“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
This is Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:20. In the surrounding verses, Paul highlights a truth that runs all throughout Scripture. There are two kinds of wisdom: God’s wisdom and the wisdom of this world. And they are incompatible with each other.
In either kind of wisdom, we seek to make the best choices to obtain what is valuable. But these are aimed at different values. Worldly wisdom concerns itself with the good things of this world. Those who prize worldly wisdom aim to acquire possessions, for instance. They are deeply concerned with seeking justice for themselves.
In summary, worldly wisdom is consumed with living one’s best life now.
But the life and teachings of Christ compel Christians to have an entirely reoriented set of values. Consider Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: he tells us that, when slapped and insulted, not only to take it, but to be willing to take it again. He tells his followers that if an occupying soldier compels them to carry his bag for a mile, they should carry it two.
He tells us to love not only our friends, but to love people who hate us and want to harm us. Indeed, it’s at this point that Jesus notes the uniqueness of this way of living. Normal people, he says, love people who love them back. He’s calling us to a way of life that goes well beyond that.
Now, this kind of living seems to make no sense: be willing to be struck again? Love our enemies? If we’re living for our best life now, Jesus’s words are insanity.
This is why Paul calls the cross folly: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
And Paul is reminding us that it is the cross of Christ that becomes the center of the conflict between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. From an earthly point of view, the cross signals the defeat of Christ. But from the wisdom from above, the cross accomplishes Christ’s great victory: the redemption of a people for his own possession.
The wisdom of Christ makes sense only if we believe that there is a life beyond this one we’re currently living. It makes sense only if we believe that God really will do justice to all people, so that I am liberated from seeking my own vengeance. It makes sense only if we take seriously Jesus’s words: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
These two wisdoms are utterly at odds with one another. From a Christian point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of this world is being thrown away. And from a worldly point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of Christ is being thrown away.