I don’t remember thinking very much about ‘wisdom’ when I was a young Christian, back in my teens. I was interested in ‘joy’ and ‘love’ and ‘power’ and ‘peace’, but I don’t remember wisdom figuring on my radar screen very much at all. I do remember very clearly, however, the first time I really paid attention as wisdom was demonstrated in a church context.
I was working in the three-point parish of Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake, Saskatchewan; Ken Burningham was the rector and I was his assistant. It was time for the Annual General Meeting of the church in Arborfield, and for reasons that would take too long to explain, Ken was at the meeting, but I was chairing it. There was an elderly lady in the congregation, Mrs. Lindsay, who had been the envelope secretary for years, but we all felt that the job was getting to be too much for her. I should add that she herself was not at the meeting. So the question was, what should we do?
Some people felt that we should appoint someone else to the position even though Mrs. Lindsay was not present to discuss it. Others were afraid she’d feel like we were casting her aside. There was a long discussion, which didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, and eventually I looked across at Ken, who had been very quiet, and asked him, “What do you think we should do?” He replied, “I think we should appoint an assistant to help her out”.
Immediately it was as if the fog cleared. There was a man present who was quite willing to become Mrs. Lindsay’s assistant, and so we voted unanimously to establish the position and appoint him to it. And the long-term outcome was good; as we had suspected, she was beginning to find the job too much, and within a few months she asked if she could step down and hand over her responsibilities to the assistant. No one’s feelings were hurt, and yet the work got done to everyone’s satisfaction.
That, I think, was the first time I consciously thought to myself, “Now that was wisdom in action!” Ever since then I’ve tried to take note when I’ve seen demonstrations of practical wisdom, and I’ve also noticed how very highly wisdom is valued in the Bible.
In our epistle for today James returns to the subject of wisdom, which he’s already mentioned earlier in his letter. He talks in verse 13 about the person who is ‘wise and understanding’, and a few verses later he contrasts ‘earthly wisdom’ with ‘the wisdom from above’.
But before we dive into these verses, let’s remind ourselves that James is not the first person in the Bible to think and write about wisdom. The Old Testament has a whole genre of books that scholars call ‘wisdom literature’; it includes books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, that gather together wise sayings to guide people in the art of practical godly living. In this wisdom literature there’s general agreement about where wisdom starts: Proverbs 1:7 says ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ – in other words, we need to remember that the relationship between us and God is not an equal one. God is infinitely good and holy and powerful, but we are not; we are God’s creations, and our understanding and wisdom are limited. True wisdom comes from the Lord, and we need to go to him in humility to learn the best path through life.
Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an abstract intellectual concept; it’s not something we learn in endless coffee shop conversations about ‘the meaning of life’. It’s intensely practical; it’s about discovering the kind of life God designed us human beings for, and learning to live it out in the midst of our ordinary daily occupations. Not surprisingly, Jesus agrees with this approach. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount he gives us the well-known parable of the wise and foolish builders. He tells us that the wise man, who built his house on the rock, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and acts on them’ (Matthew 7:24), but the foolish man, who built his house on the sand, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and does not act on them’ (v.26). Wisdom, then, is to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice in our daily lives.
This is godly wisdom, and it’s essentially humble; we assume we don’t have the ability in ourselves to choose the wise path, so we go to God and ask him to teach us true wisdom. As Christians, we believe that God has come to us supremely in Jesus, so we expect that in the life and teaching of Jesus we’ll find the clearest and most accurate embodiment of the wisdom of God. I think it’s part of our Christian faith that we see Jesus at the very least as the wisest man who ever lived, and so following him means looking to him for the wisdom we need in our daily lives.
But there’s another voice in the biblical tradition, a rebellious voice. We first run into it in the third chapter of Genesis where we meet the serpent, who tempts the man and the woman to follow their own path rather than the one God has set out for them. The serpent contradicts God’s instructions to the man and the woman:
‘God knows that when you eat of (the fruit of the tree) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5).
The next words are very revealing:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).
The woman saw ‘that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’. Here we have a different path to wisdom; the snake says, “There’s something good that God could have given you, but he’s chosen to hold it back from you. The only way to get it is for you to strike out on your own, reject God’s commands and find your own path through life. If you do that, you’ll become as wise as God and you won’t need to keep asking him what to do”. This is the way of pride and arrogance, when we say to God, ‘Your way sounds interesting, but I don’t think it’ll work in the real world, will it?” As if the human race has a great track record of making things work in the real world!
This is the biblical conversation James is stepping into in our reading for today, and he clearly spells out the two kinds of wisdom. In verse 13 he says,
‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’.
He goes on in verses 17-18 to describe what heavenly wisdom looks like:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
But earthly wisdom is an entirely different animal; look at verses 14-16:
But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.
What sort of wisdom is this? This is what we might call ‘worldly wisdom’, the wisdom that knows how to look out for itself and ignores everyone else. This is the person who knows how to play the game of life in such a way that they get the cream and everyone else gets the dregs. The essential characteristic of this so-called wisdom is selfishness and self-centredness: a person who has this devilish wisdom is entirely absorbed in their own interests and cares nothing for the interests of others.
Is this likely to produce peace? I don’t think so. In order to have true peace, we need to develop a genuine concern for the well-being of others, but if instead we grow a world where everyone thinks only of themselves, this will inevitably bring people into conflict with each other. You want that patch of land? So do I. You want that pot of money? So do I. You want that spot in the centre of the stage? So do I.
We all know where that leads, don’t we? Look at chapter 4 verses 1-3:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Are you surprised that James addresses these words to Christians? Do we really expect Christians to murder people when they don’t get what they want? Sadly, one look around the world today will tell us that this happens more often than we’d like to believe. But even when it isn’t literally true, most of us have probably experienced church life that feels like a war zone. After all, we all want a church that caters to our own needs and desires, and when someone proposes a change, our first thought is always “How does this affect me?” And if a decision at a church meeting goes us, we’re indignant and demand to know why the others won’t let us have the kind of church we want! When you get a whole church full of people who feel that way, it’s not surprising that there’s conflict.
So what’s the way out? James would tell us that we need to remember that God is God and I am not, so we need to step down from the throne, apologize to God for sitting on his chair, and then take our place in humility before him, asking him to guide us rather than always assuming that what’s good for me must inevitably be good for everyone else as well. In verse 6 James quotes again from the Book of Proverbs:
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”.
That reminds me of a quote from the end of The Hobbit – the book, I mean, not the Peter Jackson movie! Gandalf is talking with Bilbo about how his actions have helped the old prophecies to be fulfilled, and Bilbo is shaking his head at this idea. Gandalf says,
“And why not? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies just because you helped them come about. You don't really suppose do you that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You're a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I'm quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all.”
“Thank goodness!” Bilbo replied.
Yes, indeed – I’m only a little fellow in a wide world after all, and that’s something I need to remember on a regular basis! And so, after encouraging us to repent of our sins and return to the Lord, James ends this section by saying,
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:10).
So where are we going with this today? What does it mean for you and me as we leave this place and go out into the world as followers of Jesus?
James has described for us the world we live in – a world torn by conflict and war, a world of winners and losers, a world where the winner takes all and the loser has to pay the price. And he’s asking us, as the biblical writers so often do, “Do you seriously think you can change this without changing the basic selfish orientation of the human heart?”
True wisdom starts with a recognition that God is God and I am not. My knowledge is limited, but God knows everything. I’ve seen only a tiny corner of his universe, but God has seen all of it. I’ve only seen fifty-six years, but the whole of time and eternity is spread out before God. And as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, when I argue with God, I’m arguing with the very person who gives me the ability to argue in the first place! Rather strange, don’t you think?
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. A proper awe and respect and reverence for God will lead to a desire to learn his ways and put them into practice in our daily lives. And this will mean recognizing that I’m not the lead character in God’s play; there are seven billion others on the planet as well, and every one of them is important to God. So rather than being concerned that everyone notices what an admirable person I am, I need to be shining the spotlight on others, so that everyone gets their share of the light.
Let me close by reading you the last two verses of chapter 3 from the ‘New Living Translation’; I think it’s very helpful:
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favouritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.