I Kings 3: 3 – 14 Being Certain and Being Wise August 15, 2021



Being Certain and Being Wise

I Kings 3: 3 – 14


(preached August 15, 2021)


In our passage for today, from the Hebrew Scriptures’ book of First Kings, the new King Solomon remembers his father David.  David was a revered King of Israel, admired by his people, but he was not perfect.  He had an extramarital affair.  He had one of his rivals murdered.  But here in our passage, as Solomon reflects on David’s life, he remembers the things David did right.  Solomon attributes his own faith and his devotion to God to his father David’s example.


Solomon has a dream, where God appears to him and says, “Ask what I should give you.”  Solomon asks for wisdom.  He asks God to “Give your servant an understanding heart, to discern between good and evil.”  Solomon asks for wisdom.


We know from Solomon’s success as a ruler that God granted his request.  Solomon led his people with wisdom.  From Solomon’s time till today, we want our leaders to be wise.    We may not use the word wisdom much these days, but I think we still look for wisdom in our leaders, as people have done down through the centuries.


So what do we mean by wisdom?  Traditionally, wisdom has been defined as the accumulated knowledge of the ages.  Wisdom has been defined as something in our heads.  But for you and me as people of faith, is wisdom simply accumulated knowledge in our heads? Or is wisdom more in our hearts?  Is wisdom more like what Solomon asked of God: a wise and discerning heart?


A wise and discerning heart seeks to be wise in God’s ways.  Wisdom of the heart begins with the awareness that, no matter how much we read or study, we’ll never completely know God.  Wisdom begins with the recognition that we’ll never know everything about God.  But we hope to grow in wisdom as we move through our lives, seeking to walk in God’s ways.


I found some good insights about wisdom in a book by Diana Butler Bass, entitled Christianity for the Rest of Us.  Bass’s book is based on her study of mainline Protestant churches like ours, all over the country.  Today we hear that mainline churches are declining, but Bass found many churches that are thriving.  In hundreds of interviews, she found churches that are growing in faith and reaching out in service to their communities.


One thing she noticed about these churches is that they are not on a quest for knowledge to fill their heads.  And they’re not looking to be sure about everything.  They’re not looking for certainty. Bass makes a distinction between certainty – being sure – and wisdom.  Wisdom, being wise in God’s ways, is not the same as being certain about what God wants.  Bass writes about the people who shared their church life with her.  She writes:

“Like many mainline Protestants, the people who shared with me were educated and articulate, but they embarked on the Christian…life with surprising spiritual modesty.  To them, wisdom was not…a secret for mature believers; rather wisdom was a spiritual gift whereby thinking (the head) and knowing (the heart) were joined and opened the way to God.”


People in the churches Bass studied were seeking wisdom, not certainty.  In that way, they’re different from many people in churches today.  Many people today seem to be looking for certainty.  In some churches, faith is presented with certainty, in black and white terms.  The message is, “Here is exactly what the Bible means.  Here is what you need to believe, if you want to live in the way God wants.”  This kind of Christian certainty gets dished out over the airwaves and on the Internet.  If you go online to the website of an organization called the Center for Moral Clarity, you can find, spelled out in black and white, what you need to believe about the tough issues of our day.  No gray areas.  It’s all spelled out for you.  Here is what you need to believe.


There’s no denying that these churches are popular.  I think that’s because a lot of people are looking for certainty these days.  That’s not surprising.  A lot in our lives has changed in the last fifty years.  Values that used to be taken for granted are now up for debate.  Also, in the past, people tended to stick with decisions they made early in life.  In the 1960s, a poet could write, “In the first third of your life, you choose your work, your faith, your wife.”  For most people in the 1960s, what you chose in the first third of your life stayed pretty much with you for the rest of your life.


Today, for a lot of us, that’s not the case anymore.  Take work for example.  Today there are lots of possible careers.  Many people change careers in the course of their lives, maybe more than once.  When it comes to faith, some who were raised in one faith find themselves, as adults, drawn to a different faith.  Some decide against any organized faith.  When it comes to marriage, the pressures of life today can strain marriages to the breaking point.  The definition of the good life that our grandparents took for granted is now just one option among many.


The world today can be a confusing place, with all those options.  It can be difficult to distinguish what’s godly and good from what’s ungodly and harmful.  With all those options swirling around, being certain might look pretty good.  We might seek out certainty.


But consider if you will what Solomon was asking for.  He wasn’t asking for certainty.  He wasn’t asking to be sure about everything.  He was asking for a wise heart.  He was seeking to be wise in God’s ways.


Wisdom opens the possibility that God may be working in more than one, dead certain, way.  God may be working in many ways, ways you and I can’t even imagine.  To return to Diana Butler Bass, in her book she tells a story about finding her way when she and her husband were driving from Pennsylvania back to their home in Virginia.  Like many folks today, they had consulted a mapping website to find the best route.  But in spite of the computer-generated directions, they got stuck in a traffic jam, a huge construction mess.


Bass writes, “My frustrated husband asked, ‘Is there another way?’  I grabbed the worn paper atlas from the back seat and we [took the next exit] off the [highway].  Using old fashioned street signs and intuition, we navigated through the neighborhoods of Baltimore to a secondary road…there was little traffic and an open road [ahead of us]…We found a better way that eventually brought us safely home, an alternative route that we created by following signposts on the ground.”


In our journey of faith, you and I might want certainty.  We might want to be certain about exactly how God wants us to live.  The world around us is changing fast, and we might long for sure answers, telling us just one way to get from point A to point B.  We can find many who are dishing out that kind of certainty.  In some churches we can find purveyors of dead certainty, who say that Christian faith is a set of black and white beliefs about exactly what the Bible says.


But consider the possibility that the Bible might not be a Google maps sort of experience, with only one road.  Consider the possibility that the wisdom of the Bible might be, as Bass puts it, “[not]some kind of superhighway to salvation, but more like old-fashioned street signs in a Baltimore neighborhood, [signs to be] navigated by imagination and intuition” (p. 72).  So, how do we get where we need to go?  Instead of seeking dead certainty, we pray, as Solomon did, for wise and discerning hearts.  We seek to be wise in God’s ways.










Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 12