The book of James is often considered the proverbs of the New Testament because of the wisdom it contains. In my last few posts I’ve shared several insights from James on problems, temptation, taking action, and words. Today, I want to look at How to Become Wise.
Bill Cosby once said, “A word to the wise ain’t necessary; it’s the stupid ones who need the advice.” While there’s some humor in that quote, even the wise understand the importance of lifelong learning, coaching, and personal application.
James begins with a question his observations on wisdom with a question: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13) In the Old Testament, wisdom was considered to be the most valuable possession a person could have. In fact, in 1 Kings 3, we read the story of King Solomon having a dream one night where God said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Rather than asking for wealth, power, or possessions, Solomon said:
“So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours. (1 Kings 3:9)
And God responded to Solomon’s request:
“…I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both riches and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” (1 Kings 3:12-14)
Wisdom was a big deal to the Hebrews. It was far more than knowledge. It was much more than information or instruction. At it’s core, wisdom was behavioral. The Jews believed wisdom to be the skill of living righteously. The focus wasn’t knowledge of the truth but rather application of the truth.
In his book, The Divine Mentor, Wayne Cordeiro observes that wisdom is a higher form of knowledge. He compares it to sodium. Sodium in its raw form can be destructive. But when it’s converted into sodium chloride, or table salt, it is beneficial. Knowledge is the same way. It was never meant to be an end in itself. Knowledge must be converted into a higher form–wisdom–before it becomes truly beneficial to us.
Jesus understood that wisdom was greater than knowledge when he said:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)
Who did Jesus say is wise? Not the person who hears the truth, but the person who puts it into practice. When James said, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he was asking, “Who among you is skilled in living righteously?”
From his opening question, James begins a comparison between two types of wisdom. He compares True Wisdom and False Wisdom. He contrasts Godly wisdom and ungodly wisdom. And from this comparison we discover three ways to become wise.
1. Choose the Source of Your Wisdom
As James begins his comparison, he starts with the source of these two kinds of wisdom. The Source of True Wisdom is “Heaven.” Verse 17 says, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven…” This is a direct reference to a Person (God) more than a place (heaven). So what else does the Bible say about the source of true wisdom?
- Christ is the Source of True Wisdom – Colossians 2:3 says, “…that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” And 1 Corinthians 1:30 says, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”
- The Bible is the Source of True Wisdom – 2 Timothy 3:14-15 says, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
- Prayer Gives Us Access to True Wisdom – Finally, James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”
In the same way True Wisdom has a source, so does false wisdom. James 3:14-15 says, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” Notice what James says about the source of false wisdom. He says its:
- Earthly – In other words, false wisdom is confined to the present world and is restricted to the ideas and theories of people.
- Unspiritual – It’s wisdom that’s corrupted by man’s fallen sinful nature.
- Of the Devil – It’s ultimately rooted in Satan himself.
When you compare the source of false wisdom with the source of true wisdom, the choice seems obvious. But when it comes to the actual application of wisdom, the choice isn’t so easy. Why? Because false wisdom is our natural default response to life, whereas true wisdom requires faith. It requires faith in God. It requires faith in His Word. And it requires faith when God’s wisdom doesn’t even seem to make sense. That “faith” tension is why so many times we end up falling on the “false wisdom” side of things.
2. Practice the Application of Wisdom
You can apply false wisdom or you can apply true wisdom. The choice is up to you. Look at what happens when you apply false wisdom. According to James 3:14, false wisdom has four characteristics: bitter envy, selfish ambition, pride, and lies. James said, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.”
But look at what James says about the application of true wisdom.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. (James 3:13)
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)
According to these verses, True Wisdom is applied in three ways:
- Living a Good Life – Verse 13 says, “Let him show it [wisdom] by his good life…” But then James gives specific examples of a good life in verse 17. A good life is peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, and sincere.
- Doing Good Deeds – Verse 13 continues, “Let him show it [wisdom] by his good life, by deeds…” Then James gives specific examples of good deeds in verse 17. Good deeds include being full of good fruit and being impartial (or treating people without favoritism).
- Being Humble – Verse 13 finishes, “Let him show it [wisdom] by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Then he gives a specific example in verse 17 when he mentions purity. Purity refers to the motive behind Godly Wisdom.
When we live good and do good out of a spirit of humility, we show evidence of true wisdom. Think about it…people who live good and do good out of pride and ego do nothing but repel us. But humility actually causes us to respect and appreciate a person more. A great example of this is Sir Edmund Hillary.
In his book, Humilitas, John Dickson shares the story of Sir Edmund Hillary’s extraordinary feat of conquering Mount Everest in 1953. In the years that followed this incredible accomplishment, Hillary was honored in several ways:
- In 1953 he was knighted.
- In 1985 Hilary became New Zealand’s high commissioner to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
- In 1995 he received the Order of the Garter, the highest award of the British realm.
- With his influence Hillary gave back to the people of Nepal by building hospitals, airfields, and schools.
With such accolades, most people would find it difficult to exhibit humility. In fact, most people wouldn’t even try to pursue humility. Why would they? Pride is addictive. But Sir Edmund Hillary resisted the lure of ego.
One example of his humility is seen in a trip he took back to the Himalayas. On his trip, a group of tourists spotted Hillary and begged him for a photo. Hillary graciously agreed and took his place in the photo, holding an ice pick in his hand. As they prepared to take the photo, another climber came up to Hillary and said, “Excuse me, that’s not how you hold an ice pick. Let me show you.” The climber had no idea who he was talking to.
The tourists were stunned, but Hillary wasn’t shaken in the least. He simply responded by thanking the man as the climber adjusted the pick in Hillary’s hand. Humility reinforces the application of knowledge and reveals true wisdom at work.
3. Keep Wisdom’s Outcome in Focus
So what is the outcome of true wisdom vs. false wisdom? The outcome of false wisdom is found in James 3:16:
For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
“Disorder” means to be unstable and double-minded. This is a common theme that James refers to throughout his letter. He mentioned it in chapter one when he talked about a double-minded man being unstable in all his ways, and he referred to it again when he talked about the tongue having a split personality. “Every evil practice” is literally a broad categorization that implies nothing good coming from false wisdom.
True wisdom, on the other hand, has a different outcome: Peace and Righteousness. James 3:18 says,
Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
James is saying that peace and righteousness happen through the process of sowing and reaping. In other words, when we embrace true wisdom, we sow seeds of peace in our relationships with people, which ultimately produce righteousness.
In his book, Making Life Work, pastor Bill Hybels tells a story that I believe captures the three ingredients to becoming wise. When Hybels first became a Christian, an older gentleman challenged Bill to begin reading from Proverbs everyday. This was a practice Bill engaged in for the first ten years of his walk with Christ.
During Bill’s early college years, he struggled with a particular sin that he would soon regret. After God led Bill out of the marketplace and into youth ministry, he described this embarrassing part of his past with a Christian man who he though he could trust.
Two weeks later, Bill found himself sitting in his ministry director’s office as he tried to explain what really happened. This so called “friend” had broken Bill’s trust and divulged everything–even exaggerated things–to Bill’s ministry director as well as a few students in his youth ministry. Thankfully Hybel’s ministry director had the wisdom and grace to handle the situation appropriately.
Bill tried to contact the man but he refused to talk. Bill was hurt and angry. He had some dirt on this man that he could have easily used to retaliate. Bill said, “How could I get around God’s wisdom? I had read Proverbs 16:7 a hundred times: ‘When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him’…My first big test of God’s wisdom was whether God could bring peace into this hostile situation.”
Many years later Bill received a phone call from the man who asked to meet with him at a local restaurant. As they sat down for lunch, the man said:
“God has broken me. I have sinned against you so badly. I exaggerated the truth, created falsehoods and tried to destroy you for reasons I don’t even understand, but I know they were dark. God has convicted me of this, and I’ve gone back to every person I spread those lies to, and I’ve told them the truth—that you were an honorable man.” Then he reached his hand across the table and said, “Will you forgive me?”
As Bill drove home from that meeting, he was reminded of the wisdom of God he had gleaned through years of reading Proverbs. He was reminded of Proverbs 14:6: “a fool is hotheaded and reckless.” Not only had the man acted foolishly, but Bill came close to doing the same. Instead,he resisted the temptation to let his anger escalate and chose to walk on wisdom’s road.
Notice what Hybels did in this situation:
- He carefully chose his source of wisdom – Each day he read from the book of Proverbs. This biblical source became the roadmap for his wisdom.
- He practiced the application of wisdom – Rather than retaliating, he handled the lies, gossip, and hurt in a wise and God-honoring manner.
- He kept wisdom’s outcome in focus – He let the words from Proverbs 16:7 settle deep in his soul…even when the outcome seemed hopeless.
When we choose the right source for wisdom, practice the application of wisdom, and keep the outcome of wisdom in focus, we become wise people. The path is difficult, but the benefits are extraordinary.
Question: What else have you found helpful in becoming wise?