Author and art collector Forrest Fenn carefully filled a small, ornate box with old coins, gold nuggets, jewelry, precious gemstones, and other exotic artifacts. Then he hid the box in the Rocky Mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe, N.M., and waited for someone to find it.
When asked why he hid a treasure worth over $1 million, Fenn said it was the result of his 1988 diagnosis of terminal kidney cancer. Rather than slowly declining in a hospital room attached to medical equipment, he dreamed of trekking out into the wilderness with a treasure chest in tow to die outside under the stars, leaving clues to the whereabouts of both the treasure and his sun-bleached bones. But Fenn underwent cancer treatments and miraculously recovered. Years later, in 2010, at the age of 80, a healthy Fenn finally enacted part of his farewell fantasy by hiding the treasure chest deep in the Rocky Mountains.
Fenn then self-published a memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, for which he gathered up pieces of his life in pictures and short stories and organized them around one compelling theme: saying yes to the adventure of living. Near the end of the book, he wrote a 24-line poem containing nine clues to the hidden treasure, sparking the imaginations of people all over the world with his opening stanzas:
As I have gone alone in there, and with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where, and hint of riches new and old.
Begin it where warm waters halt, and take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk. Put in below the home of Brown.
An estimated 300,000 people scoured the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico all the way to Montana in search of Fenn’s treasure before it was found. For some, it was a fun adventure that gave friends and families an excuse to travel, hike, enjoy campfires, and have playful arguments while poring over topological maps. For others, the hunt became a tragic obsession. At least five people lost their lives looking for the hidden chest when they wandered too far into the backcountry, fell off cliffs, or froze in sudden snowstorms.
A Different Kind of Treasure
There is a different kind of treasure, though, that is worth risking one’s life for. Rather than seeking precious gemstones, Proverbs 2:3-6 redirects our passion and pursuit:
indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Gold coins and gleaming jewels are glamorous, but they won’t last, and their value rises and falls according to scarcity models and ever-changing world economics. But the wisdom that God offers will never go out of style. Its value does not depend on inflation or interest rates. Like Fenn’s treasure, God’s wisdom is hidden, but it can easily be found by anyone who passionately searches for it.
Wisdom in the Garden
Before we begin searching, it’s important to understand our starting place. Look to the opening chapters of Genesis, where wisdom is at the center of an unfolding drama. Genesis 3:6 says:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree (of the knowledge of good and evil) was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
As created beings, humans are limited in nature and thus incapable of completely understanding the complexity and mystery of reality’s many dimensions, including the moral dimension of knowing good and evil. Because we are limited creatures, God asks us to demonstrate our trust in him by not eating from this tree. Adam and Eve didn’t trust God’s goodness when asked to live within the healthy boundaries of their limited nature and thus plunged the whole world into sin.
Since then, God has been faithfully teaching us how to flourish. In the Scriptures, we are led on a wisdom journey through three important books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Our first steps begin in Proverbs, as it firmly establishes God’s good lesson first given in the Garden of Eden.
Wisdom in Proverbs
The book of Proverbs lays a solid foundation for living a beautiful and flourishing life. The most famous verses, Proverbs 3:5-6, sum up the heart of the book and the collection of wisdom sayings contained within:
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.
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 confidently states that life is straightforward: honor God by obeying God’s commandments and good things will come to you. This might sound overly simplistic, but broadly, it is surprisingly true. When you make good decisions, good things are more likely to come your way. When you make bad decisions, you’re likely to experience tragedy and heartbreak.
Proverbs builds upon the garden instructions in Genesis and defines wisdom simply: life flourishes most when we look to God for guidance and diligently apply God’s instruction to our lives. So living wisely means trusting God by putting into practice what God says. Proverbs is a clear path and a compass, establishing our sense of direction and guiding our feet as we move forward. However, we soon encounter a tricky descent that will lead us into a difficult and disorienting place.
Wisdom in Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes takes a hard and honest look at life and says something that scares us, though we know it to be true: Life is neither simple nor straightforward. After careful observation, the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes that life is largely unpredictable, beyond our control, and often unfair. Life is hevel.
Hevel is sometimes translated “meaningless,” but a better translation is “vapor” or “mist.” To say that life is hevel is to say we cannot hold on to anything in this life as final and lasting. Just when you think you have something of permanence, it’s gone—like smoke. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t deny the wisdom of Proverbs but disturbingly says, “What’s the point of being good if in the end, bad people still prosper and then everyone dies?” If we’re brutally honest about our actual lived experience, we can’t help but agree with the teacher in Ecclesiastes 9:11:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
This is a hard but necessary message to swallow on the wisdom journey. If we want to discover the treasure that wisdom is, then we’ll have to traverse the difficult descent of Ecclesiastes. We long to return to the simplicity of Proverbs, but the Scriptures will hold us here and have us navigate this tricky place a bit longer in another wisdom book called Job.
Wisdom in Job
In this book, Job is suffering, and no one knows why—not even Job. Job asserts his innocence, and the story clearly states that he has done nothing to deserve the calamity that has fallen on him and his family. Job is a living audiovisual of the combined wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes—a good person who obeys God and is suffering terribly for no apparent reason. His friends offer some explanations gleaned from Proverbs, but Job is lost in the valley of Ecclesiastes wisdom and wants to hear directly from God about his hevel-like predicament.
God answers but never gives Job a reason for his suffering. Instead, God reaches down, pulls Job out of the dark valley, and takes him on a tour of the universe. Then God asks two very challenging questions:
Job, where were you when I created everything?
Do you understand how it works?
Job is quick to realize that he is guilty of trying to take “fruit” that is beyond the boundaries of his limited human understanding. In a posture of humility, he declares in chapter 42:
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. … Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.
The wisdom journey that has led us from the Garden of Eden to the broad path of Proverbs and through the descent of Ecclesiastes has now led us into a decisive fork in the road: Will we trust God’s goodness when life is painfully unfair?
In the opening chapter of James, the apostle is helping his fragile faith community wrestle with the same question. James tells the church to ask for wisdom (“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God,” vs. 5), but we often forget the larger context. James urges the church to ask for wisdom when they “face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Wisdom is needed because suffering sows seeds of doubt about God’s goodness, God’s love for his children, and God’s justice in handling the world’s affairs.
We all feel this dilemma deep in our bones. When suffering sows seeds of doubt in our hearts, pain persuades us to reach out beyond our human limitations to take hold of mysteries too great for us to comprehend. Instead of trusting God, we are tempted to become our own gods, reaching out to grab and possess knowledge, control, and autonomy.
The Foolishness of Fenn
Jack Stuef, a 32-year-old medical student and Michigan native, became obsessed with finding Fenn’s treasure after he learned about it in 2018. For two years he thought about it every day as he read and researched everything Fenn had written and said, looking for additional clues. Stuef believed the key to finding the treasure was to discover the place where Fenn wished to die. In 2018, Stuef marked out a region that had been a favorite camping spot of Fenn’s when he was young. Then he began meticulously searching.
On June 6, 2020, Stuef found the treasure. Immediately he sent Fenn a picture of the weathered chest resting outside, sheltered in a nook in the wild expanse of Wyoming. Fenn announced the news on his website, confirming the find and declaring the treasure hunt over.
Three months after the treasure was found, Forrest Fenn, then 90, died. Two years later, Stuef sold the treasure to an auction house, which in turn sold 476 artifacts from the collection for a total of $1.3 million. Nestled among the gold coins and gemstones was a small, wax-sealed glass jar that contained a miniature version of Fenn’s autobiography. In his 2010 memoir, Fenn said he included his story “because maybe the lucky finder would want to know a little about the foolish person who abandoned such an opulent cache.”
The Foolishness of God
Christ gave up the opulence of heaven to take on human flesh, suffer, and die on a cross. In the end, like Fenn, God appeared exceedingly foolish. But the generous love of Christ’s incarnation and death flipped foolishness on its head. It turns out that this kind of foolishness is in fact wisdom of the truest and deepest kind. In another garden—Gethsemane—with the cross casting a heavy shadow over his agonizing prayers, Christ does for humanity what Adam and Eve failed to do: he laid down his own life and trusted in God’s wisdom.
Having become wisdom incarnate, Christ calls us to follow him in the thrilling adventure of embracing the foolishness of the cross, surrendering our lives in humility and trusting that God faithfully and lovingly holds the universe in his hands. The wisdom lesson in the Garden of Eden, clarified in the cross and confirmed in the resurrection, is a return to a new kind of simplicity: trusting God and living within our limits as beloved creatures made of dust.
So when life falls apart, circumstances don’t make sense, our hearts are broken, and our dreams shattered, when we wake up and go to sleep with a heavy spirit and we can’t seem to find a way out or forward, the Spirit will guide us as we wade through the wisdom books, decipher puzzling clues in the prophets, and journey to Bethlehem to discover the rich cache of wisdom that is Christ.
Finding this treasure is not the end, but a new beginning as we answer the call to follow and even chase after Jesus on a sure path into the same kind of trusting foolishness that will turn out to be a treasure more precious than gold and thrilling in every sense of the word.
- If you could, would you have joined in the scavenger hunt for Forrest Fenn’s treasure? Why or why not?
- Which of the three biblical books—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job—resonates most with you? Why?
- Besides Job, what other examples, biblical or historical, are there of people who trusted in God’s goodness when life is painfully unfair?
- “Instead of trusting God, we are tempted to become our own gods, reaching out to grab and possess knowledge, control, and autonomy.” Have you seen this temptation played out in the world, or even in the church?