“You’ll understand when you get older.”

The radio journalist and producer Chana Joffe-Walt asked some middle schoolers how they felt when their parents said this to them. Their unsurprising answer was, “Not at all!” 

Many of them felt put down by it or saw it as their parents’ way to avoid awkward questions. Some objected that, in fact, they already knew pretty much everything about how life works. Their parents just refused to accept it.

I asked my wife Joy if we had ever used this line with our now adult sons and daughter when they were children. Neither of us could remember doing so. And then I realized something:

I’ve gotten older. And I’ve come to see that understanding will get us only so far. That’s because life is complicated. 

M. C. Escher, “Drawing Hands” (1948)

No two days, no two situations, no two people are exactly alike. It’s complicated. We need a way to navigate reality in all its wild and excruciating, exhilarating and frustrating, beautiful and terrible granularity. And Proverbs warns us, “Lean not on your own understanding.” (3:5b NIV)

You might assume that the writer of Proverbs is telling us to follow the divinely-inspired moral law instead of our own self-serving strategies. And, look, I’m all for obeying the moral law. 

But Proverbs is telling us that, even when we are scrupulously following the rules, the moral law only gets us so far. That’s because there are moments in human experience where the rules don’t apply. 

Or perhaps more accurately, the moral law will show us what is right and what is wrong. But we will repeatedly face circumstances in which there is more than one right thing to do. The decisive question still remains: what is the most loving thing to do. How do we nurture what is holy in a situation? Mend what is broken? Make new what has grown old?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Dance at Moulin de la Galette” (1876)

Consider these examples:

How do I walk alongside my grieving friend? My neighbor with chronic pain? The lonely widow in my church? What sort of help will really change my poor neighbor’s circumstances? Should we lead an intervention on our addicted relative now or wait for a deeper bottom? Is this the person I should marry? The career I should pursue? The time to retire?

In cases like this, a range of choices would be morally good. But some actions will convey the power of love more effectively than others. Jesus commissions us to do more than be good. He teaches us to love well. To exercise the greatest power available to us, the power of love, in the most effective way possible.

Jesus patterned how to do this in his own life. But he also gave some brief verbal guidance. He sent out seventy of his followers to do the work of love. He told them to cure the sick and to tell people that the kingdom of God has come near. (Luke 10:1-11)

Put simply, he told them, and he’s telling you and me, to get ourselves all tangled up with the messy lives of real, imperfect, hurting, beautiful, and infuriating human beings. To get all tangled up with them as emissaries of God’s life-transforming love. 

Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters” (1885)

Don’t just tell people about love. Show them love. Embody it. Be it.

So how do we discern what will be the most loving thing if the moral law alone doesn’t get us there? How do we see what would be most helpful, genuinely healing, and compassionate? We need wisdom. And that brings us back to the passage from Proverbs I shared above. Here’s the larger context:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart/ and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him,/ and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Wisdom is not a set of rules or an intellectual tool that, once we grasp, we can apply all on our own. Wisdom is the fruit of our vital, ongoing relationship with Christ.

Here’s how I put it in Looking for God in Messy Places:

Wisdom is at the heart of the relationship that Jesus had with his friends. Jesus was divine wisdom incarnate. According to Paul, Jesus “became for us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Wisdom is the art of doing the loving, God-shaped thing in all the varied, changing, and nuanced situations that life hands us. Jesus reached out in friendship to Andrew, Peter, John, and the rest from the very first. He offered to impart his wisdom to them. [That] means he offered to give himself to them…. Their relationship with him had become the navigational principle for their very lives. In Jesus, wisdom personified had entered and now defined their souls. (p. 110)

We don’t get wise all at once. It’s one day, one step along life’s path, at a time. We will screw up. That’s why I find Maya Angelou’s words so comforting. “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

I’ve been able to say those words every day about the previous day. And I’ll be able to say it tomorrow. That’s as it should be. After all, life is complicated.

A portion of this essay is an excerpt from my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book about Hope. You can learn more about it or grab a copy by clicking here or by going to your favorite local bookseller.

I enjoy leading retreats and workshops, presenting talks, and having conversations with book groups via Zoom. To schedule an event with me just click here and my colleague Holly Windham will help get us connected.