My friend Craig is a military chaplain. He spent a few years with his unit of soldiers when they were deployed in Afghanistan. There his unit experienced many of the tragedies of war. So he was often called on to conduct funerals, provide counseling, and comfort the soldiers.
The commanding officer of this unit was an atheist—a strict, outspoken nonbeliever. He had no time for religion or other such nonsense. One day, the commanding officer asked Craig to come into his office, close the door, and take a seat. The unit had gone through a few troubling weeks, and traumas and tragedies were still confronting them, leaving them raw and hurting. The commanding officer looked Craig in the eyes for a long time before finally saying, “I need you to pray for me.” So Craig did.
My chaplain friends—military, hospital, or school—say this is very normal. They tell me our secular friends can be very firm in their nonbelief. But in a time of crisis, they will look to us to speak to them on behalf of God. They want us to make sense of what has just happened. They want us to connect them with something transcendent. They want us to give some meaning and coherency. Sometimes they even want us to perform a sacred ritual. Or sometimes it’s something as seemingly small as a prayer.
We can position ourselves into our non-Christian friends’ lives as their unofficial, de facto chaplain.
I recently hosted a barbecue for a bunch of friends. As we sat in my backyard enjoying the beef brisket and pulled pork, my guests admired my green, lush lawn. They began to ask for my advice on how to manage lawns. “What time of the year do you fertilize? How do you get rid of your weeds?” As I answered their questions, they were hanging on my every word.
My friend Marco had once been a professional landscaper. He also began to offer advice. He explained the different types of grass, what time of day was best for watering the lawn, and what height the lawn should be mowed at various times of the year. His knowledge and experience in lawn care were evident. Soon he had all of us, including me, hanging on his every word.
The conversation at this barbecue began in the layer of interests—describing my lawn. It soon moved to a different category, as we began prescribing what to do with the lawn.
But to say we were in the layer of values doesn’t seem to be accurate. It was something slightly different. We were in a unique layer of conversation called wisdom.
In the Old Testament, we find wisdom in what is traditionally called the wisdom literature— Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. In the New Testament, we find similar teachings, such as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s advice in the second half of his letters, and the book of James.
Knowing God’s wisdom is more than knowing what’s true or false, right or wrong; it’s knowing what is most apt in a particular circumstance. For example, sometimes the wise thing to do is to answer a fool according to their folly (Proverbs 26:5), but at other times the wise thing to do is to not answer a fool (26:4). So which is it? Here the question is not so much what is true or right but what is wise.
So how can we know this wisdom? In one sense, wisdom is part of God’s general truth—freely available both to Christians and non-Christians. This is because God has programmed his wisdom into his creation (Proverbs 8) so everyone can see it. As a result, those who observe God’s wisdom in his creation will be able to live according to God’s design and prosper.
But in a deeper sense, we can argue that the wisdom sections of the Bible only make sense if we’ve been saved by Jesus. This is because wisdom is part of God’s special truth—for those already inside God’s family. After all, the wisdom literature itself says that the “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). To know Jesus is to know God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24).
Christians should be known not just by our love and ethics, but also by our wisdom (Colossians 4:5). Interestingly, in the Old Testament, when the Israelites were in foreign lands, part of what made them stand out was their wisdom. Consider, for example, the stories of Joseph, Moses, Daniel, and Ezra. Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus promised wisdom to his disciples so they could stand up for him. Now that we’re living in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian, we also can be known for our wisdom.
Our views on ethics have become a barrier to belief in the Christian worldview. Perhaps it’s time that our wisdom becomes an entry to belief in the Christian worldview. We find wisdom in God’s general truth, which is available to all. Interestingly, this is exactly what the Old Testament heroes did: Moses learned much wisdom from the Egyptians, and Daniel learned wisdom from the Babylonians. Interestingly, Daniel and his friends refused to eat the Babylonian food—that’s where they drew the line—but they were happy to learn from their teachers. They went to their schools. They learned their language, culture, and philosophies.
Like Moses and Daniel, we can make a special effort to attend seminars, listen to podcasts, and sign up for courses run by nonbelievers. Not only will this help us find easy common ground with our nonbelieving friends, but it will also open us up to a wider range of God’s wisdom. For example, I’ve learned so much by going to parenting courses run by experts, most of whom are not believers.
I read the New York Times and the New Yorker regularly. And I have a steady diet of podcasts: The Moth, TED Talks, This American Life, Conversations (ABC Radio), Invisibilia, Reply All, Pop Culture Happy Hour, You Are Not So Smart, The Savvy Psychologist, Malcolm Gladwell, Planet Money, and Radio Atlantic. And at the same time, I have access to God’s special truth— not only through the Scriptures, but also through the blessings of being a believer—and a Holy Spirit who lives inside me to change me and guide me.
If we put all of this together, we will have a way of life that is obviously wise to all. We will stand out—just like Joseph and Daniel stood out in their foreign lands. The evidence will be that our way of life simply works better. Our lifestyle will be attractive.
Sam Chan (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; MBBS, University of Sydney) is a public evangelist with City Bible Forum in Sydney, Australia, where he regularly shares the gospel with high school students, city workers, doctors, and lawyers. He is the author of the award-winning book Evangelism in a Skeptical World and regularly speaks at conferences around the world on the practice of evangelism in a post-Christian culture. Sam blogs at espressotheology.com.