Faithfulness Is Improvised

Wisdom for Ever-Changing Challenges

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Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary

The Christian life is a lot like improv night at the local coffee shop. Let me explain.

When I was in seminary, there was this strange and wonderful little coffee shop near campus called City Coffee. In my first semester, I probably studied there every night. And every once in a while, the shop would host an improv night. Local “artists” would show up and do their thing. I’m actually not entirely sure I ever stayed around for it, though I do have a vague recollection of some very bad poetry. I certainly never participated. After all, I had homework to do — plus something called inhibition.

The Christian life is like improv night at City Coffee, only it’s improv night every day of the week.

Constant Word, Changing World

We might wish the Christian life were like karaoke night — in that case, you would at least have the words — but it’s not. It’s improv: the curtain opens, you’re on stage without a script, and somebody yells “Action!” after stuffing a prompt into your hand:

  • “What’s the Christian approach to TikTok?”
  • “Postmodernism”
  • “Post Malone” (Not to be confused with the “Mailman” Karl Malone, which would, of course, be a very different prompt.)

We know that we won’t find headings in our Bible like “Social Media” or “Paul & Public Schools” or “Jesus’s Sermon on MMA.” And we’ll search in vain for specific answers to questions like “Whom should I marry?” or “Where, how long, with whom, and in what specific ways should I engage in Jesus’s Great Commission?”

“God wants us to develop the skill needed to extend his never-changing word into our ever-changing world.”

Does the Bible have everything we need for life and godliness? Absolutely. But it doesn’t give us a line-by-line script. Instead, it asks us to improvise, to develop what theologian Kevin Vanhoozer calls “improvisatory reasoning” (The Drama of Doctrine, 336). That’s how God has designed the Christian life to work. He wants us to develop the skill needed to extend his never-changing word into our ever-changing world. He simply calls it wisdom, and, in one place — Proverbs 2 — he tells us not only where to get it but also why.

Let’s begin with why.

Learning the Good Life

Why learn to improvise? According to Proverbs 2:9, if you get wisdom — if you learn to reason improvisationally — “then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path.” Find wisdom, God says, and you’ll be able to identify and walk down “every good path.” It’s so important for us to hear this that God through Solomon says it again at the end of the chapter. Find wisdom, Solomon says, and “you will walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:20). In short: find wisdom, find the good life.

Now, of course, good doesn’t guarantee you’ll be healthy or wealthy or even trouble-free — at least not yet. (Remember Jesus and the suffering faithful in Hebrews 11?) But there is a correspondence between your idea of good and the Bible’s, which is why I feel perfectly comfortable defining good as “satisfying” or “joyful” or “fulfilling.”

That’s why we should get wisdom; what about where?

God’s Words of Wisdom

Solomon writes, “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). The wisdom we need — the wisdom we want — is something God gives.

Proverbs, in fact, says that God gives it to us “from his mouth.” Certainly this includes the wisdom God embedded in the world he created (and sustains) with his mouth: “In the beginning, God . . . said,” and the world was (Genesis 1; see Hebrews 1:2–3). Proverbs is full of just this sort of wisdom (see, for example, Proverbs 6:6–11). But this wisdom isn’t Solomon’s focus here. Creation isn’t the only thing breathed out by God; so too is every word of Holy Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). And this wisdom is precisely what God has in mind here.

“The wisdom we need — the wisdom we want — is something God gives.”

Solomon makes this connection in verses 1 and 5. He says, “If you receive my words and treasure up my commandments within you . . . then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1, 5). To receive Solomon’s words — to receive the Bible’s words — is, at the same time, to receive the understanding and knowledge — the wisdom — that comes from God.

Now, it’s one thing to know that Scripture teaches us wisdom; it’s still another to know where to look in the Bible to see it modeled. Here we move beyond Proverbs 2 and, as Vanhoozer reminds us, learn to “cultivate biblical wisdom by reading stories of how the prophets and apostles spoke and acted in concrete situations” (334). It’s from these stories, these canonical case studies, that we learn how to faithfully improvise.

Priceless Case Studies

Prompt: A church is struggling to believe the gospel. Presently, they’re being harassed by old friends questioning the Christian claim of a crucified messiah. (One report has it that these friends are calling that claim “foolish” and “scandalous” — another cynically wonders “how any moderately intelligent reader of the Scriptures could affirm something so implausible.”) And this is to say nothing of the bleak economic forecast facing the Christian community. Increased taxes, they suspect, might be only the front end of the bad news.

How’s that for a real and specific prompt? What if somebody gave it to you? What would you say?

In time, the prompt makes its way to the church’s pastor, who, with God’s help, traces the problem all the way to its roots — or, to borrow from Vanhoozer one more time, “sees and tastes everything about [the] situation that is theologically relevant” (334). And he responds with a brilliant and original piece of Christological reasoning drawn from the Old Testament, carefully and winsomely arguing his case using premises he knows his doubting friends can still very much affirm.

If you’re wondering, I’ve just summarized Hebrews. And it’s just one of dozens of case studies in our Bibles teaching us how to apply God’s never-changing word to our ever-changing world. You may not have thought about the apostles (or the prophets) like this before, but they are master improvisers. And we can — we must — learn from their example. It’s one of the reasons they’re in our Bibles.

Improv Discipleship

How do we learn to improvise? We attend to God’s word, not least to the model improvisers God has so generously given us. Attend, though, is probably too weak or, at the very least, insufficient. After all, Solomon uses half a dozen or so verbs, pleading with his son and with us to get wisdom. If you want it, Solomon says, you’ve got to “receive” it (Proverbs 2:1), “treasure [it] up” (Proverbs 2:1), “mak[e] your ear attentive” and “inclin[e] your heart” (Proverbs 2:2) to it. You need to “call out” and “raise your voice” (Proverbs 2:3) for it. (Ask for it and really mean it; see James 1:5–7.). “Seek” and “search for it,” Solomon says, “as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).

Don’t you want this priceless treasure God offers you for your good? Don’t you want to get better at applying God’s never-changing word to our ever-changing world? Friends, you have to improvise. That’s how God has designed the Christian life to work. So don’t you want to get better at it? I know I do. It’s not too late, and it’s not beyond your reach. You don’t have to be super smart, creative, or outgoing to excel at it. You simply have to know where to look and go after it with all your heart.

I wouldn’t delay; I think the curtain’s about to open.

is associate professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary.