Life is short. Even if you believe in life after life, you have to admit that our time on planet earth is limited. And once the truth of our finitude sinks in, we recognize the importance of making the most of the time we are given. Wisdom is the art of leading a life worth living.
A yearning for wisdom is what led me to become a philosopher and eventually a priest and then a bishop. That may sound strange to you, since some people assume that philosophers are atheists occupied with abstract ideas.
But the words of the Stoic Epictetus always made sense to me. He said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” That’s what I say about faith to this day.
So it’s from that perspective that I hear the apostle Paul say these words to the Ephesians: “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time.” (Ephesians 5:15-16a)
He’s not talking about getting your doctrine just right. Neither is he simply telling them to follow a clear-cut moral rule book.
His point is that navigating the changes and the chances, the thrills and the disappointments, the lucky breaks and the unfavorable winds of this life is an art. Faith is about wisdom every bit as much—and perhaps even more fundamentally than—right thinking and moral rectitude.
I’m a Jesus-follower. And I take Paul at his word when he says that Jesus is wisdom incarnate. In his words, Jesus “became for us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). And, like Paul, I recognize wisdom from God in some of the Stoic philosophical tradition.
Epictetus (50-135 AD) taught that wisdom requires a humbling admission. We are finite, and we must guide our actions accordingly. He said:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”
In Epictetus’ words you may hear an ancient precursor to the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;/ courage to change the things I can;/ and wisdom to know the difference.
I offer this prayer each morning before getting out of bed. And yet I understand Angela Davis’ revision of it: I’m changing the things I cannot accept. Inaction and silence can offer tacit assent to and even collaborate with oppressive, inhumane circumstances.
Still, I find Epictetus’ guidance helpful. One of my late seminary professors used to put it something like this: Identify the good that you can do and do it. He was not suggesting that we should resign ourselves to the injustices and evils of this world.
Oh, he recognized how overwhelming and seemingly intractable many of our challenges and problems can be.
Nevertheless, he insisted that we should make whatever progress and put up whatever resistance we actually can. Despite appearances to the contrary, the good we do is never truly small or insignificant.
That’s because Jesus teaches us that to act wisely is to emulate him. To follow the way of love as best we can. The way of love—devoting ourselves to the well-being of our neighbor and to the healing of the world—is the way of God.
When we love, we draw upon and participate in God’s own infinite, world-creating, life-redeeming love. Ultimately God’s love wins. So love—no matter what—is how we make the most of our time.