Wisdom from Above
Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without pretense. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.
James 3:13-18 (CSB)
This passage, from the pen of the Lord’s half-brother James, practically preaches itself, doesn’t it? The context is about the way we talk, the way we use words. Chapter 3:1-12 warns about the misuse of the tongue (see especially verses 5-12). Chapter 4:1-12 describes the source of quarrels and fights among the Christians who were “speaking evil of one another” (v.11).
Into this texture of tension, James, a pastor/apostle with a very pointed style, lays this clarifying message of wisdom. He addresses those who think of themselves as “wise and understanding.” Doesn’t this describe most people? Don’t we want to think of ourselves this way? Then he describes the two sorts of “wisdom” that people routinely use in daily life. These actually demonstrate whether or not a person is “wise and understanding.” Wisdom here does not mean the Greek idea of speculative philosophical discourse, but the Hebrew notion of practical common sense that produces a godly, virtuous, and productive life.
The two sorts of wisdom that James has in mind could not be more opposed to one another, either in their source or in their outcomes. One is from “below” and shows its colors in angry zeal (jealousy), a profound obsession with the Self in competition with other people (selfish ambition), overweening self-confidence (boasting), and practical denial of the Truth (living and speaking that is at odds with God’s ways). The result of this wisdom is chaos, anarchy, political turmoil (the actual definition of the Greek word “disorder”), and all sorts of bad behavior (evil/vile deeds). The source of this wisdom, says James shockingly, is earthly (in direct contrast with what comes from God), unspiritual (from the flesh rather than the Holy Spirit), demonic (originating in the Devil). Really James, don’t sugar-coat it! Demonic? Wow!
The other sort of wisdom has a profound gentleness about it. This word “gentle” is sometimes translated “meek” but it means strength under control, a safe, deep character. This wisdom is morally and ethically good (pure), committed to and experiencing peace (peace loving/peaceable), considerate, magnanimous, forbearing (this important NT word is sometimes translated “gentle” but is different from that in verse 13. See Phil.4:5). It is cooperative, considerate, compliant, open to reason, submissive (this Greek word means the opposite of obstinacy and self-seeking). And that’s not all! Real wisdom is “full of mercy and good fruits,” which refers to a compassionate heart always ready to help those in need. And it is “impartial,” meaning the utter absence of any sort of discrimination against anybody (a very hot topic these days). And finally, it is “sincere,” which is literally “un-hypocritical.” In other words, this way of living is not an act that people put on, but is a true and authentic reflection of God’s own character implanted in the redeemed human soul.
The source of this second kind of wisdom is God himself (from above). This is why James is so insistent (borderline gruff) as he exhorts his flock to plant a crop of goodness (harvest of righteousness) in peace, as true peacemakers.
Interesting, huh? Radically different ways of life (wisdoms) from profoundly different sources, with eternally contrasting results. Three guesses (from looking at the news and the net) as to which of these two sorts of wisdom our culture is operating in. Another three guesses as to where the Lord is guiding our hearts in this troubled world, especially with how we use our words.
Christians ask their pastors (or should ask them) how to respond to the turmoil in our country as genuine believers. It seems to me that we should consider being peace-sowers and Wisdom teachers, patient, kind, Gospel persons. We should be less fearful, less angry, and more confident of God’s work. Perhaps we should put our thoughts, blogs, posts, tweets and casual conversations through this wisdom grid and maybe press “delete” instead of “send.” Perhaps we should take a page out of Saint Francis of Assisi’s journal:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
where there is injury, pardon,
where there is doubt, faith,
where there is despair, hope,
where there is darkness, light,
where there is sadness, joy.
Oh, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Just a thought…