Seek after Wisdom!
The Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, exhorts us repeatedly to seek wisdom (Prov. 1:1-7; 2:1-9; 3:13-26; 5:1-2; Eccles. 2:13; Matt. 7:24; Col. 1:9; 3:16), and it promises that if we seek it from God, He will provide it (James 1:5-8). But what is it that we should seek? What exactly is wisdom? It might be defined in various ways: as a delicious blend of knowledge and common sense with a sauce of spiritual insight, as shrewdness in the service of good moral judgment, as native intelligence with a cutting edge honed by the Bible. However we define it, we all need it, but we all face the same barrier to attaining it. The barrier is, we think we are wise already (Prov. 21:2). We all without exception attach a great deal of weight to our own opinions and a great deal of doubt to everyone else's. But the Biblical writer James cautions us that there is a true wisdom and a false wisdom. Before we boast in our wisdom, we had better test what kind it is.
In chapter 3 of his epistle, James defines true wisdom by listing its nine distinctive properties. It is, first of all, meek (v. 13). False wisdom—the kind that is earthly, sensual, and devilish (v. 15)—consists of knowledge that puffs up, creating pride. It is therefore an incomplete knowledge, lacking a realistic knowledge of self. We really know very little if we think we are something wonderful and important. True wisdom starts with an understanding that we are nothing. Before God, we are much worse than nothing, for, as deliberate rebels against His law and His will, we are wretched sinners, unworthy to receive any of the good things He has created. With a sense of sin and unworthiness in ourselves comes a fear of God, recognizing that He has every right to bring His wrath upon us and to deprive us of eternal life in His presence. This kind of self-knowledge is the foundation of true wisdom (Prov. 1:7). You have to know yourself before you can know anything else.
Because true wisdom is not proud, it is not pushy. It is not always seeking to correct the stupidity of others (Prov. 12:23; 17:27-28; 29:11).
Of course, it is not wrong to assume a role of teaching others, if that role comes to us as a responsibility (we teach the gospel to the lost; we teach our own children; etc.). Nor is it ever inappropriate to answer someone's questions, or to provide information to someone who is seeking truth. But we do not parade our wisdom or force it on others. What did Jesus do? When challenged by His enemies, He frequently chose to evade the question rather than get into an unprofitable dispute. Frequently, He just kept silent (Matt. 21:23-27).
The second attribute of true wisdom is purity (v. 17). This is not just sexual purity, but purity in the broader sense of 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. In my life, I have not met either one, neither in my own experience nor 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 He 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 after he arrived (Acts 10:36-38), Peter took it for granted that his hearers were already familiar with the life and ministry of Christ. Moreover, he stated with confidence that even among the masses who did not become His disciples, Jesus had a reputation for doing good. Therefore, His wisdom was pure, because it was devoted to good works, not evil.
The third mark of true wisdom is that it is peaceable (v. 17). Earthly wisdom engenders strife (vv. 14-16). Strife and contention are prominent in Paul's list of fleshly works (Gal. 5:19-21). When we think we have the correct opinion on some issue, we are 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 in God or to do His will, you accomplish nothing by arguing. As soon as you encounter unyielding resistance, you should back off, heeding Jesus' advice in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:6).
Notice Jesus' example. He could have avoided conflict with the Pharisees only by telling them what they wanted to hear. But He never stooped to compromise. Rather, He was always blunt in telling them the truth. He even called them a generation of vipers (Matt. 23:33), and He compared them with whitened sepulchres—pretty on the outside but full of dead men's bones (Matt. 23:27). Yet when they sought to engage Him in debate, He refused. He dismissed their arguments in a few words spotlighting the fallacies in their thinking, and He said no more.
A few days before His death, His enemies attacked Him with trick questions. In answering each one, He declined to argue. Instead, He silenced them with a few well-chosen words, leaving them dumbfounded (Matt. 22:17-22, etc.). As God in the flesh, He was able to speak the truth with such cogency that no man could answer Him, and with such economy that no man could fail to follow and remember His words.
True wisdom is also gentle (v. 17). Time after time, the New Testament names 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 spiritual leaders is to rebuke any brother who has gone astray. Yet they must deal with him gently, for this is the way of true wisdom (2 Tim. 2:24-26; Gal. 6:1). As the old saying recommends, 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 sweet voice and 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.
The Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry show that He was not always gentle. His denunciations of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and elsewhere are harsh, full of biting sarcasm. Without mincing words, He condemned them to hell (Matt. 23:33). Yet He was always perfectly gentle to anyone who came to Him for help or for instruction, or to anyone He expected would respond with faith and love. The story of the woman taken in adultery provides a good example. He could have scolded her for her immoral conduct. He could have pointed out all the dire consequences of her sin. But instead, all He spoke were gentle words. "Neither do I condemn thee; sin no more" (John 8:1-11). Likewise, in His dealings with the Samaritan woman, He might have attacked the peculiar beliefs of her people (they denied that Jerusalem was the Holy City, for example), or He might have confronted her with the details of her sordid past (she had been married five times and was living out of wedlock with a sixth man). Instead, Jesus gently prodded her to tell the truth about herself, and when she confessed that she had no husband, He lovingly revealed that He was the Christ (John 4:1-20).
True wisdom is easy to entreat (v. 17). That means "easy to approach," "easy to talk to." An entreatable person is a good listener. He readily cooperates with reasonable requests. If others 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.
Because Jesus is God, He could not be entreatable in the same way we should be entreatable. He was always right. Therefore, to bring Him any just criticism or complaint was impossible. He was never obliged to change His mind or behavior. Nevertheless, He was always entreatable in the sense of cooperating with requests for help. In this respect, He showed the heart of God, for God is always willing to answer our prayers for good things. All who came to Jesus for healing found Him willing, although He sometimes tested their faith by making them persist in their request (Mark 10:46-52; Matt. 15:21-28). Frequently He did not yield to people who were urging Him to act as they desired, according to their judgment. Their judgment was human and fallible while His was divine. On one occasion, His brothers wanted Him to go up immediately to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2-9). He refused. But His refusal was not a sign of stubbornness or unreasonableness or self-will. He simply knew best.
As we get older, we must be careful to remain entreatable. An older person who refuses to consider advice can become a sore trial to his family. The time will come when we should no longer drive. If our children think we should stop, we had better listen to them. My mother lived with us for many years. One reason we had a good relationship with her is that she remained flexible. For example, she continued driving into her 80s, 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.
The time may come when we will no longer be able to take care of ourselves at home. The best judges of when we should seek a different situation may be our children. There was a lady in one of our previous churches who continued to live alone long after her friends and family advised her to live with relatives. She was able to manage her affairs only by depending on the assistance of another older lady in the church. This was a wonderful woman who could never refuse a request for help, even though she herself was getting too old for the burden of taking care of someone else. One day when she was driving the other lady around town, she had an accident and was killed. The other lady, the one who lived alone, was hurt just badly enough that she had no choice but to go and live with relatives. How much better if she had left her home sooner!
My sister Carolyn has often said, "As we get older, there are two things we must do to stay young. First, we must always be willing to get down on the floor and play with the little ones. Second, we must always listen to the advice of our children." What she meant was that we must never get so set in our ways that we refuse to change.
A sixth attribute of true wisdom is that it is merciful (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. The truth is that because I was afraid of his criticism, 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.
- He gives criticism only when appropriate. His role may require 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.
- To be merciful also means to set a realistic standard. You can't fault 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.
- It also means you don't exaggerate. If the children are raising a commotion in the bedroom, you tell them to quiet down. You don't accuse them of having a bad attitude. And you don't 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.
- Finally, to be merciful in criticism means that you balance criticism with praise whenever possible. To uphold fairness and mercy, a typical Christian school requires that teachers say something positive on every grade report and in every parent-teacher conference. 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 give up trying to cope with the demands of life, and he will sink into chronic failure.
Jesus was always merciful. In His wisdom He knew the hearts of men. Yet He did not go about collaring sinners and denouncing all their sins. No, He gave them whatever help they needed. Mercy governed His conduct. One of the virtues He always recommended was mercy (Matt. 5:7). He said that if we were not merciful to others, God would not be merciful to us.
Seventhly, true wisdom bears much fruit (v. 17). The natural tendency for a wise man is to sit and think rather than go out and do. I might go so far as 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 we stand someday before God in judgment, He will reward us not according to the intelligence of our thoughts, but according to the righteousness of our deeds. Therefore, a wise man will devote himself to doing good. A cup of cold water to the thirsty is worth far more than a book of arguments relevant to some current debate.
Preachers are not exempt from the temptation to just sit and think. Study and sermon preparation can easily become so time-consuming that they cause neglect of practical outreach. Therefore, Paul warns Timothy and all others in the role of shepherding a flock, "Do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5). The wisest man of all, Christ, certainly devoted Himself to good works. Each of us who believes is the fruit of His labor.
The eighth property of true wisdom is lack of partiality (v. 17). It is human nature to prefer associating with people like yourself. As they say, "Birds of a feather flock together." Someone that the world labels "wise" or "smart" is no different. He prefers the companionship of other people tagged in the same way, for he expects that they will 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 (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, do not be conceited or snobbish (Rom. 12:16). Do not give all your attention to those you consider your equals. Condescend also to men of low estate. Indeed, be friendly to everyone in the church. The only really wise man, Jesus, reached out to every needy soul. He showed no preference for the powerful, the learned, or the outwardly religious. Indeed, He thanked the Father that His teaching was well received by ordinary people (Matt. 11:25).
The 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 hired him to curse the nation of Israel, but when God forbade him to do this 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 in return for his help. Therefore, after pronouncing the blessing that 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 those killed 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. 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 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).
Wisdom of Christ
The wisdom of Christ serves as a model for us not only in its characteristics, but also in its source. How did Jesus attain perfect wisdom? Was it simply the wisdom inherent in His deity? As the Son, the second person of the Trinity, He was endowed with omniscience, embracing every kind of wisdom and knowledge. Yet when the Son descended to this world, He voluntarily emptied Himself of all His divine powers so that He could become a genuine man. He did not give up the possession of His divine attributes, merely their exercise. As a man, He still had access to infinite knowledge, yet He unplugged His mind from that knowledge without relinquishing the ability to reconnect them. That is, He chose not to be aware of what He Himself knew, just as He chose not to wield His infinite power. Then where did the wisdom of Christ come from? Whatever supernatural knowledge Christ had came from two sources:
- His own perfection as a sinless man with a body conceived by the Holy Spirit. He had a perfect mind. Unlike ours, His thinking was never clouded by sin. Thus, His native intellect far exceeded that of all other people who have ever lived except perhaps Adam and Eve.
- The Holy Spirit. Speaking of Christ, Isaiah said, "And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD" (Isa. 11:2). The Bible makes it clear that the Holy Spirit also gave Him the ability to do miracles (Luke 4:18). His mighty works displayed not His own divine power, but the Spirit's divine power. Likewise, His wisdom came from the Spirit.
Why did He restrain His own power and wisdom and instead rely on the Spirit? His intent was to set an example for us. As Jesus did, we also should rely on the Holy Spirit for the power and wisdom we need to carry out the work of God. He is our helper and enabler. Without Him we can do nothing of eternal value. With His help, there is no limit on what we can achieve (John 14:12).
What kind of man was Stephen, the first martyr of the church? He was full of the Holy Ghost (Acts 6:5). The result was that he had extraordinary power (v. 8) and wisdom (v. 10).