If we think about this Christianly, however, it seems that something is lacking. There are greater purposes to life than simply feeling good. The Scriptures urge us to love God and seek his glory (Mat 22:37-38; 1 Cor 10:31). To live faithfully for Christ does not guarantee happiness; rather, it bears a cost (Mat 16:24-25; 2 Tim 3:12). Furthermore, the fact that everything does not go the way we would choose is a healthy reminder of the depth of the problem in our world. Our personal failings and heartaches, and the suffering and flaws of those around us and across the globe reveal the rift between humankind and our Maker, and our need for forgiveness and renewal.
And yet we ought not to be too quick to dismiss the notion that human flourishing really matters to God. I have come that they may have life and have it to the full , said Jesus (John 10:10). Or consider the Blessed is… sayings in the Bible—fulfilment and satisfaction are there to be found in activities such as paying careful attention to God’s word (Ps 1:1-3) and in caring for the vulnerable (Ps 41:1). Some English versions (e.g. Holman Christian Standard Bible) translate the word, Blessed in these verses as How happy , legitimising the place of happiness for those who pursue a Godward life.
The situation becomes more complicated, however, when we consider Jesus famous beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:3-12). Here we find a strange picture of the good life that welcomes poverty of spirit, mourning and persecution. Perhaps the way forward is to acknowledge that allegiance to Christ will entail much hardship in this life but we have the promise of eternal joys in a restored creation following his final triumph over his enemies (1 Cor 15:20-28). This is an important truth, but is it the whole truth? Do the Scriptures have more to say about what makes for a good life in the here and now?
It is another Blessed is… saying that helps us. Proverbs 3:13 tells us, Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding. I want to suggest that the theme of wisdom in the Scriptures unlocks for us the true nature of the good life.
To find wisdom is to find the good life
In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman to be sought after and held onto at all costs, because her ways lead to true life (Prov 8:35). If we continue reading Proverbs 3, we see that the rewards of wisdom are priceless. The most precious things in the ancient world (silver, gold and jewels) are of less value than wisdom (vv. 14-15a). In fact, nothing you desire compares with her (v. 15b). Reflect on that for a moment. What things, what experiences, do you most desire and long for? It might be that elegant piece of technology that has just been released. Or the most beautiful pair of shoes. Or a holiday on a tropical island with fine powdery white sand and clear turquoise water. Maybe it is a particular relationship. These are all good things, but the book of Proverbs suggests that their value is found wanting in comparison with wisdom.
And as the writer of Proverbs continues, we see why. In her hands wisdom holds insights into life that help avoid the pitfalls that might lead to an early death or a damaged reputation (v. 16). The life directed by wisdom is pleasant and peaceful (v. 17). What she has to offer is so good that she should be embraced: She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed (v. 18). Cuddle this wisdom woman! is what is being urged.
But what actually is this wisdom that is so worthy of our attention?
Wisdom is living in accord with the way God has made the world
Wisdom is the ability to live in tune with how the world works—in accord with the grain of the world rather than cutting across it. Continuing in Proverbs 3, we are told,
By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and clouds let drop the dew. (vv. 19-20)
Notice that the same things that bring blessing and the good life ( wisdom and understanding in v. 13) are the means by which God created the world. The point being made here is that our world is not chaotic and random. God has woven into the fabric of reality a principle of wisdom, an order and reliability that we can fall back on. The entire shape of the world, even the way that rain falls from the clouds, is an expression of this wisdom. This is why finding wisdom is to find the tree of life. It is discovering the means to live according to the way things really are—to live in reality rather than unreality. I can tell myself I can stand in front of a truck travelling at 100 kilometres an hour and stop it with my bare hands. Or that it’s cheaper to build a house without foundations. (After all, no one normally sees them anyway!) But this is not wisdom or the good life; it is foolishness and make-believe and I will bear the consequences.
This order and reliability that characterises God’s universe lies behind the whole scientific enterprise. Scientists can conduct their experiments and make careful observations and draw their conclusions because of the predictable nature of how things work. But this order reaches beyond the realm of the so-called hard sciences like physics and chemistry. The range of topics covered in Proverbs reminds us that there is a wise way to operate in every area of life. For example, the farmer needs to work his land to have plenty of food (12:11); relationships work more effectively when we listen before giving advice (18:13); and politicians who rule justly bring stability to a country (29:4). The reality of the way things are presses up against us and it is foolishness not to pay attention. Even Christian believers who understand fundamental spiritual truths can stumble at this point—succumbing to a get rich quick scheme or not learning from the mistakes that keep damaging their relationships. Whoever you are and whatever you do, some things are fitting and some are not and we do well to be clued in to which is which.
The moral dimension to the life of wisdom
The final verse mentioned above highlights another vital piece of information in the quest for the good life—that wise living has a moral dimension to it. Living in line with the grain of the world is more than just having common sense. We trip up in life not only when we fail to carefully plan for the future (21:5), but also when we lose our temper (29:22) or rip people off in business dealings (11:1). The book of Proverbs begins by making clear that the instruction provided is intended not merely to increase learning but to enable readers to do what is right and just and fair (1:3).
There is a clear logic to this fact. The reality we live in does not simply consist of the material stuff around us—we inhabit a creation made and sustained by a Creator. And because God made the world with wisdom working alongside him (see Prov 8:22-31), we expect to see the handprints of his character in ways of living and relating that promote our flourishing as human beings. The love, truthfulness, faithfulness, justice, and such like that our God is known for are also the qualities that prosper our communal life.
God and the good life
Because God stands at the centre of all reality, any quest to find the good life will be misguided unless his claim over our lives is recognised. It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7) and it is foolish to think that we can exclude him from the workings of our lives (Ps 14:1; see also Prov 16:9). You can be savvy in business or know how to get the maximum yield from your farm but still be unplugged from the source of true life.
And the truth that God is the source of all wisdom helps make sense of some of the less intuitive ways that the good life is portrayed in the Scriptures. Because his ways are higher than our ways (Is 55:9), we find that living in harmony with his order is sometimes not quite what we might have expected. Who would have thought that suffering was connected with the good life? Or that the last would be first? Or that a death on a cross is the means of redeeming the world? Yet with the disruption of a good creation by evil, this is what was needed. We find a deeper revelation of God’s wisdom in the Lord Jesus Christ who not only embodies all wisdom in his person (Col 2:3), but has acted to set all disorder in our world aright. God in his wisdom uses the cross to trump the wisdom of the world (see 1 Cor 1:18-31).
So, we need to open our eyes to learn from our world and our experiences, so that we might live in keeping with God’s wise order. But even more importantly, we need to open our hearts and minds to the truths of Scripture. It is there that we will find the knowledge of God and his ways that will deepen our trust and obedience, no matter what circumstances in life come our way. And in so doing we will find the good life: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him (Jer 17:7).
Keith Condie lectures in ministry and Church history