If you could have any of the God-given abilities of people in the Old Testament, who would you want to be like? You could be like Abraham and Sarah and be able to have children at a very old age. That does not sound good. You could be like Moses and part bodies of water. Might make fishing easier but not overly useful. You could be like David and be able to take down really tall people with just a rock. But you would likely get charged. Many a child in Sunday school probably has wanted to be as strong as Samson. But as adults we know we would always get called by friends who want help moving. Probably, the most practical and most desirable gift of a person in the Old Testament is that of the wisdom of Solomon. If only we had more wisdom! Life continually brings challenges to us. We are faced with decisions and problems and we need to know what choice to make. This is an interesting time to be talking about wisdom as we live in the information age. Many people of previous generations were not able to attend university because of distance, finances or not finishing high school. Today, just about anyone can study at a university online. Even if you did not seek a formal education, there is more information available to us today than we could ever take in over a lifetime. The sad fact is that despite the overflow of knowledge available to us, there seems to be a real lack of wisdom in society, especially how the Bible defines it. James is particularly interested in wisdom and his insight is as useful today as it was two thousand years ago.
What Wisdom Does Not Look Like
While wisdom may be lacking, what we do not lack are people who claim to be wise. There are all sorts of people who think they have all the answers and are more than willing to share that with anyone who will listen. It is interesting that we would agree that being wise is something good and desirable. And yet if we hear someone being described as a ‘wise guy‘ we know automatically that it is a negative thing. We naturally understand that there is a wisdom that is not real wisdom. It is shallow, thoughtless, irrelevant and self-seeking. That is not true wisdom. James was very aware of this false wisdom. Notice how James defines false wisdom. His focus is not on a proper understanding of the facts. James understood that a person could have a photographic and encyclopedic memory and yet still not be wise. If is not just having wrong information, what is it that disqualifies some people as wise? The key faults are envy and selfish ambition. Why is it that you want to be wise? Well, I want to be smarter than that guy, I want to be so wise that I can write my own ticket and be whatever I want to be. These would be common motivations to seek wisdom and yet these traits disqualify whatever is attained from being wisdom. Why is that? Wisdom is not something to benefit you but something that makes you a benefit to others. Unfortunately this is a mistake that Solomon made. Solomon was given wisdom by God. True wisdom. But wisdom, like anything, can be transformed and perverted into something completely different. In the beginning, things were going well with Solomon’s wisdom. The wisdom he had was used to make him a good ruler. He built a Temple for the Lord, the first ever Temple for the true God. The nation of Israel was strengthened and became a real power in the region. Solomon used his wisdom to make good judgments when people came to him on legal matters. That sounds like good wisdom. People respected and looked up to Solomon. And Solomon enjoyed being respected and looked up to. Leaders of other nations came to Solomon and Solomon enjoyed the attention. He sent those queens and other leaders home with loads of expensive gifts, not as an act of charity but as a way to make obvious the wealth that he had accumulated. I am sure that Solomon’s own people that were breaking their backs working to produce such wealth would have loved to have shared in it. Solomon made some decisions that privileged his own tribe of Judah and attempted to break the leadership of the other tribes. These decisions would lead to the splitting of the nation not long after Solomon’s death. Solomon gathered much wealth to himself and gathered many wives as well, all despite specific warnings in the Bible to avoid such excess. The result of Solomon’s misuse and ultimate abandonment of wisdom is that his relationship with God fell apart, his family fell apart and his nation fell apart. The envy he had for the glamour of foreign rulers, his selfish ambition that desired power, wealth and respect for himself, completely contaminated the great wisdom that God had given him. Solomon, despite great wisdom in the early years, is an example of what wisdom is not.
What Wisdom Is
So what does true wisdom look like? In the movie Forrest Gump years ago, it was said that “Stupid is as stupid does.” The same could be said of wisdom. Wisdom is as wisdom does. Wisdom is not something that is found in the brain. Wisdom is about living a wise life. James gives us some detail of what that looks like. Wisdom is pure. Nothing may feel pure but where James is going is that it is not something mixed with something else. There is no room for wanting to be wise because wisdom will help gather wealth and will be useful in manipulating people. Wisdom is peace-loving. James is very interested in this because he concludes this section by saying “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Wisdom is vital in attaining peace. Wisdom shows you how to have true peace with people, not a false peace based on ignoring what is bad, nor using knowledge to divide people in unhealthy ways. Wisdom is being able to see the big picture and gathering people in under the things that really matter. Wisdom is considerate. How other people feel matters and you can not just go shooting your mouth off without thinking. Wisdom is submissive. Really? We think of wisdom as a way to get power, but James sees wisdom as a way to be a servant. Wisdom is full of mercy and good fruit. Wisdom is not just how you can get for yourself but how you can give to others. Wisdom is impartial. Being partial means you have already decided the way its going to be and the facts can then be shaped according to that agenda. Being wise means letting go of that agenda. If an atheist is doing something good and your pastor is doing something bad, a wise person will acknowledge the truth and not get stuck with what only feels right. Wisdom is sincere. Wisdom means what it says. It is not a disguise for something else, it is real and truthful. I used Solomon as an example of what wisdom is not, I will use another son of David, this one farther down the family tree, to show what wisdom is. The best example is that of Jesus. That would seem to be obvious. Jesus is God and therefore Jesus is wise. Case closed. Yes, but Jesus actually lived out this wisdom. Since James is the half-brother of Jesus, it would be reasonable that James had Jesus in mind as an example of wisdom. Think about Jesus as God incarnate. He has the power and authority to beat down and humiliate anyone he encountered. In fact there are early fictional accounts of Jesus that imagine what it was like as he was a child and they portray him in just such a way. But that is not how the Gospels describe Jesus. Jesus was pure and considerate. He cared about other people. He did not use his wisdom to hurt people but to help them. Jesus was peace-loving. This requires some comment. Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34 ESV) This does not mean that Jesus came to bring war or that he enjoys conflict. Jesus is saying here that people who follow him will have to make a choice and that choice is going to bring them into conflict with others who reject him. Jesus‘ peace is not a shallow peace where people pretend to get along. Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27 ESV) Jesus is offering real peace. This is peace with God, which leads to peace within ourselves. This also leads to peace with others, but it is peace that is deeper and more substantial than the popular idea. By the way, do you know how Jesus describes peacemakers? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9 ESV) Jesus is merciful. We rely on that mercy daily. Jesus is impartial. It did not matter if a person was a prostitute, a religious leader or a centurion. The truth was the truth without any hidden agenda. Jesus was even submissive. Jesus went to the cross, not because all other options were unavailable, but because he submitted to his Father which meant he submitted to his enemies. Jesus is the great wise man. Wisdom is as wisdom does.
I often hear people say “I need wisdom.” What they really mean is that they want someone to give them the answer to their problem that will give them the best solution. What car to buy, what job to take, what person to marry. That is not actually wisdom, although wisdom would be helpful in making those decisions. Wisdom is actually a lifestyle. It is not just what you think, but what you say, how you say it, why you say it and how you treat people. The scary thing is if we were wiser, we might not recognize our lives. Our priorities and values might be turned upside down. And yet that is exactly what James is asking us to do. Seek wisdom. But seek wisdom that comes from above, wisdom that makes us more Christ-like.