Spiritual disciplines

Decisions, Decisions, and Split Logs

Jun 09, 2020 by Josh Rice

This spring, I learned how to split wood.

As a teenager, I’d made kindling in the backyard with my dad, and that was about it. But this March, my family left Indonesia, where I’d been working as a professor, and we had to quarantine upon our return to the US. My cousin let us borrow his cabin way up in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, and there, for four weeks, I spent about an hour a day splitting bucked log rounds into firewood.

To split these logs, most which were a foot or more in diameter, I had to use a splitting maul. The head of a maul is a thick piece of steel, wider and blunter than an ax head, and several times as heavy. When you’re using a maul, you grab the handle with your dominant hand near the business end, and toss the maul head more or less vertically from your strong shoulder up and above your head, and then bring the whole thing down to your target. The maul-stroke starts with this jerky motion, and then ends in a graceful, ferocious arc as gravity grabs the eight-pound head and arms, shoulders, and back muscles to accelerate it earthward. When it works right and your aim is true, the log under attack busts in quarters or even in half, embedding the maul in the splitting surface below. It is satisfying, hard work.

The first few times I used the maul, my aim was bad, the motion was weird, and I didn’t know where to aim my stroke. I kept aiming too far into the log, which led to overstrikes and a broken handle. Throwing a maul in the mountain air was invigorating the first day or two, but by week’s end, my arms and shoulders ached, and the joints and ligaments in my bookish body were tweaked and unhappy. Fatigued and sore, I didn’t chop for a few days. But, when I headed back to the splitting block, dreading the weeks of pain I imagined were yet in front of me, suddenly things were a lot easier.

It took me some time to realize what had happened, between me and the woodpile I’d made. The lesson isn’t difficult but it is profound—and I’m not talking about using a maul either.

As Christians, we often approach wisdom as a cognitive thing, an intellectual exercise that allows us to know the difference between wrong and right in a given situation. That is why, when people tell us their troubles, and complain about their bad boss, or how light their paycheck is, or how difficult their kids are, we give them advice. The Christian life, by this frame, is a long sequence of right/wrong decisions, and the godly man or woman answers them correctly in the appropriate order. This type of Christian living is about as similar to the real thing as mashing buttons in Guitar Hero is to playing a six-string.

The biblical model of wisdom, on the other hand, is a lot closer to splitting wood. The practice of making godly life choices is not primarily a mental task, nor requires especial problem-solving skills. Rather, a wise person has the muscle mass and the muscle tone that allows them to shoulder burdensome and difficult decisions with an eye to the spiritual realities involved. This does not necessarily mean that the wise person chooses differently from the fool—remember, that’s our button-pushing, switch-flipping model of decision-making—but rather that the wise man or woman can see previously invisible factors that weigh in every human choice.

“The salary sounds good—but what kind of benefits are you offering?” is a clever question; “How much time will this job take away from my kids?” is a wise one. It’s a smart idea to move to that city or buy property where you’ve always wanted to live, but it would be unwise to move without knowing that there is a Bible-believing church in the area.

But we share workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods with people who do not fear God. Many of our family members and friends are not seeking wisdom as the Bible describes it. So, how can we hone our wisdom? King David gives us some direction in Psalm 1. The chapter is all about the blessed man, the happy man, the person who does the wise and righteous thing. The Psalmist tells us that he “walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” That is, the path of wisdom avoids ungodly advice, sinful paths, and a mocking attitude. Again, how can we practice this in our day and age?

David explains what the blessed man does in the next verse, Psalm 1:2:

but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

This is not an intellectual trick that the blessed man employs, or a cognitive technique, but a workout regimen. Wisdom is a skill that can be honed, a muscle that gets strengthened when we use and stretch and stress it by feasting on God’s word, fellowshipping with our brothers and sisters, and worshipping Christ. And, it isn’t popular to say, but suffering does the same. It is God who superintends the trials and tests that we face; as Paul reminds us in Romans, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance.”

Indeed, after a few painful days of training, I was a much better log-splitter. My form was better, my aim was improved, and I was a bit stronger. The splitting maul hadn’t changed, the wood-splitting task certainly hadn’t changed, but I had—a bit, anyway. Over the next three weeks, a full hour of daily splittercise left me in the best shape I’d been since grad school (that may not be saying much), and the work became the best part of the day. I would listen to a podcast, or a Tim Keller sermon, or the latest section in my audio Bible, and just revel in the beauty of the Sierras while my kids played in the forest.

None of that joy was possible the first week of our stay in the mountains, and none of the ease of those days splitting wood was possible when I first started using the maul.

The lesson here is simple. If we want to live wise Christian lives, and enjoy the presence of God in our daily lives, we can only get there by constantly working out the right spiritual muscles. Everything is different these days, what with COVID upending normal life, but we can choose to grow from this. If we invest in developing and deepening our wisdom, we will be better able to weather the next storm. As a final encouragement, remember that Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 1 that Jesus himself is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.” This is good news. This means that as we pursue Christ, we are pursuing wisdom itself, and as we are developing our character and growing in wisdom, we will find Jesus yet closer and sweeter. And that is a far better payoff than just learning how to split wood.


Joshua is a history professor currently teaching overseas in Indonesia. Outward is currently supporting the Rice family as they explore God's call on their life to eventually plant a church in Japan.

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