Chapter 3

The Meaning of Wisdom

In a series of TV commercials for online yellow pages, actor David Carradine plays a guru to young seekers. When asked how to find enlightenment, the guru tells his students that makes it possible to find whatever they are looking for by just typing it in.

Could it be that easy? James did say that followers of Christ can have wisdom just by asking: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (james 1:5). It almost sounds too good to be true. There was only one condition—our request for insight must stem from our trust of God (vv. 6-8).

Why would we need wisdom from God? James was writing to people whose faith was being tested (1:2-3). They may have anticipated religious and social persecution. But they may not have foreseen all of the ways they would disappoint and disillusion each other.

Jesus taught His disciples to love one another (john 15:17). Yet, just a few years later, these first followers of Jesus showed that those who belong to Him may not always act like it (james 4:1-2). With prejudice, hurtful words, and outright hypocrisy, the family and friends of Jesus acted like enemies.

In this conflict-filled setting James assured his readers that the wisdom we need is closer than we might think (1:5). But he did more than tell us how to find it; he taught us to recognize a wisdom that comes from “above” rather than from “below” (3:13-17).

What does wisdom from God look like? After writing about prejudice and poverty, James gave his readers a description of the kind of wisdom God gives His people. In the third chapter of his letter he wrote:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy (3:13-17).

James said wisdom from above is . . .

“Pure.” The wisdom from “above” doesn’t mix faith in Christ with self-centered desires (3:14-17; 4:1-3).

The fact that wisdom starts with motive can be startling for those who, in the middle of a conflict, are ready to do anything we can to get what we want. As honorable as it may seem to be ready to do whatever we can to solve a problem, James revealed that the wisdom of God first asks some other questions: Why am I so upset? Where is my heart? What motives am I bringing to this conflict? Is my first intent really to trust Christ and His ability to provide for me?

Only to the extent that our motive is to trust Christ and show His presence in us can we respond to conflict in a way that is genuinely . . .

“Peaceable.” When our hearts resonate with God’s, we long for real peace. Wisdom that enables us to value rightly motivated peace over conflict (1:5) is a gift from God. It is a new ideal that gives birth to wisdom that is…

“Gentle.” In the ancient world, this word was used of kings who used their authority with dignity, forbearance, and appropriate leniency toward their subjects. This is the kind of wisdom that enables subjects of King Jesus to represent His authority with a spirit of kindness.

Gentleness becomes a basis for wisdom that is . . .

“Willing to yield.” A willingness to return good for evil is an expression of strength rather than weakness.

Relying on God, rather than focusing on the one who has hurt us, enables us to work patiently for an outcome that is . . .

“Full of mercy and good fruits.” When our heart is yielded to the wisdom of Christ, we see the value of undeserved kindness while waiting for the fruit of peace. With the insight that comes from God, we give others the space they need. In patience, we give one another time to experience the growing influence of Christ in our own lives.

When we don’t respond to others in a near-sighted and superficial way, we show a wisdom that is…

“Without Partiality.” Earlier in his letter, James wrote about followers of Christ who treated people of wealth and influence better than the poor and needy (2:1-10). But in chapter 3 he says that responding to others without partiality is a way of showing the wisdom and heart of God.

Rising above the influence of wealth, social standing, or appearance enables us to show the presence of Christ so that we may live with a wisdom that is…

“Without Hypocrisy.” This identifying mark of wisdom caps the rest. James used it to celebrate the integrity of the wisdom God wants to give us. In our better moments none of us wants to talk the language of faith while practicing the goals and politics of envy and ambition.

What can we expect from God’s wisdom? James showed that God doesn’t make wisdom easily accessible just to help us get what we want when we want it (1:2-5; 4:1-3). His insights were given to enable us to develop patience and a maturity that is full of the spirit of Christ.

These characteristics may not give us the quick resolution we hope for. But they will give us hearts that are marked by the attitudes of peace rather than the appetites or impulses of war (3:18).