Wisdom


Our generous God

Two words here are a bit old-fashioned. God gives "liberally," which means "generously," and declines to "upbraid" anyone who seeks His favor. "Upbraid" just means "scold."

Why would anyone think that God might scold a man seeking wisdom? Because a human father is capable of being driven to impatience by constant demands from his children. He might even come to feel that they are pestering him. So James reminds us that God’s patience cannot be exhausted by our requests. If we ask Him for wisdom, He will not scold us for bothering Him.


Breadth of wisdom

As a Jew steeped in the writings of the Old Testament, James viewed wisdom as broader in meaning than we do. We think of wisdom as good judgment resting on a deep knowledge of how to achieve the best outcomes in a real world. But the Old Testament expands the concept to every kind of understanding. It says that Bezaleel knew how to craft the tabernacle and its furnishings because God had given him wisdom (Ex. 31:1-6). It says that the wisdom of Solomon was evident in his ability to name and describe all living things and to compose a large body of sayings and songs (1 Kings 4:29-34). His wisdom also took the form of being able to recognize the liar in a difficult court case (I Kings 2:16-28). The creation of the universe, an engineering feat producing a smoothly operating machine of breathtaking size and complexity, is called a work of wisdom (Psa. 136:5). In the Wisdom Literature—Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes—the focus is on moral wisdom, beginning with the fear of God (Prov. 9:10) and flowering in a life of righteousness (Prov. 2:6-9). Yet even in these books wisdom has a larger reach, taking in the advice of a military strategist (Eccles. 9:14–16) and the skill of a craftsman (Prov. 24:3). The proverb just cited doubtless has a secondary reference to building a family and an enduring family line, these also being works that require wisdom.

It is important to allow wisdom a wide sense so that we do not limit the promise in this verse of James. When it says that God will give us wisdom, it means that He will give us any kind of wisdom that we need, even the wisdom to do a job, or to escape from a moment of danger, or to comprehend the world around us.


Requirement for wisdom

To obtain wisdom, all we must do is ask God for it. But notice that to ask for it means that we already have it in some measure. Why? Because the fool does not realize that he needs wisdom (Prov. 1:7). Ignorance carries no mirror. A fool is content with what he already knows, for he supposes that he already knows everything, whereas a man who truly owns some knowledge can see its limits, and he longs to discover what lies beyond. So, both the first requirement and the first discovery in the quest for wisdom are the same—to realize that we need it.

To ask God for wisdom is wise in itself also because we are going to the ultimate source. There is a wisdom of this world, but in God’s eyes it is no better than foolishness (1 Cor. 1:20). Those who seek wisdom from a secular education that ignores God may obtain some specialized knowledge, but they will graduate as narrow technicians deprived of any guidance in how to use their knowledge for God's glory. Moreover, much of what their education presents as knowledge is nothing but an elaborate system of excuses for sin and unbelief.

To obtain wisdom from God is impossible without a right view of the giver. We must fear Him (Prov. 9:10). In other words, we must perceive the consequences of scorning His will. At the core of our being we must have some sense of the bad things we will suffer and the good things we will miss should we displease Him.

The worst tragedy will befall those who displease God even to the extent of refusing salvation in Christ. How awful, how shattering, how devastating will be the eternal outcome! Our Maker sets such high importance on every created thing performing its function that He will discard anything that altogether fails. Should we be surprised at that? What do we do with a pen that no longer writes, or a broken chair, or a worn-out pair of shoes? Do we pack them away in an attic and preserve them in a sort of heaven for useless things? No, we throw them away.

A wholesome fear of God puts us on the path of pleasing Him through our obedience and love. It is the path of wisdom for two reasons: (1) by requiring a traveler to negotiate many difficulties, it teaches great spiritual understanding, and (2) it leads to places that a wise traveler wants to find—places of great spiritual blessing.


Equality of saints

One of the principal themes of James is introduced in this verse. The Jews had great respect for their rabbis, who were highly trained in the Scriptures, and they viewed them as on a higher plane of wisdom than ordinary men. Yet James challenges this sort of elitism. Wisdom, he says, is available to "any of you." In their capacity to obtain the wisdom they need, all believers are absolutely equal, although some may be able to advance farther in wisdom less needful. Even the humblest member of the church can become a wise man and enjoy a deserved reputation for being wise. The wisdom that can be attained by every believer who lets his mind be molded by the Spirit of God is so great that Paul was willing for the "least esteemed in the church" to judge matters that otherwise would go to a court of law (1 Cor. 6:1-4).


Self-Test


Measure whether you are appropriating all the wisdom God wishes to give you.


1. Do I humbly recognize my need for wisdom, or am I a know-it-all?


Do I voice a loud opinion on every question, or do I readily admit my ignorance whenever a question exceeds my competence?

New teachers are tempted to pretend they know everything. When a student catches them in a mistake, they are embarrassed, and may even try to defend their mistake as truly correct. But to pose as perfect does not enhance anyone’s credibility. Older teachers have learned by experience that it is far better to admit being wrong. In years past, I have offered students extra credit if they could spot an error in anything I wrote on the board.


2. Am I a good listener?


From time to time I attempt conversation with someone who wants to do all the talking. He tells me about all his troubles past, present, and future, or, if he feels upbeat, about all his accomplishments past, present, and future. As he rambles on, he lets me speak hardly a word. Never does he inquire about my experience in life or my opinions. I always walk away scratching my head, wondering how that person ever managed to learn anything. He seemed to have no interest whatever in acquiring new information.

Some people try to dominate conversation because they are insecure and talking is a way of seeking others’ approval. But more often, refusal to keep silent long enough to listen is simply an outgrowth of a vanity void of wisdom. True wisdom sets a high priority on drawing out the wisdom of others.


3. Where do I get my opinions?


Do you get them from your family background, from the prejudices of your class and culture, from what you learned in school, from the latest talk show, from your own free-wheeling guesses—or, do you get them from the Word of God? If they are truly based on the Word of God, they are not really opinions. They are reliable wisdom (Ps. 1:1–2).

Today there is much confusion about a man’s role and a woman’s role, about how to conduct a marriage, about how to rear children. You are wise if you discount everything you hear from contemporary media and rely instead on guidance from the Bible.


4. When I meet a problem in life, how do I react?


Do you conceive a plan of attack in your own mind and then go forward, relying on human might and cleverness? Do you employ the arm of flesh? Do you try to make things happen by pushing people and tinkering with circumstances? Or do you first go to God and seek His guidance? When Joshua failed to consult God before making a treaty with the Gibeonites, he gave away valuable land that God had wanted the Israelites to possess (Josh. 9).

In one of our moving adventures, I drove our van into a rest area and parked it on what seemed like level pavement. When I returned, I found that the van had rolled down a hill into a fence. If I had been talking to the Lord all along, He would have advised me to set the parking brake.


5. Do I seek divine wisdom for every problem, small or great, spiritual or practical?


Do you appreciate what a wonderful resource you have at your disposal? Divine wisdom is available for every problem that arises, whether a broken pipe or a stain in the carpet, whether an unruly child or a disagreeable neighbor, whether a sickness or a shortage of money, whether a family crisis or a crisis in the church. From God we can obtain wisdom equal to every challenge.

Every man knows how frustrating it is to tackle some fix-it job around the house and have everything go wrong. How should he react? Instead of fuming and flaring up at his wife, who for some reason always wants to peek over his shoulder just when the work is falling apart, he should stop and ask God for wisdom. God is always available to give practical pointers.


6. Do past failures make me shy of asking God for wisdom in the present?


Are you afraid that your many mistakes have removed you so far from God that He will turn a deaf ear to your plea? Remember, He "upbraideth not." He will not shun you or scold you if you go to Him with a humble heart. Indeed, if your heart is right, He will rejoice to meet your need for wisdom or for anything else.


7. Do I fear God? When I look down the road of some wrong choice, does it make me tremble, or do I feel safe from any consequences?


Whether sin frightens you is a pretty good test of whether you really know the God of the Bible.

When you happen to see a provocative woman, or when you notice an easy way to cheat on your income tax, or when you feel like wagging your tongue about someone in the church or complaining about some circumstance God has allowed in your life, do you tremble at the consequences of yielding to temptation?


8. Do I regard Bible study as the special province of pastors and Christian workers, or do I accept responsibility to study the Bible myself, so that I might have a wisdom in no way inferior to theirs?


Every layman should read the Bible both in personal and family devotions, and he should take time for additional Bible study. Moreover, he should read good books about the Bible. In my father’s day, many laymen in the church had a shelf of commentaries and Bible study resources at home, and many had experience in preparing both lessons and sermons.

Toward the end of my father’s life, his habit in the evening was to take out a volume of The International Standard Bible Enclyclopaedia (better known as ISBE) with the intent of reading it until bedtime. But generally after a while he fell asleep. Then when some internal alarm told him that bedtime had arrived, he suddenly woke up and said, "That was sure interesting." I tell this story because it shows the heart of many men in my father’s generation. They loved to study the Bible.

Study Questions

  1. What does God promise if we seek wisdom?
  2. What does the concept of wisdom include?
  3. What is the sole requirement to obtain wisdom?
  4. Yet what must we have before we desire wisdom?
  5. What is not real wisdom?
  6. What is the beginning of wisdom?
  7. What is the danger in continuing in foolishness?
  8. To whom is wisdom available?
  9. What standard does Paul set for wisdom?

Further Reading


If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.