives.

They have more than one speed

No-one should drive like my aunt whose top speed on all roads – all roads – was 25mph. She was dangerous.

But my meaning here isn’t about speed in that sense. Rather, they should be people who look before leaping, and leap after looking. I’ll explain.

There are foolish people who charge through life without taking time to think about what’s ahead. Ivor was like that. He’d have an idea for a new business, borrow money, buy equipment, and rent office space… But what he never did was research the business potential. Were there clients for his services? Were there customers for his products? Again and again he rushed headlong into ‘new opportunities’, but each business failed with serious financial consequences. Ivor had bright ideas, but constantly leapt without looking. (Jesus had words about that kind of folly – the person who began to build but wasn’t able to finish – see Luke 14:28-30.) Wise people look before they leap.

But I also said wise people leap after looking. Of course that statement depends on what you learn from looking. If you stand on the bank of a raging river, look carefully at how far it is to the other side, and realise it’s twice as far as an Olympic long-jumper could cover, then you’re an idiot to attempt even your best leap. You’ll be swept away.

Of course you can’t always leap. But it’s foolish to never leap.

When I left school I went straight into journalism with The Scotsman, which was considered the premier newspaper in Scotland. I was a good reporter, and after two or three years was trusted with being the only journalist on duty on a late shift or on Saturdays. The pay was good. The work was varied and interesting. I saw a great career path ahead. And then I left. I gave it all up. I sensed another direction would be right for my life, so spent many years studying, became a church minister and later headed up major Christian organisations. Like now, it was hard to get into journalism, especially on a national paper, and some of my colleagues in the newspaper office must have thought me mad to leave. Perhaps family and friends did too. But I knew what I was doing. I’d ‘looked’ and now it was time to ‘leap’. It was the right thing – the wise thing – to do.

I’ll finish here for this blog piece. There’s more to say about wisdom, and I’ll try to do that next time.

For now I’ll close with more wise words from the Bible:

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
    those who gain understanding,
 for she is more profitable than silver
    and yields better returns than gold.
 She is more precious than rubies;
    nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3:13-15)

[1] Bonnie Prince Charlie’s full name was: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart. Aren’t you glad you’ve never had to write anything like that on an official form?



In ancient times, when kings judged hard cases, two prostitutes stood before their king. I’ll call them Anna and Bella. Anna began their story. They shared a house, both became pregnant and in time gave birth to sons. One night, Bella’s baby died. Quietly Bella got up, took Anna’s baby and placed her dead child in his place. When morning came, Anna awoke and, to great distress, found her baby lifeless. But she looked closely, and realised it was not her baby. It was Bella’s.

Before the king could respond, Bella protested that Anna is lying – her baby is the one who died. The argument continued, but never got beyond ‘Her baby died; ‘No, her baby died’. There was no way to know who was telling the truth? Or was there?

The king had a large sword brought, and ordered that the living child should be cut in two so each woman could have half.

Anna wept. She loved her son and couldn’t let him die, so begged the king to give the child to Bella.

Bella, though, said the king was right that neither should have the child, so ‘Cut him in two!’

Then the king ruled: the child must go to Anna, the mother who so valued the child’s life she’d give him up in order that he would live. ‘Do not kill him; Anna is his mother’ he ordered.

Word of the ruling spread throughout the land. People were in awe of their king ‘because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice’.

The king was Solomon, ruler of Israel for 40 years from 962 BC. The case of the two women and one baby is described in the Old Testament, 1 Kings 3:16-28 (my quotations from New International Version).

Early in his time as king, Solomon sensed God speak to him in a dream asking what he wanted God to give him. His reply had nothing to do with riches or power over his enemies, but: ‘…give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong’ (1 Kings 3:9). And God gave him what he asked for.

Ever since the dispute over the baby, Solomon was seen as having the wisdom of God. Even some 3000 years later, people wish they had ‘the wisdom of Solomon’.

The title of this blog site is ‘Occasionally Wise’. I’d never claim to be all-wise about anything, hence the word ‘occasionally’ in that title. Wisdom is important, very important. Yet I realised I’d never written about it. Until now.

The dictionary I consulted for a definition of ‘wisdom’ used these words: experience, knowledge, and good judgment. I checked several others, and mostly they used the same or similar words.

To me, it seems hard to define wisdom, if we’re thinking of a ‘quality’ someone can possess. Do I know anyone who is so imbued with wisdom they are wise for every circumstance on every occasion? I don’t think I do, and I’m very sure I’m not like that. But if we can’t possess wisdom, I believe we can become people who mostly practise wisdom – train our minds and hearts so that generally we act wisely.

But it’s best to get away from definitions and, in this blog, I’ll write about what wisdom is not.

The writers of dictionary definitions won’t like some of this!

Wisdom is not knowledge    Knowledge is a great tool, but no guarantee of right decisions. Josef Mengele was a doctor and a Nazi SS officer. He had both a medical degree and a doctorate in anthropology. So he was exceedingly knowledgeable – a clever man but also an extremely wicked man. The name he acquired in the Auschwitz concentration camp was Angel of Death. He was happy to assess victims to die in gas chambers, because it gave him opportunity to select those on whom he would perform appalling and deadly medical experiments, especially on identical twins. He knew much, but applied it in ways so unwise he is remembered only for infamy.[1]

Wisdom is not experience    It’s wise to learn from experience. No question about that. But the problem is that many don’t learn from experience. They hold the same beliefs, same assumptions, same values, same goals, and therefore make the same mistakes. That explains the oft-quoted trite saying: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’. The sentence is simplistic, but often simply true.

I’ve counselled people on debt, who swore they’d change, and off they went to spend again because it made them feel better. I’ve counselled people on their marriages, about sharing, listening, nurturing, and each said they’d learned, but back they went to squabbling and hating each other, so much I thought they were happy that way. Except they weren’t. Experience had not brought them wisdom.

Wisdom is not authority    A strong leader – someone who points a clear way forward and motivates others to follow – is assumed to be wise. They know the direction to take. They know how to get there. They know how to take others with them. But authority by itself is not wisdom. Napoleon lacked nothing in the authority department, but in 1812  led almost half a million troops in an invasion of Russia. That campaign has been called one of the most lethal military operations in history. Within six weeks he’d lost half his men because of disease, hunger, and extreme weather. More followed when heavy snows fell. Only 120,000 survived, and Napoleon’s image of invincibility had gone.

Hitler – another heavily authoritarian leader – made a similar mistake. In 1941 he dispatched troops to conquer the Soviet Union. Battles lasted until 1945, by which time almost 40 per cent of all deaths in World War II had occurred on the Eastern Front. The battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 trapped 300,000 German troops who froze and starved, and only 91,000 were left when they surrendered. Eighty per cent of all German military deaths occurred on the Eastern Front. It’s widely reported that Hitler thought himself a military genius and ignored his top generals. He used his authority, but his lack of wisdom cost millions of lives.

Wisdom is not taking the easy way    Perhaps one of the best known parables of Jesus is the story of two men and their house building. Probably they were equally good at designing houses. Both places were impressive. The issue that divided them was where they built. One took on the tough task of finding rock for his house’s foundation. The other took the easy way – there was plenty sand so ‘I’ll just build here,’ he decided. Then came the day of the Great Storm – rain fell for hours; the streams flooded; the wind was gale force. The house on the rock stood firm. The house on the sand collapsed with a great crash. That story of Jesus – recorded in Matthew 7:24-27 – is usually called the parable of the wise and foolish builders.

What was wise was the hard way – perhaps it cost more money, certainly it took more time. But the house lasted. The man who opted for the easy way – cheap and quick – lost everything. The easy way always looks… easy. And therefore attractive, because you can have it quickly and at little cost. But the easy way is nearly always the wrong way, not the way of wisdom.

I’ll stop here. After several long blogs, actually very long blogs, one of modest length may be particularly appreciated. A wise choice for me to make.

Next time I’ll write more positively about what it is to have wisdom. Hopefully I’ll find sufficient wisdom for that.


I realise there was a longer-than-usual gap before this blog appeared. My apologies for that, but I had another of these study pressure moments when my priorities temporarily had to shift. It was the right thing to do – the wise thing to do – but I’m still sorry for the delay. Thank you for your patience.

[1] When World War II ended, Mengele escaped to South America where he consistently eluded Nazi hunters. He eventually died in 1979 from drowning after suffering a stroke.