GROWING IN WISDOM THROUGH THE TRIALS OF LIFE

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SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ JAMES 1:1-11; MK 8:11-13 ]
What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge is acquired through study; wisdom, through life experiences. Knowledge will not change us from within but wisdom will. Knowledge remains extraneous to us and awaits to be proven in and through experience. Until the person who has the knowledge experiences it in his or her life, he or she will remain only superficially convicted and can change his or her mind very quickly.

Knowledge cannot bring about a real change in life. This explains why even people who have subscribed to a particular religion for years, can embrace another religion overnight, all because of a deep religious encounter. This is the same for issues of morals and ethics. Just knowing morals and ethics will not change lives. We all know the laws and the right things to do. Yet, we all fail to observe the laws because they are not written in our hearts but only on tablets!

Wisdom, however, is gained through life experiences. The deeper the experience the more radical is the conversion. Because experience touches every aspect of the person’s being, head, heart and body, a personal experience brings about a complete change in the way the person looks at life. Indeed, our views, horizon of life, values, interests and convictions are often moulded by the experiences of the past. For this reason, there are some things logical thinking alone and argument cannot convince a person. He or she will remain skeptical and indifferent until he or she experiences it for himself or herself .

How then does one acquire wisdom? Most wisdom is acquired through the trials and mistakes of life. St James wrote, “My brothers, you will always have your trials but, when they come, try to treat them as a happy privilege.” Indeed, the trials of life are the means by which we grow in wisdom. Even the letter of Hebrews says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb 5:8f) We learn wisdom best through our sufferings that come from trials and our mistakes.

In suffering, we have time to think through. Success is often just a one-off event that we celebrate. But suffering often is a process. It does not end in a day. The consequences of our mistakes could be felt for days, months and even years. Whether it is a failed relationship, a broken marriage, an accident, an illness, a scandal, a crime or a separation, we go through days asking what happened, how it happened and why it happened. We go through the process of grieving by denial, bargaining with God, resignation and then acceptance. That is why suffering is the means by which God disciplines us. “’My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Heb 12:5f)

A case in point that St James highlights is the pursuit of honour, riches and wealth. He wrote, “It is right for the poor brother to be proud of his high rank, and the rich one to be thankful that he has been humbled, because riches last no longer than the flowers in the grass; the scorching sun comes up, and the grass withers, the flower falls; what looked so beautiful now disappears. It is the same with the rich man: his business goes on; he himself perishes.” The truth is that many of us are deceived into thinking that honour and wealth will bring us happiness. Yet, the irony is that we spend years trying to become someone of status in society and work hard to build up our financial nest. When we reach the top of society and have more than enough money to spend for the rest of our lives, we will come to realize that these do not bring happiness in themselves. Honour becomes a form of slavery and a loss of freedom. Money becomes a burden resulting in a loss of true friends. It is just a number if we cannot spend it.

That is why many who arrive at the peak of their success in life realize that only what is given away can bring true happiness. Position, social connections and status cannot bring happiness unless they are used to help society, especially those who are poor or in need. Money too cannot bring happiness unless it is given away to develop society. This was what Solomon discovered after his long years as a King who had all and more but found life a vanity. “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Eccl 2:9-11) It will be a rude awakening for those who spend a lifetime pursuing the world, only to realize at the end of their days that they were just chasing after the wind.

This is also true when it comes to sin. Many of us just do not want to follow the laws of God. We are stubborn and we want to have things our ways. We choose the way we want to live. But as a consequence, we hurt ourselves and our loved ones. When we see the consequences of how our actions have caused our loved ones, friends and colleagues to suffer, we sink in regret for what we have done.

In the face of divine punishment, we can either repent or resist. There are those who resent the judgement of God. They become vindictive and angry with God and the rest of the world. Such negative reaction to their sufferings will only cause them to suffer even more, make more mistakes and pay a higher price for their sins. Indeed, many resist change, even when the Word is preached to them, like the Pharisees during the time of Jesus. “They demanded of him a sign from heaven, to test him. And with a sigh that came straight from the heart he said, ‘Why does this generation demand a sign? I tell you solemnly, no sign shall be given to this generation.’”

But if, like David, we accept the consequences of our sins, then we will learn and grow from the pains that we bear. A positive approach to the sufferings that come from our trials will make us stronger and better rather than bitter. The psalmist says, “It was good for me to be afflicted, to learn your statutes. The law from your mouth means more to me than silver and gold.” When we begin to accept the sufferings that come our way positively instead of fighting against it, we will suffer less and begin to understand the truth of God’s laws. So long as we are angry and resist, we will not be able to have the humility to know the wisdom of God’s laws.

Most of all, we will accept that God’s judgement is right and wise. “Lord, I know that your decrees are right, that you afflicted me justly.” So, believing that the sufferings that God permit to befall on us is ultimately for our growth and for our good is the way to grow in wisdom. David, after his sin with Bathsheba, said, “I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” (Ps 51:4) With the psalmist, we can say, “Before I was afflicted I strayed but now I keep your word. You are good and your deeds are good; teach me your statutes.” God’s ways are always perfect and they are all meant to help us find healing and salvation.

By seeing the wisdom of God in the trials that He permits us to go through, we also open our eyes to God’s way of consoling us. The psalmist says, “Let your love be ready to console me by your promise to your servant.” Hosea said, “It is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up.” (Hos 6:1) Job shared the same sentiment, “For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal.” (Job 5:18) In turn, we learn to forgive ourselves and forgive others as well. This is why St James wrote, “you understand that your faith is only put to the test to make you patient, but patience too is to have its practical results so that you will become fully-developed, complete, with nothing missing.” Just as we forgive ourselves for our folly, we too will learn to be patient with others who are ignorant and even incorrigible because like us, they are blinded by their pride and greed.

In the final analysis, true wisdom does not come simply from our trials alone but from God who sends us His Holy Spirit to give us His wisdom and counsel in prayer. This explains why St James wrote, “If there is any one of you who needs wisdom, he must ask God, who gives to all freely and ungrudgingly; it will be given to him. But he must ask with faith, and no trace of doubt, because a person who has doubts is like the waves thrown up in the sea when the wind drives. That sort of person, in two minds, wavering between going different ways, must not expect that the Lord will give him anything.” Faith in God, no matter what, is the ultimate wisdom. Trusting in His divine providence, in His mercy and love is what will help us to go through the vicissitudes of life, joy and sorrow, success and failures, health and illness, plenty and in want. When we enter into prayer, we share the mind and heart of Jesus looking at life the way He sees life. We will then be able to have the same attitudes of Jesus as He taught us in the be-attitudes at the Sermon on the Mount. (cf Mt 5:1-11)


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

Note: You may share this reflection with someone.

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