It’s hard to recall a more chaotic time in our national politics. I’ve watched with a visceral concern, wondering what will happen to pensioners, struggling families, house buyers, farmers, health and social care services, environmental regulations, carbon zero targets … I could go on, and I could add a list of concerns from other parts of the world. I’m reminded that Jesus felt a visceral compassion. Where my Bible reads a bit blandly that ‘he had compassion on them’ the original Greek esplangchnisthe peri autδn is more powerful and literally means ‘he felt pity in his guts for them’.
We have politicians who are clever, strong-willed, sometimes articulate, but the question I ask is: ‘Do they have compassion and do they have wisdom?’ A wise person will be willing to listen. A wise person will be willing to have their ideas well tested by others.
I found myself reminded of some helpful thoughts in a talk by Dave Bookless (founder of A Rocha UK). He took us to Solomon, the king proverbial for wisdom. When he became king his request to God was not for power or wealth, but for a ‘discerning heart’. We’re told God answered that prayer and gave Solomon ‘wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding’.
It’s interesting to see that his ‘wisdom and insight and understanding’ explicitly included an understanding of the world of nature. ‘He spoke about plant life, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all the nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom’. (1 Kings 4:33-34a). Clearly there is wisdom in seeking to understand the natural world, in all its beauty and all its complexity.
The late John Stott reminded us that we have two books: the book of God’s works (the natural world) and the book of God’s word (the Bible). It’s wise to make ourselves students of both.
Of course wisdom is not the same as knowledge. It’s more than knowledge. Wisdom is about how we use our knowledge and sometimes about how we recognise our lack of knowledge. Wisdom guides our actions.
There are some inspiring examples in the Bible of wisdom in action. Joseph is one. I suspect that he was born clever, but I’m sure he wasn’t born wise. I believe he must have learned wisdom partly through hardship – the harsh treatment he suffered from his brothers, his enslavement, wrongful accusation and imprisonment. He languishes in prison forgotten by the cupbearer who had promised to seek his release. He could have learned bitterness, but (to my mind like Nelson Mandela) he learned wisdom instead.
When Esther is challenged to speak up for her people, at risk of her life, her cousin Mordecai says, ‘Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this’. Back to Joseph, he is called into a leadership role at a crucial time. Ecological disaster is just over the horizon, a disaster that has the potential to cause huge human suffering. We read about it in Genesis chapter 41, which begins with Pharoah’s dream. Pharoah is trouble and confused. His advisor informs him of a young Hebrew, at that moment still languishing in a dungeon. Joseph is then called out, washed, shaved, given fresh clothes and brought before Pharoah. How did Joseph handle the situation? I find it both fascinating and relevant.
First of all he looked to God for wisdom. When he was asked to interpret Pharoah’s dream he was clear. ‘I cannot do it, but God will give me the answer’. (Genesis 41:6) He doesn’t push himself forward as the man for the job, but he’s quick to advise that food from the years of plenty be kept in reserve. This is far-sighted wisdom, resisting greed and over-consumption and advising restraint (not easy advice).
Then when he’s thrust into a position of authority we see him acting both globally and generously. He uses his influence to support the neighbouring nations and to help the economic refugees who come to Egypt. In Genesis 41:57 we read that, ‘All the world came to Egypt to buy grain because the famine was severe everywhere’.
Later on in the story of God’s people we meet Nehemiah. Nehemiah faced another disastrous situation. He gets news that the exiles who’ve returned to Jerusalem are in great trouble. The city walls are broken down and the gates burnt. The people are vulnerable, defenceless and in disgrace.
When he hears this dire news his first action is to pray. You can read that prayer in Nehemiah 1:4 onwards. Nehemiah pours out his grief. He’s honest about his part in the responsibility for what’s gone wrong. ‘I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself, have committed against you’. And then, depending on God’s faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness, he asks one simple thing: that ‘God gives his servant success by granting him favour in the presence of this man’. ‘This man’ is King Artaxerxes and Nehemiah is his cupbearer. He is required always to be serene and cheerful in the presence of the king. To show his grief is to take a huge risk. But this is his opportunity.
We face a dire situation. Nature is damaged. Our environment is vulnerable. The future is in jeopardy. How do we, like Nehemiah, take our opportunities to speak out?
First Nehemiah prays; then he acts and then he comes up with a practical plan. He’s a man of prayer and a man of action. I love it! There are some interesting features to his plan. He requests the logistical help of the Persian empire, and the king grants it. Then he involves all the people of Jerusalem in a unified plan. Everyone has a part to play: within the plan each tribe, clan, family has a section of the wall to rebuild, a different section, but part of the same whole.
Maybe there’s a model for us as we work ‘to restore the integrity of creation’. We have our own tasks, our own bits of the wall, so to speak, but it’s all part of the whole.
There’s a model for us in prayer, – prayer which is heartfelt, humble, honest, acknowledging that we have been part of the problem and seeking wisdom for the way forward – and then a model in practical action – working collaboratively, each making a contribution to the restoration of God’s earth.