Wisdom from Above
Attributes of true wisdom
After warning us against false wisdom, James undertakes a full description of the kind of wisdom we should seek. Wisdom deriving from above rather than from this sinful world has eight attributes.
The first attribute is purity (v. 17). The virtue James intends is not limited to sexual purity, but is purity in a broader sense, referring to freedom from all evil motives. A wise man must not use his brainpower for wicked purposes.
A common figure in popular entertainment is the evil genius, or criminal mastermind. But I have never met a real-world specimen either in my own experience or in the daily news. As a breed, criminals are uncommonly dumb. That is why jails are overcrowded with people wasting the best years of their lives.
Yet it is possible to use wisdom as a tool for taking advantage of other people. A clever salesman can sell worthless products. A sharp politician can manipulate public opinion to gain support for unjust policies. A skillful teacher of false religion can speak impressive words that entice people away from the truth (2 Pet. 2:18-19).
Our supreme example of pure wisdom is Christ. A few years after Jesus died, God sent Peter to the city of Caesarea, where Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and a group of his friends and relatives were waiting to hear the gospel. Never before had the church sought to win Gentiles. In his message (Acts 10:34-38), Peter took it for granted that his hearers were already familiar with Jesus' life and ministry. He confidently stated, without any fear of contradiction, that Jesus had devoted Himself to helping the needy. It is evident that His good works were so outstanding that the common people saw them, not anything evil, as the hallmark of His career. Thus, the wisdom shaping His choices must have been pure and, by James’s standard, from above.
Secondly, true wisdom is peaceable (v. 17). Earthly wisdom engenders strife (vv. 14-16). When Paul lists the works of the flesh, he gives prominence to strife in various forms: variance (heated debate), emulations (rivalries), wrath, strife, seditions (dissensions), heresies (schisms), and envyings (Gal. 5:19–21). When someone thinks he has the correct opinion on some issue, he is tempted to argue with anyone who voices a different opinion. That is human nature, and human nature will have its way unless restrained by humility. But a good rule throughout life is, never argue. In any argument, you are either right or wrong. If you are wrong, you should not expose your ignorance. If you are right, the truth will survive whether or not you defend it. Even if you are trying to convince someone to believe God or to do His will, you accomplish nothing by arguing. As soon as you encounter unyielding resistance, you should back off, recognizing that the working of the Spirit will be more effective than your words.
Thirdly, true wisdom is gentle (v. 17). Time after time, the New Testament gives gentleness as a mark of Christian leadership (2 Cor. 10:1, of Christ; 1 Thess. 2:7, of Paul; Titus 3:2, of all in leadership). One responsibility of leaders is to rebuke any brother who has gone astray. Yet they must deal with him gently, for that is the way of true wisdom (2 Tim. 2:24-26; Gal. 6:1). As the old saying reminds us, "It is easier to catch a fly with honey than with vinegar." If you confront a brother who has fallen into sin or foolish ideas, your purpose is not to antagonize him, but to win him over. Therefore, you avoid exaggerating his guilt. You use pleas rather than threats. You speak kindly, not roughly. You keep a caring face. The visible emotion should be love rather than anger or rejection. If you attack him, he will raise his defenses higher and entrench himself deeper in disobedience. Instead you must present yourself as his ally and friend, so that he will lower his defenses.
The same tactics should be used in the home. When differences arise, we should seek to overcome them not with heated argument, but with gentle persuasion.
Openness to entreaty
Fourthly, true wisdom is "easy to be entreated" (v. 17). That means "easy to approach" or "easy to talk to." An entreatable person is a good listener. He readily cooperates with reasonable requests. If you disagree with him, he is open to good arguments, and he is capable of changing his mind if he is wrong. He does not resent criticism, and if it is fair, he takes it to heart. In all practical matters, though not in matters of principle—in other words, in all matters of convenience rather than conscience—he is flexible. James says that flexibility in this sense comes with true wisdom.
As you get older, you must be careful to remain entreatable. An older person who refuses to consider advice is a sore trial to his family. If God grants you a long life, the time will come when you should no longer drive. But you may feel as capable then as ever before. So, when your children think you should stop, you had better listen to them. One reason my wife and I had a good relationship with my mother, who lived with us for many years, is that she remained flexible. For example, in her 80's she was still using her own car, but after a few episodes of passing out at home, I told her that she needed to give up driving, and she accepted my advice graciously.
Fifthly, true wisdom is full of mercy (v. 17). One aspect of intelligence is the ability to spot flaws in the thinking and work of other people. Unless tempered by mercy, an intelligent mind can be severely critical. I had an English teacher in high school who fancied himself to be a literary critic of the first rank. When he graded my essays, he covered them with red ink, showing every minute imperfection, real or imagined. It was a good learning experience for me, I suppose. But when he solemnly pronounced that I would never be a writer, he went well beyond his proper role as a teacher. He made me so afraid of his criticism that I developed a terrific case of writer’s block in his class. I managed to get an A only because he did not like anyone else’s writing either. His problem? He had no mercy. His ability to pulverize students reinforced his self-esteem as an intellectual. I knew many people like him in the academic world—people who validated themselves by tearing others apart.
But the wisdom of a godly man is merciful. In at least four respects, his mercy is outstanding.
- He gives criticism only when appropriate. Perhaps his role requires it. For example, a teacher or parent must sometimes find fault with his children. It is not generally my place to criticize somebody else’s children, however. Criticism is also appropriate if it is necessary to save someone from harming himself, whether through sin or carelessness. If I see someone about to step in front of a coming car, I will shout at him to stop. If I find a Christian brother looking at pornography, I will exhort him to throw it away and repent of his sin.
- He sets a realistic standard. It is unrealistic if he faults a toddler for not tying his shoes or a teenager for not wanting to live with his nose to the grindstone, forever deprived of any fun.
- He does not exaggerate. If the children are raising a commotion in the bedroom, he tells them to quiet down. He does not accuse them of having a bad attitude. And he does not tell them that they never do right. Be careful of terms like "never" and "always" when you criticize. Keep your focus on the problem now. Forget about yesterday.
- He balances criticism with praise whenever possible. If you feed a child nothing but criticism—if you never have anything good to say about him—you will crush his spirit. Out of despair he will give up trying to cope with the demands of life, and he will sink into chronic failure.
Sixthly, true wisdom bears "good fruits" (v. 17). The natural tendency of a wise man is to sit and think rather than go out and do. It is not exaggeration to say that thinkers as a group are prone to laziness. But you cannot be an ivory-tower Christian, forever meditating on the finer points of theology. When you stand someday before God in judgment, He will reward you not according to your intelligence, but according to your righteousness. Therefore, a wise man will devote himself to doing good.
The seventh property of true wisdom is lack of partiality (v. 17). It is human nature to prefer associating with people like oneself. Another old saying is, "Birds of a feather flock together." Someone that the world labels "wise" or "smart" is no different. He prefers the companionship of people tagged in the same way, for he expects them to appreciate just how clever he is. He wants friends who will applaud his wit whenever he wishes to flaunt it and who will stroke his ego whenever he feels insecure about his smartness.
What does the Bible say to people who think themselves wise? "Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him" (Prov. 26:12). If you have some knowledge or sophistication, do not take yourself too seriously. You are not as wise as you think. Moreover, "Condescend to [keep company with] men of low estate" (Rom. 12:16). Do not be snobbish. Do not give all your attention to those you consider your equals. Indeed, be friendly to everyone in the church.
Lack of hypocrisy
The eighth and last property of true wisdom is lack of hypocrisy (v. 17). A wise man can use his intellectual skills in the service of error and evil as well as truth and righteousness. Remember Balaam? Here was a man with such a reputation for wisdom that kings sought his counsel. The Moabites summoned him to curse the nation of Israel, but when God forbade him to cooperate and instead required that he bless the nation, he was disappointed. He did not want to lose the gold and great riches that the Moabites offered him in return for his help. Therefore, after pronouncing the blessing God wanted, he counseled the Moabites that the only way to defeat Israel was to draw its people into idolatry and immorality. The result would be that God Himself would destroy Israel. The strategy almost worked. Moabite women enticed thousands of Israelites to commit sin, and God slew the sinners by means of a plague. Yet the leaders of Israel took a stand for righteousness, and for their sake God spared the nation. When He later directed the nation to take vengeance on Moab, they slew all but the youngest girls. Among the casualties was Balaam the prophet. His downfall was the result of hypocrisy. He pretended to be a prophet of God, yet he set a price on his wisdom and sold it to those seeking an advantage against the people of God.
How do we remember Balaam? Three times the New Testament refers to him as the prototype of every false prophet (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14). A false prophet is a man who pretends to be a spokesman for God but who serves only his own greed. His wisdom is earthly, sensual, devilish.
True wisdom from above never conceals wicked designs under a mask of piety. Jesus, the man perfect in true wisdom, was unique in being totally the same inside and outside. He never presented a false face to those around Him. The unifying theme of both His public and private character was the determination to do His Father’s will (John 6:38).
James concludes his description of true wisdom by returning to perhaps its most distinctive mark—peaceableness (v. 18). A clearer translation is, "But the fruit of righteousness in peace is sown for those that make peace." He evidently means that through their peacemaking, the peacemakers sow fruit that they themselves will enjoy. That fruit is the opportunity to live righteously in an environment of peace, without the perpetual antagonism and persecution that makes a life of righteousness difficult. James is recalling Jesus’ beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). Jesus implies that by building peace in our fallen world, the righteous will earn great respect, to the extent that fellowmen enjoying the peace will call them the children of God. The result will be, as James affirms, that the righteous themselves will be allowed to live in peace.