“Not many wise….” (1 Cor. 1:26) Paul observed that not many wise people (as viewed from the perspective of society) were followers of Jesus Christ in his day. Nothing much has changed since then. So, here is a word to the wise.
The common conception persists, especially among the intelligentsia, that earnest believers in God are ignorant, simple, naive and uneducated on the whole. The stereotype seems to fit when you look at academia, the scientific community and the upper echelon of the intelligent, wealthy and powerful people in the world.
Paul, however, was a smart guy. Anyone who reads his writings can see the philosophical depth. The valedictorian in my college class, with a perfect 4.0 grade point average, was a triple major in Physics, Russian and Philosophy; she was also a believer. I was the salutatorian of my law school class. I am a believer. Not everyone fits the stereotype.
It is true that a higher percentage of “smart” people are not believers compared to people of lesser intelligence. The difference, though, has nothing to do with intelligence. The smarter a person is compared to others, the more apt a person is to rely on that intelligence rather than the intelligence of other people; a smart person is more likely to rely on his own wisdom rather than the wisdom of God. The same is true of the wealthy and the powerful.
We are tempted that we can do this life on our own. We feel that we are better off than others, and we are tempted to conclude that we don’t need God.
The qualifying phrase Paul uses in the verse above is “wise according to the flesh.” In the Greek, “according to the flesh” means “carnal” – “of human origin or empowerment.”[i] In a world that is governed by the intelligent, the wealthy and the powerful, the conventional wisdom, politics and philosophical thinking of the time reflects human empowerment and origin, not God’s.
That is why the wisdom of God seems like foolishness to the world and those who live according to the dictates, the ideals and the conventional wisdom of the present time in which they live. It does not matter what is trending. It doesn’t matter what the predominant thinking of the era is. That common thinking will always be counter to God’s wisdom. The conventional thinking that predominates now will change, and it has changed over time. The common denominator is that men trust their own judgement, their own wisdom rather than God’s.
Not many wise men according to conventional wisdom of the world in which they live become believers in God. The Scripture instructs the would-be believer to “lean not on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5) Of necessity, the man or woman of God must abandon the wisdom of the age and latch on to the wisdom that comes from above in order to be a follower of God.
The wisdom of God has little to do with raw intelligence, but it has everything to do with the willingness to yield one’s self to God and His wisdom. It has everything to do with the willingness to take up the cross and follow Jesus. It is not that smart people cannot grasp the gospel; it is not that unintelligent people are the only ones who believe; intelligent people have a harder time letting go of that superior position in the world to follow Jesus in humility. (Consider the rich young ruler.)
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. (Matt. 20:16) That is the wisdom of God, but God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world that is ruled by the first. We fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others, rather than God. The first like their status in the world. In the end, however, the difference between the first and the last among men is utterly insignificant, but it makes all the difference which you seek..
[i] Sarks – properly, flesh (“carnal”), merely of human origin or empowerment. Sarks is generally negatively used of decisions (actions) done according to self, i.e. apart from faith (not of God’s inworking and empowerment…. In short, flesh generally relates to unaided human effort, i.e. decisions (actions) that originate from self or are empowered by self. These are carnal (“of the flesh”) because they proceed out of the untouched (unchanged) part of us, i.e. what is not transformed by God.
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