We have, I think, an interesting pattern going in the book of James. Back in 1:26, James says, in essence, “Do you think you’re religious? Check your conduct. Do you control your tongue? Do you indulge your desires, or do you take care of those in need?” In 2:8, he says, “Do you think you’re really keeping God’s law? Tell me this: do you play favorites?” The challenge in 2:14 is, “You say you have faith—do you have any evidence of that?” In 3:1, it’s “So, you think you’re ready to lead the church; can you control your tongue?” And now here in 3:14, he asks, “Which of you considers yourselves wise? Does your life show the fruit of wisdom in the way you conduct yourselves and deal with other people?” Again and again, we see James emphasizing the point that our thoughts and our attitudes produce results in our actions; it is, of course, a point rooted firmly in the words of Jesus, who told his followers in Matthew 7 that they would be able to recognize false prophets by their fruit, because the health of the tree is revealed in the fruit it bears.
Now, wisdom is something which was much prized in that day and age; I’m not sure it is so much now, but calling someone “wise” is still considered to be a significant compliment. But what is wisdom? I think often we’re not very clear on that. We tend to get it mixed up with the other things that we think of as related to our minds, with knowledge and understanding and intelligence, but it isn’t any of those things. Granted, to exercise wisdom, it helps to have a lot of knowledge, but there are many people for whom great knowledge just means the chance to be greater fools. Similarly with intelligence; intelligence can amplify wisdom, but it can’t increase the number of wise options available. It can, however, allow for the invention of lots of new ways to be foolish. Understanding is good and necessary, but we can begin to take pride in our understanding, and when that starts to happen, it can lead us astray very quickly. As the saying goes, logic is often nothing more than a way to go wrong with confidence.
Wisdom, by contrast, is all about being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s about facing the questions, “Is this a good idea, or not? Is this the right thing to do, or not?” and being able to answer those questions correctly. It is the ability to perceive the best thing to do—and then to go and do it. If someone can tell you what they ought to be doing but doesn’t go out and do it, we don’t call them wise, we call them a very particular sort of fool. Wisdom isn’t wisdom until we put it into practice; it’s all about how we live.
James highlights two important truths about wisdom. First, wisdom is humble. This is an underrated virtue, not the sort of thing we tend to praise people for, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and because we often tend to consider pride a good thing. From the point of view of the Scriptures, though, humility is one of the virtues which is supposed to define the people of God. The Catholic priest and philosopher Ernest Fortin went so far as to call it “the Christian virtue par excellence . . . humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many. But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith. We are at every moment God’s creation.”
Think about that: we worship “a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many.” That’s straight out of Philippians 2. No one ever had more reason to put his own interests and desires first, or to glorify himself, than Jesus; and yet he let go of glory, he let go of all the things pride values, and humbled himself to become a mere human being—and not even one who lived a rich, comfortable life, but a vagabond from the working class; and even beyond that, he accepted the horrible death of a convicted criminal. And he did it all for us, out of love, and set us his example to follow—and Paul points to that in 1 Corinthians 1 and calls Jesus our wisdom from God.
Does this mean, then, that God calls us to look down on ourselves, to put ourselves down and dismiss ourselves as unimportant? No. Those sorts of attitudes are counterfeits of true humility, and are really just pride in disguise; they still focus our attention inward, on ourselves, and they still put us at the center of everything we do. True humility takes our focus off ourselves altogether; it’s what Paul means when he writes in Romans 12:3, “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Humility is seeing ourselves clearly, in the light of God’s holiness and grace, and accepting what we see; it is the place where we are well aware both of our weaknesses and failures and of our glories and strengths, and don’t make too much or too little of either, because we know that our value and importance rests not in what we have done or what we can do, but only and always in the fact that God made us and loves us. As C. S. Lewis put it, someone truly humble could design the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and look at it and know it to be the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and enjoy it just the same as if someone else had done it.
This is why the Scriptures consistently associate humility with wisdom—to take another example, Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but wisdom is with the humble.” Wisdom begins with the understanding of our own limits—that is, I think, part of the reason for the declaration in Psalm 111:10 that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; one of the reasons for that is the recognition of just how great God is, and how small and limited we are. Wisdom requires the acceptance that we never know as much, we never understand things as well, we’re never as smart or as far ahead of the game, as we think—and that in consequence, we need each other. That requires humility.
We must humble ourselves before each other if we are to learn from each other; we must humble ourselves before God if we are to grow in his wisdom; we must humble ourselves to receive correction and rebuke if we are to learn from our mistakes; we must humble ourselves to confess our immaturity if we are ever to mature. We must humble ourselves to accept and admit our incompleteness, our brokenness, our sinfulness, if we are ever to be made complete, whole, and holy. And in the last analysis, we must humble ourselves to understand that “all is grace,” that none of us are self-made, but that “we are”—all of us—“at every moment, God’s creation,” if we are ever truly to be ourselves.
This is essential because, as we saw, true wisdom is all about how we live. It’s profoundly practical, but not just in the sense of “whatever works”; rather, the focus of wisdom is on living a life pleasing to God. There are many aspects to that, of course, and we get a pretty good list here; but in this passage from chapters 3-4, James’ primary focus is on peace. True wisdom produces peace, while the wisdom of this world produces strife and disorder. This is because the wisdom of this world is characterized by envy and selfish ambition—it is focused on getting more. What that “more” looks like is different with every person. Some desire more pleasure. Some want more money and possessions. Some seek more power. Some long for more recognition. Some crave more excitement. We could keep the list going for a while, checking off all the things people think they need more of to make them feel fulfilled, and we’d probably still miss some. Whatever it is that people want to get, though, that’s where the world focuses its idea of wisdom: on how to get what it is that you want, or feel you need.
The problem is, as James points out, that such “wisdom” leads to disorder, conflict, and all sorts of evil behavior. The world justifies this in many ways, telling us it’s a dog-eat-dog world, that you gotta do what you gotta do, that all’s fair in love and war—our friend Joanie, in her college days, memorably declared to her mother that she was going to take Dave away from his girlfriend because “all’s fair in love and war, and this is war”—that you have the right to stand up for yourself, and whatever else we need to tell ourselves (and others) to justify us in going out and doing what we’ve already decided we want to do. At bottom is this idea that if I’ve determined I need that in order to be happy—whether it be that car, that man or woman, that job, that house—then whatever it might be, I have the right to have it, because I have the right to be happy. We seem to have forgotten that even the Declaration of Independence only tells us we have the right to the pursuit of happiness, not to be guaranteed to catch it and mount it on the wall with the rest of our butterfly collection.
And what happens? Conflict and pain and heartbreak as people fight over things, over opportunities, over relationships. Marriages are broken up, families torn apart, lives ruined; careers are wrecked and reputations destroyed as rivals sabotage each other; souls disappear into the maw of drugs, sometimes never to emerge again, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Whenever my fulfillment is my highest goal, and the way to achieve that is by getting more of whatever it is I think is going to fulfill me, I will necessarily treat you not as my equal to be respected but as an object which relates in some way to my need for fulfillment. You might be the person through whom I hope to find fulfillment by one means or another; you might be an obstacle to my fulfillment, which I must go around or find some way to remove from my path; you might be a rival who threatens my fulfillment, in which case I must find some way to defeat you; but whatever the case, you are at the most fundamental level a thing to me, not a real person, and deep down I will feel myself justified in doing whatever it takes to make sure that I get what I want with regard to you, because my happiness is at stake, and that has become my idol.
And thus, as James says, wherever that mindset prevails, you find fights and quarrels, disorder and every evil practice, sown by the Devil, who is the father of lies and the author of discord. That’s as true in the church as anywhere else. Why else do we have the term “worship wars”? Disagreement over the best way to worship was no doubt inevitable—people in the church have been disagreeing about the best way to do things for as long as there’s been the church. I’m sure even back when they met in the catacombs, there were probably differences of opinion as to whether they should put in carpet or just go with the natural stone floor. But why did those differing ideas turn into raging conflicts that split some churches and destroyed others? Because people saw questions of musical style and worship structure as questions of their own personal fulfillment, insisting that they had to have their way in order to be happy—and the discord, and the back-stabbing, and the quarrels, and everything else followed.
The only antidote to this is true wisdom, the wisdom of God, and the humility that his wisdom brings. It’s the humility that seeks to serve others and meet their needs, and thus is considerate and submissive. It’s the humility that remembers that we ourselves are sinners saved by grace, dependent on the mercy of God, and thus is willing to show mercy to others. It’s the wisdom that recognizes that when we insist on our own way and allow envy and selfish ambition to drive our decisions, even when we win, we lose, because we’ve set our hearts on things that cannot satisfy, at the expense of greater goods. It’s the wisdom that sees that what God offers us is in fact greater than anything this world can give, and thus that it’s worth letting go our death grip on earthly things to draw near to him—that friendship with God is in fact a far better thing, and far more fulfilling at the deepest levels of our hearts, than friendship with the world. It’s the wisdom and humility that enable us to hear God’s words in Jeremiah 9 with joy: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom—let not the strong man boast in his might—let not the rich man boast in his riches—but let him who boasts, boast in this and this alone: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”