Finding True Wisdom
St. Augustines Archive
28 May 2017
The idea of wisdom is something that gets thrown around a lot in popular culture. People pass their wisdom on to others, in the hope that through this wisdom they will be able to lead a better life. We seek wisdom so we can try to live the best possible life. But it can be hard to know where to find the right wisdom. There’s a lot of bad advice out there; there are so many different voices clamouring for our attention. So where do you go to find true wisdom?
Some people go to daytime television, and seek wisdom from people like Oprah, or Dr Phil. Oprah actually gave a graduation speech recently in which she passed down ‘wisdom’ to the graduating students, and one of her main takeaway lessons was that everyone should ‘trust their inner voice’. Unfortunately as Christians, we know that our ‘inner voice’ is stained by sin. When I listen to my inner voice, it is telling me to look out for number one. My inner voice is self-interested. If I go about life and follow my inner voice, that would not be the way to a gracious, loving community. No, Oprah can’t help us to find true wisdom.
Some people look to politicians, our country’s leaders, to find wisdom. I know – it can be very difficult to find wisdom there. The trend we are seeing at the moment with politicians is that they tend to be so focused on the bad points about the other party that they don’t end up having much to offer themselves! Politicians can’t help us to find true wisdom.
Maybe you look to the media? The media give us so much information, we have it at our fingertips 24/7… but so often they twist the news to get a cheap headline, or report through heavy biases. It is nearly impossible for us to find true wisdom amidst all of the click bait in the media.
One of the best sources of wisdom I could think of was mums. Mums always have helpful wisdom to hand out – and as we grow up, they often hand it out whether we like it or not. And as kids, we would disregard it, only to look back when we are older and realise that our mums really did know best all along. Things like, ‘’if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Or, “A stitch in time saves nine.” My mum told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. But actually, looking back now, I don’t think that’s true. We have a lot of possibilities as we grow up, but not every single possibility is open to us. So as much as mums give great advice, even mums can sometimes get it wrong.
It seems that we can’t look anywhere on this world to find true wisdom. So where can we really find true wisdom?
The book of James cuts through all of this noise and boldly leads us to true wisdom. And in chapter 3 we will find out what true wisdom is, and where we should go to find it. We will look at today’s passage in three sections; first, James gives us a test of wisdom, in verse 13. Then he shows us what wisdom isn’t, in verses 14 to 16, and finally what wisdom is, where it comes from, in verses 17 and 18.
So firstly, the test of wisdom. Verse 14.
The test of wisdom
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
Here James is talking about what wisdom looks like, and he offers a test to see if your wisdom is legitimate, true wisdom, or if it is false wisdom.
But what does it mean to ‘let the wise people show wisdom by their good life’?
James isn’t talking about good conduct like trying to keep to a set of rules. When James says ‘let them show it by their good life’, we can see what he means by what he has already written in his letter. Chapter 1 verse 22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Chapter 2 verse 17: “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James has already told us that right living – what we might now call ‘wise’ living – is not only hearing God’s word, but doing it; letting our faith flow out into actions. Our creed into conduct. So here in chapter 3 when he says that the wise show their wisdom by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom… James is saying that you display wisdom in your life by living your life according to the wisdom of the Word of God.
Notice the word humility in this verse. If we are to hear the word of God and do it, as James has called us to do… we must not do it in a way that is seeking to promote ourselves. Paul puts this best in Philippians 2 verses 3 and 4. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” And so James says, here is the test for your wisdom. Show your wisdom in your actions that are driven by humility. Serve people, consider them more valuable than yourself, considering their needs above yours. These actions demonstrate a life that is being lived according God’s word. That’s the test for wisdom – does it stack up against God’s word?
So after offering the test for wisdom, James moves us to consider what wisdom is not. Verses 14-16.
What wisdom isn’t (earthly ‘wisdom’)
But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
James here seems to be giving a category of wisdom, but he doesn’t really think it is wisdom. It’s like he is thinking of this wisdom in verse 15 as being “wisdom”, with inverted commas. He says this is not the wisdom that comes from heaven. It is earthly “wisdom”, fake wisdom. There’s a big but at the start of verse 14 which shows us that James is holding up this fake, earthly “wisdom” in comparison to what he showed us in the previous verse: the good life, deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James is saying that envy and selfish ambition which characterise earthly “wisdom” are the opposite to living with wisdom that comes down from heaven, which is characterised by humility.
We see in our culture today that consumerism and individualism are both treated as good things. We see consumerism, where society is geared to encourage me to pursue all of those things I do not have; and next week in chapter 4 James will take even closer aim at this self-centered mindset. We also see individualism, where we are encouraged to be ambitious and pursue our own success and happiness, often disregarding how this might affect others. It is clear to see that God’s eternal word speaks right into the heart of our culture today. We might be living 2000 years later, but human hearts haven’t changed one bit.
James warns us in verse 15 that this “wisdom”, characterised by envy and selfish ambition, is earthly, unspiritual, even demonic. He is describing here where this wisdom comes from. It is earthly – driven by earthly things, it is materialistic, driven by consumerism. It is unspiritual – it is not given by God, not shaped by God’s wisdom. And it is demonic. At its heart, this kind of “wisdom” is held by those those who seek to run their lives independently of God. To use their selfish ambition to gain power, prestige, and to seek to enjoy and use all of the good things given by God while turning up their nose against the giver. This is how Satan works. He wants people to do anything other than worship God! James pulls no punches and confronts us with the simple truth that this kind of earthly wisdom is demonic.
Now, you might hear this and feel quietly confident that this earthly “wisdom” doesn’t describe you. But this tendency for earthly wisdom isn’t just seen in those who are in open opposition to God. In Matthew chapter 16, we see Peter the apostle become the first person to acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. And Jesus then explained that as the Christ he would have to suffer and be killed – not the kind of Messiah that Peter had imagined! And so Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him – “No, Jesus, this will never happen to you! You’re the Messiah, that means you’re meant to conquer and rule, not suffer and die!” And you remember how Jesus responded to one of his closest disciples, don’t you? “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Peter was thinking and talking according to earthly “wisdom”. He thought he knew better than Jesus! And in the eyes of the world, what he was saying made sense! The Messiah was destined to come and reign – every good Jew knew that – so why would Jesus say he is coming to die?
We who live on this side of the cross and the empty tomb know that Jesus’ death and resurrection are how he brought about forgiveness of sins to all people. This is the wisdom of God; and even Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, thought this was foolish. We saw also in 1 Corinthians 1, our other bible reading this morning, that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world, and that Jesus in his death and resurrection is the power and wisdom of God. It is natural for people in their sinful hearts to see the wisdom of God as foolishness. In the 1 Corinthians passage Paul writes that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; to those with earthly wisdom. We too often think or act as if we could run things better than God, that we know better. And that is why James is giving this warning against living by earthly wisdom. We must not be too quick to think that we would never fall into this earthly wisdom. Because that is just what Satan wants us to think.
How can we make sure we don’t fall into this trap of living our lives by earthly wisdom? We need to be clear in our minds about what the wisdom of God is. We have just seen what James has to say about what wisdom isn’t; now let’s see what he has to tell us about what true wisdom is.
Look at verses 17 and 18.
What wisdom is (wisdom from above)
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. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Firstly, we see where this wisdom comes from. It is wisdom from heaven – literally, wisdom from above! It is not wisdom we can find within ourselves, or within our world; as we explored earlier, all of the potential sources of wisdom in our world fall short. This true wisdom is wisdom that is given to us from God, from outside ourselves – a gift from God in heaven!
And it is a wonderful contrast to the envy and selfish ambition we saw earlier, isn’t it? This wisdom from heaven, wisdom from God, God’s wisdom, is the complete opposite. Where earthly wisdom is envious, God’s wisdom is pure and considerate. Where earthly wisdom is full of selfish ambition, God’s wisdom is peace-loving and full of mercy. Where earthly wisdom boasts in itself, God’s wisdom is submissive and sincere. And where is it that we see all of this wisdom of God coming together perfectly?
It’s at the cross. The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. We see Jesus, the Son of God, living a perfect sinless life, but willingly being crucified and killed to take the punishment we deserve. This is the ultimate humility, the complete opposite of envy and selfish ambition… Jesus laid his life down so that we might have life eternally. This sums up God’s wisdom in one cosmic, beautiful event.
Now we know that not everyone sees this as wisdom. Earlier when we took a look at 1 Corinthians 1, we saw that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to those with earthly wisdom. But what does Paul go on to say next? To those being saved, it is the power of God.
So how do you see the cross?
Do you see it as foolishness? Do you react like Peter first did, thinking that the idea of Jesus, the great expected Messiah, suffering and dying is foolishness?
Or do you see the cross as the power of God to save you and cover over all of your sins? Paul certainly saw it that way, and he devoted his whole life to preaching the message of the cross. Look at the reasoning he gives, in 1 Corinthians 1 verses 22 to 25.
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Jesus Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. And this wisdom is so far beyond human wisdom that it is hardly even worth a comparison. James gave us a comparison, though, and we saw how badly earthly wisdom pales into insignificance against the wisdom of God. The wisdom of God, the wisdom from above, is the wisdom we should be seeking after! But if it is wisdom from above, from outside ourselves, how can we get it??
We ask for it! James talked about this back in chapter 1 verse 5. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” God gives wisdom to us generously when we ask him for it. As we saw last week, he is our Lord and Father – he is in control of all things, and as Father he is attentive to our needs. So by praying that he would give us this wisdom, we set our minds on God, on the things that are above, and by doing this we will find ourselves reading his word and doing it! We will find ourselves serving others with humility! We will find ourselves following in the example of Jesus in putting others before ourselves, and in doing so we will move away from the envy and selfish ambition that characterises earthly wisdom.
Wise living is seeking to follow God’s will. It is listening to his word, and doing it. And if we do that, if we pray for God to help us to do that, then we will have that wisdom from above. Our lives will be able to be described as being, from verse 17, pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. And we will reap a harvest, verse 18, of righteousness. If we trust in the wisdom of God, if we put our trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we are counted righteous by God! But if we cling on to earthly wisdom… if we, like Peter first did, think Jesus suffering and dying is foolishness… then we will have no part in the salvation that he offers.
So where are you finding your wisdom? Are you looking to the world? Are you finding it in the media, or in daytime television, or clinging on to wisdom from your mum? These are not where true wisdom can be found. True wisdom comes from God. True wisdom comes in hearing the words of God, and doing them. True wisdom comes through fixing our eyes on our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ – the one whom Paul called the power and wisdom of God – trusting in his death to deal with our sin before God, and in his resurrection to assure us that this is so. And to bring these together… true wisdom comes in viewing the world as God views it.
That is how we can live a good life, with deeds done in humility. By viewing the world as God views it. By viewing other people as God views them – as precious creations made in his image. This will change the way you treat people. This will change the way you act towards that person who really rubs you the wrong way. This will change the way that you respond to those who are in need; we won’t be able to help reaching out to serve others, to seek their good – which we can do because we know that Jesus has secured our eternal good. No, he has secured our eternal best, at the cross. So we are set free from the selfish living of earthly “wisdom”, from envy and ambition and self-interest, and we are liberated to be wise and understanding, shown in our good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom – and which raise a harvest of righteousness.
Friends, true wisdom comes only from God. Let’s pray to him and ask that he would grant that to us.