Wisdom is not a mere matching quiz between biblical principles and life situations. Biblical wisdom is the embodiment of God’s character carrying out God’s agenda redemptively in a broken world. Intelligence is no big advantage to obtaining this kind of wisdom. It is as accessible to the simple as it is the brilliant. The power of this wisdom can be unleashed by the poor as much as it can the rich, by those with little social influence as much as the social elites.
Passage – James 3:13-18
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Imagine you’re in a group for overcoming anger. The group facilitator starts your meeting with the question, “Who is the strongest person in the world?” A few people roll their eyes at this hokey ice breaker, but still participate. Some do a quick web search for famous weightlifters and offer a few names. For a laugh, someone guesses Jesus. As a longshot, someone else guesses the current most famous athlete. The group leader doesn’t seem satisfied with any of the answers.
Once no one else has a guess, the leader says, “The person who can control their tongue.” The leader is defining power as the ability to curtail destruction and identifying the tongue as the source of the most life disruption. That is, in effect, what James does in this passage. He is going to redefine a key term: wisdom. In James 1:5, we were asked to pray for wisdom. In these verses, we will learn a lot more about what we should expect to happen within us as God answers our prayer.
What Is Wisdom? (vs. 13)
James starts this section of his letter by asking the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” We read this question and begin looking for valedictorians or someone with a Ph.D. James says, “That’s not what I’m talking about.” In effect, James says, “I’m not looking for a high IQ – intelligence quotient. I’m looking for a high CQ – character quotient.”
James defines wisdom as the ability to live in God’s world in a way that represents God accurately. James is going to help us see that the best way to measure biblical wisdom isn’t with a theology quiz but with a character assessment.
The wise person is the one who displays good conduct and meekness – power under control – even in hard times (v. 13). When situations are dicey, the wise person doesn’t acquiesce to a “survival of the fittest and shrewdest” mindset. The biblically wise person maintains a focus being an accurate ambassador of God’s character and agenda for that moment (2 Cor. 5:20).
In might be easy to miss that James is returning to theme that faith must be expressed in tangible actions to be genuine (v. 13). In this case, the “work” of faith is a disposition. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that being wise is only about having right answers to hard questions and miss, as James is teaching, that wisdom is also about maintaining virtuous character in hard times.
Let’s contextualize this point for the original readers of this letter.