The Wisdom from Above
In the previous article we looked at what James meant when he referred to the wisdom that comes from below. And what of the “wisdom” that comes from God, the wisdom of heaven, the sort of wisdom in accordance with we are to live? Continue reading . . .
In the previous article we looked at what James meant when he referred to the wisdom that comes from below. And what of the “wisdom” that comes from God, the wisdom of heaven, the sort of wisdom in accordance with we are to live?
James describes it in ten ways. But first note the challenge that he issues in James 3:13. It’s as if James says, “O.K., all of you who think you’ve got it all figured out; you who pride yourselves in the expanse of your understanding and insight. Step forward so we can analyze the legitimacy of your claim. You may find yourself to be the object of unwanted and painful scrutiny.” Here’s the text once again:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18).
(1) He tells us in v. 13 that if you are genuinely filled with good and godly wisdom your conduct will show it. Earlier in chapter two James said that the quality of a person’s faith is put on display by the presence of his works. Here James says the same thing about wisdom.
If you have God’s wisdom you should display this by means of “good conduct” (v. 13). I don’t like that translation, as it misses the point of James’ careful selection of terms.
Behavior can be strictly righteous in the sense that the will of God is carefully and meticulously obeyed. But such “obedience” or behavior is hardly appealing. It lacks the joy of spontaneity and delight. It is rarely appealing. So James uses a word (kalos), here translated as “good” to modify or describe the sort of “behavior” that ought to characterize Christians. The word kalos doesn’t simply mean good or righteous or in conformity with a moral standard but instead something along the lines of “attractive” or “morally appealing” or even “beautiful.” When you see a person’s behavior that is “good” in this sense you are drawn to it; it has a quality that is alluring; you find yourself saying, “I want to be like that man or that woman.” There is a joy, a peace, a sense of freedom and satisfaction that characterizes the “works” of this sort of person.
This is the kind of life that is known for humility and gentleness. In other words, a truly “wise” person is the sort who recognizes that arrogance and jealously and selfish ambition ultimately accomplish nothing of eternal value. Wisdom recognizes and embraces that humility is more like Christ, that humility actually achieves more beneficial results than does pride and self-promotion.
(2) The “wisdom from above,” which is to say the sort of wisdom that reflects God’s value system and embraces God’s purposes for this world and your life, is “pure” (v. 17a). That is to say, it leads to purity of life, a life untouched by the sort of immoral behavior that stains the soul. To say it as simply as one can, this sort of person is morally blameless. It isn’t that he/she never sins, but if sin occurs there is instant conviction, confession, and heart-felt repentance.
(3) This “wisdom from above” is “peaceable” (v. 17b). The person who is always looking for a fight, whether with his fists or by means of his words, is devoid of this heavenly wisdom. The person filled with God’s wisdom hates conflict, unless it is in defense of the truth. The man or woman who is always quick to engage in verbal warfare and has a combative spirit is not energized by the wisdom that comes from God. James is appealing to us to turn our energy toward unity and conciliation rather than division and alienation.
Related to the former is the sort of person who is (4) “gentle” and (5) “open to reason” (v. 17c). Heavenly wisdom produces in the heart a considerate and respectful attitude that says to those who disagree with him, “Let’s sit down and talk; I’d love to hear your point of view; help me see the ways that I might be misled or misinformed.” To be “open to reason” is the opposite of being stubborn and unyielding.
It grieves me to say this, but within the past few years there has been a disturbing trend among some younger evangelicals to articulate a vision for what it means to be a “real man.” In their efforts to restore to the church what they believe is “biblical masculinity” they have suggested that a real Christian man will resemble a mixed-martial arts fighter who cusses, smokes, drinks excessively, and bullies his wife under the guise of being a strong leader. Dare I say that James’s perspective is of a different sort!
There is more. When you are filled with and governed by “the wisdom from above” your life will be (6) “full of mercy” and (7) “good fruits”. Your interaction with and evaluation of others will be (8) “impartial” and (9) “sincere.” And your commitment to live in peace and to pursue peace with others will yield (10) “a harvest of righteousness.”
Let me say a few words about this term translated “impartial”. It refers to a person who refuses to make value judgments based on anything other than the principles and truths of God’s Word. In other words, this is the person who takes no note of the color of one’s skin or the size of one’s home or the amount in one’s investment portfolio or the quality of a person’s clothing. The “impartial” person is the one who is devoid, or at least not governed by, prejudice, in whatever form that prejudice might assume.
It doesn’t mean he/she never passes judgment or lacks discernment or the backbone to stand on what he/she believes is true. It simply means this person bases whatever judgments are drawn on the principles of God’s Word.
Now contrast what James has said about how you should identify the presence of heavenly wisdom in a man or woman with how we so often do so today:
“Hey, look over there. Do you see that man? He’s a man of deep and Christ-like wisdom.”
“What? How can you say that? He doesn’t even know how to read Greek? He probably even struggles with English!”
“Yes, but if you spend much time in his presence you’ll notice that there is a sweet aroma surrounding his life. There is an almost tangible beauty in the way he treats others and goes about serving without so much as a twinge of envy or selfish ambition.”
“Yeah, but he never even went to college. And he barely earns above minimum wage. And have you seen that broken down heap of junk he drives. How embarrassing!”
“Well, that may be true, but his life is unmistakably pure. No one has ever accused him of immorality. And he has such a gentle spirit. And although he has strong beliefs about what he thinks is right and wrong, he’s always got the time to listen to what I say, even if it’s a bit crazy.”
“Hold on, now. Are you trying to tell me that this guy who can barely string together a coherent sentence, who couldn’t preach a sermon if his life depended on it, is full of heavenly wisdom? Is that what you’re saying? And how do you know that?”
“Well, I know it because he’s full of mercy and overflowing with the good fruit of the Holy Spirit. And he hasn’t got a prejudicial bone in his body. And if you’ll look closely you’ll see an entire harvest of obedience to God and love for other people that is so very rare in the church today. That’s how I know he’s very, very wise.”