by Troy Cady
Yesterday I posted a prayer that went like this: “Sister Wisdom, teach us that one humble prayer is greater than countless proud thoughts."
The prayer elicited this response from someone who knows me well and whom I respect greatly: “When I read your post this morning I was wondering, where you got ‘Sister Wisdom’? I've never heard that phrase used and I thought God was the source of all wisdom. I don't always get things, or I’m getting slower in my understanding, so I'm just asking.”
I thought it was a good question and I thought others might like to hear my response so I’m sharing it below. I hope it helps!
Thank you for asking your good question, Bev. I especially appreciate that you didn’t just come out of the gate with accusations of “Heresy!” J
At the outset, I must say…I agree with you: a prayer addressed to “Sister Wisdom” doesn’t seem quite right, does it? I suppose it might feel to someone like I’m praying to a God other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Rest assured, that was not my intention. So…why address a prayer to ‘Sister Wisdom’?
I must confess, it’s an artist’s prayer—which is to say it is a prayer in which I took artistic license. I only hope I did not take too much license. That said, here’s where it came from…
The prayer was inspired by my reading of King Solomon’s book of Proverbs yesterday. In chapters 1-9, Solomon personifies the quality of wisdom by using feminine imagery:
“Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares…” (1:20)
In chapter 3, verses 13-18 we read another passage in which wisdom is personified as a woman. Again, in chapter 4, verses 5-9 we find the same.
With that in mind, we come to chapter 7 and in verse 4 Solomon writes: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call understanding your close relative.”
Primarily, the expression ‘Sister Wisdom’ is derived from this verse and from the anthropomorphic images of wisdom prior to this.
To be sure, Solomon is using poetic imagery here but it is an image he uses consistently and Jesus even uses it when speaking of himself and John the Baptist: “But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” (Luke 7:35)
After instructing us to call wisdom “our sister” in chapter 7, Solomon returns to the theme of “wisdom calling out” in chapter 8 with these words in verse 17:
17 I love those who love me,
and those who seek me find me.
That “sister wisdom” would say that we should “love her” and “seek her” seems strange to our modern sensibilities. “Whom should we love and seek but God alone?” we might ask. “How can this be Scripture?” Well…it is poetry.
The chapter goes on to personify wisdom in terms that seem even more striking. Again, the words may sound heretical to us. The poetic device is made more effective by the shock of it, by the seeming-absurdity of the expression.
Observe carefully in verses 22-31. This is wisdom speaking again. The words “me” and “I” refer to “her.” To identify with the shock of this text, it might help if you imagine in your head that it is a woman’s voice you hear:
“22 The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
23 I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
when there were no springs overflowing with water;
25 before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,
26 before he made the world or its fields
or any of the dust of the earth.
27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
28 when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
29 when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
30 Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
31 rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.”
In speaking about the text, we are constrained to say, “Wisdom says that the Lord brought her forth as the first of his works. She was formed long ages ago, when the world came to be.” That said, in the early church, that first line of this passage would have raised some eyebrows—as if wisdom is somehow distinct from the Father of wisdom. “I was given birth…I was constantly at his side…” she (wisdom) says.
Those lines in a different time would have been condemned right alongside the heresy of Arius. Of course, the wisdom of God is not literally some child that was given birth by God at some point in time prior to the earth being formed, but Solomon is using a poetic device to help us understand how God and wisdom go hand-in-hand.
That is where the prayer addressed to Sister Wisdom comes from. It is a poet’s prayer that is trying to take into account what Proverbs is saying: “We never find true wisdom without finding God and we never find God without finding true wisdom.” The two go hand-in-hand. To seek wisdom is to seek God and to seek God is to seek wisdom. The prayer to Sister Wisdom is simply an expression to convey this but I also wanted to employ the same feminine imagery Solomon uses. So…I am sorry if it caused offense or mislead anyone.
That said, I do find it interesting that Solomon uses a feminine voice to portray wisdom. He could have just as easily used a masculine voice. I do believe this should not surprise us, because this male/female way of describing God is something we find right from the beginning.
In Genesis 1, in the creation account, we are told that to be made in the image of God is to be made as “male and female.” Both sides together image the Creator. That means there is a male/female aspect to God. We have seen that Proverbs 1-9 bears this out and there are other texts that do so, too.
While it is true that most of Scripture employs the pronoun “he” in reference to God, properly speaking God’s self-description is not gender-specific because it is verb-expressed. A key text is Exodus 3.
Moses asks, “Who should I say sent me?”
God answers: “Say I AM sent you.”
Again, it should shock us that God defines himself as a verb (we tend to think of God as a noun). But, because our language is so limited, we tend to use nouns and the pronoun “he” when we refer to God. I just did it in the first sentence of this paragraph. Notice: “…God defines himself as a verb.”
But verbs are not gender-specific. They include both male and female. He can run just as much as she can run. With that in mind, notice the dissonance in Genesis 1.
“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
Do you hear the dissonance? To be sure, the text says ‘in his own image’ and ‘he created them’ but in the same breath it says God created them ‘male and female’. So, somehow, to be made in the image of God is to be made male-and-female. Both-together image the Creator. That is what the text states. But the limitation of language constrains us to pick a pronoun to reference God and the pronoun of choice happens to be ‘he’.
This is not to say that I think we should start referring to God as ‘she’ all the time now. Indeed, Jesus taught us to pray ‘Our Father…’ and that is good enough for me.
But, inspired by Solomon’s poetic description of wisdom in feminine terms and…keeping mind that wisdom and God go hand-in-hand and…keeping in mind what it means to image God and…taking into account God’s self-description in Exodus…I took the liberty of addressing God as “Sister Wisdom.” I do not think there is a separate entity from which wisdom springs other than God our Father, but the poet/artist in me felt it was fitting to address God as such.
Once again, I hope this does not cause offense or lead anyone astray. At the same time, I do hope the prayer serves to strike a new chord in us about how incredible and mysterious our Maker is.
Thanks for understanding.
P.S. I am convinced that it is God’s both/and nature that confounds us on many fronts. He is both…
…near and far
…grace and truth
…Almighty and gentle
…at work and rest
…perfect in holiness and forgiving of sin
I notice that our tendency when speaking of God is to lean one way or the other. Indeed, my daily prayers bear this out from one day to the next. Some days, the words that form in my heart when addressing God are very formal; other days, I seem to be addressing God the Carpenter who visits me in my workshop.
From time to time, I have folks write me…asking about certain prayers. I can tell they are wondering if I’ve somehow “lost my way.” And…I have noticed that the prayers that elicit questions from others all fall into the God-is-near category. For some reason we are okay with a God who is high above and holy but not a God I would see stocking shelves at Walmart.
Yet that is precisely the gospel that Christians proclaim. The wonder of Jesus is that by him God came near. To understand the gospel properly, we should hear dissonance in that phrase: God came near. God came near.
This is why I started PlayFull…to help us appreciate the both/and nature of God, to live in the tension of it. Even the name of our organization Play…Full bears this out. It is misspelled on purpose. There is a fullness to play and a freedom (like play) to fullness that we often miss. The goal of PlayFull is to help us live in the tension, the art of that both/and. “To play from the inside-out.”
Earlier I said that God defined himself as a verb. The wonder of it is that God is not only a verb, he is also a noun. It is both/and. If God were only a verb, we would not be able to know him personally, objectively. If God were only a noun, we would not experience his movement…we would not know him subjectively (which is the crux of Christianity). He is both verb and noun.
That said, the best we may be able to do this side of eternity is to address God throughout the course of our lives one trait at a time. That is a limitation of being human, though God himself is completely unlimited. So, in my prayers I will address God as “Divine Love” or “Creator” or “Beauty” or “Joy of all joy” or “Gentle Lord”. None of these expressions completely define God but all of them are true in their own way. Sister Wisdom is no exception to that. It is a form of address that says, “Wisdom and God go hand-in-hand. If wisdom invites us to call her ‘sister’, I may address God as ‘Sister Wisdom’.”
Today, however, I could have just as easily addressed God as “Brother Jesus”. To be sure, Jesus is Lord and addressing him as a “Brother” seems presumptuous, but…if we are God’s children by faith and Jesus is God’s Son, then Jesus is our brother—so the expression would be justified even though it is limited.
That said, the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ should, in its own right, shock our ears: the name Jesus was just as common in first century Israel as the name ‘George’ is today. Imagine claiming ‘George is Lord’ to someone today and we will begin to understand more fully the scandal intrinsic to authentic Christianity. It is both universal and particular at one and the same time.
I do hope you don’t think I’m off my rocker now. On the contrary, I feel as though I’m discovering God all over again these days. He is so big and mysterious! Thanks, again, for understanding.