The Humility of Wisdom
by Ken Gardner

Old men are not always wise. That's what Elihu said, and, true, he wasn't inspired when he said it, but he did speak the truth. Just being old--for that matter, being old and experienced--does not automatically make a person wise. In fact, there's a real danger in thinking, "I'm older, I'm more experienced, therefore I must be wiser." Someone said once, "Wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself."

It's hard for us not have a high opinion of our own opinions, especially as we get older. Sometimes we allow our age and experience to go to our heads. It's been said, "The older a man gets, the farther he had to walk to school as a boy." We need to guard against disparaging others. A successful doctor picked up his mother in his new Mercedes, took her to a fashionable place for dinner, and then to the theater, where they had orchestra seats. During intermission, she turned to him and asked, "Do you need to go the bathroom, dear?"

Cary Grant often recited a piece he called A Meditation, in which he expressed his thoughts about growing older: "Lord . . .keep me from the habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from trying to straighten out everyone's affairs. . . . Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken. . . ."

The writer of Proverbs said, "Be not wise in thine own eyes" (3:7), and Paul wrote, "Be not wise in your own conceits" (Romans 12:16). In other words, don't be conceited (RSV, NIV, MLB). "Do not keep thinking how wise you are" (NEB). "Don't be proud and feel that you are smarter than others" (CEV). Don't "feel superior to other children of God" (R. L. Whiteside). "Do not trust in the conceit of your own superior skill and understanding, and refuse to harken to the counsel of others." We should not be "elated with pride" over our brethren, or be "headstrong and self-confident." We must have "a low estimate of our own importance and attainments" (Barnes). David Lipscomb and J.W. Shepherd wrote, "Do not be puffed up with a sense of your own wisdom. . . . Overconfidence in self leads to presumption, which is offensive to God and man. . . . Selfish ambition in the church is fatal to perfect mutual consideration, especially if one acts as if he ought to be at the head of every business, and that nothing could be done if he was not consulted or employed about it."

Young David was certainly wiser than old Saul. For that matter, so was Jonathan. Saul himself was wiser when he was young than when he was old. An argument could be made that David was wiser when he was young than when he was old. It was in old age that Solomon, the "wisest man who ever lived," acted foolishly. Naaman was the commanding general of the entire Syrian army, a great man, no doubt a man of "experience," but his own servants were wiser than he was (II Kings 5). Miriam and Aaron were not young and foolish but old and foolish when they rebelled against Moses. Young people can be wise or the writer of the book of Proverbs wasted his time. That book was written to instill wisdom in young people and its emphasis is not on gaining experience but receiving instruction. An older person may even need to be rebuked by a younger person. True, he must not be rebuked harshly or sharply--he is to be exhorted or appealed to, but the fact remains that sometimes older people need to be corrected (I Timothy 5:1,19,20). Ecclesiastes 4:13 says a child may be wise and a king may be foolish (an old, and, no doubt, experienced king).

Please don't misunderstand me. We usually do become wiser as we get older. But age and experience do not automatically make a person wiser than others. Each age has its own temptations, and one of the temptations of old age is thinking, "I've seen it all, I've done it all, now I know it all." Actually, just the opposite is true. The truly wise person is rather humble about his wisdom and understanding. The truly wise person recognizes that he doesn't know it all and can learn from others. He knows that in the "multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). He heeds Proverbs 3:5: "Lean not to thine own understanding." He knows that "the way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise" (Proverbs 12:15). He turns to others, especially to God, for help and instruction: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).

The humility of wisdom. We can't be wise without being humble, without recognizing first our need for God, and secondly our need for others.