Who among the SharperIron readership is wise and understanding? By his good conduct, let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
The question I put to you now is the question that James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, put to his readership (“the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”) some several centuries ago (James 3:13, paraphrased). Wisdom still cries in the streets, offering to us simpletons an opportunity to learn her ways.
Who among the SharperIron readership is wise and understanding? Before you answer, beware! James already warned his readership in 3:1, “Be not many masters [teachers].” Why? “We shall receive the greater condemnation” (KJV). To set oneself up as a teacher is to make a claim of authority, to make a claim of wisdom, and to raise the bar for oneself. The role of teacher generally involves a lot of speaking, and speaking is perilous territory. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Prov. 10:19, ESV). It is so confoundedly easy to say something silly, erroneous, spiteful, equivocal, tactless, uncharitable, or vulgar. Go ahead: tame your tongue. Tame Leviathan for practice.
Consequently, after such stern warnings to would-be teachers and warnings about the tongue in general, when James asks, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you?” (KJV), no one should be terribly eager to pop up his hand. And for those who dare, James further challenges, “Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.”
Let him show. How very typically James-ian. Do you have faith? Then show it with works! Do you have wisdom? Then show it in your daily walk! Commentator Derek Kidner introduces his commentary on Proverbs, “There are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this realm.” The Greek word for the KJV’s “conversation” (ESV, “conduct”) connotes moving about. Kidner’s observation is apt: we encounter many issues in our daily moving about that require a wise application of biblical principle, but they are not covered by any chapter and verse. Wisdom is for the moment-by-moment of the Christian’s walk. Moreover, it’s something demonstrable.
The particular mark of wisdom that James puts front and center is the “meekness of wisdom.” It seems clear that this is a Greek genitive of source. Wisdom is the source of meekness. Wisdom produces meekness. Unfortunately, the grammar is the easiest step here. A somewhat harder question is, “Why meekness?” Meekness, that is, power under control. Meekness, humility, gentleness, in the various translations. If I meet someone who isn’t meek, I’m safe to conclude that he lacks wisdom. Why did James select meekness as the chief external virtue that would show forth wisdom? Or what is it about wisdom that effects meekness in the wise ones?
Wisdom Teaches Us Our Finitude
First, wisdom (and the quest for it) teaches us our finitude. The wisest man ever to walk the earth tells us (and remember, he had unparalleled credentials to make this claim),
When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out (Ecc. 8:16–17, ESV).
Only God is all-wise; and Jesus Christ is made for His redeemed to be their wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). The first step of wisdom is godly fear, to know that God is Creator and we the creatures. It is an admission of ignorance. This may sound just like Socrates, whose first step to knowing was to admit that one does not know. But there is a world of difference between Solomon and Socrates. Solomon said, “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6, ESV). That was true humility: waiting upon God to speak. Socrates would prefer to fend for himself, to know the universe on his own, and to remain perpetually skeptical and questioning. Socrates’ claim not to know was pseudo-humility; he could not bow his head or bend his ear to the Lord of heaven. Surprisingly, the psalmist’s statement, “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation” (Ps. 119:99, ESV), is the true expression of humility because it boasts in the true source of wisdom and repudiates human claims to authority.
Wisdom Teaches Us the Truth About Ourselves
Second, wisdom teaches us the truth about ourselves, that we are sinful. John Calvin writes,
So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.
Calvin proceeds to cite the familiar biblical examples of those men who met God and feared for their very lives. To understand things as they are is to understand the fallen, broken, and groaning world and its people, and to know oneself as an active and contributing member of a polluted civilization. True wisdom is not only out of reach of mere finitude; but when one does, in God’s order, attain some wisdom, he may not like what he finds. Solomon again instructs us,
And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow (Ecc. 1:17–18, ESV).
Wisdom amplifies truth for the wise. With wisdom comes deeper joy and deeper sorrow, deeper hope, deeper humility—all a composite of godly meekness.
Wisdom Teaches Us the Difficulty of Attaining Whatever Wisdom We Do Attain
Third and only a shade different from the first, wisdom (and particularly the quest for it) teaches us the difficulty of attaining whatever wisdom we do attain. The Ecclesiastes passages already cited describe an application of heart, a firm shoulder on the axle. An arduous task: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Prov. 4:7, KJV). A costly investment: “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Prov. 23:23). Contrast the student whose rich daddy finances his education with the student who works his way through school. One knows the cost? Contrast the child with a toy gun, the young man preparing for boot camp, the soldier after boot camp, the soldier after a year in Iraq. By the time he leaves Iraq, his attitude toward combat has matured far beyond the boy with the toy gun. We don’t expect flippant Hollywood clichés from a soldier who has been through it. It is similar with one who is truly wise.
In the theological arena especially, one expects a thorough theological education to teach a man just how difficult some of the issues are. Flippant dismissals of the opposition mark dormitory freshmen, not mature theologians who have been through it. Particularly when the opposition is named Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and Edwards. I may disagree strongly with Scofield on a whole lot of points, but I have to admit that the Osborne Study Bible is nowhere in sight down the pike. Growing up, I had a 90-plus pound, golden retriever, black lab, greyhound mutt named Rusty, all lean meat. It always amused me to see the ankle-biter dogs take after Rusty, and his bemused, “Is this a second breakfast? A new toy?” Either the ankle biters were bluffing, or they did not grasp just what they were up against. (My experience with ankle biters says the options are equally likely.) I pity the ankle-biter theologians, whose loud yapping proclaims to the whole world that they’ve never really contended with the opposition, or have no real confidence in their own position. I say “theologians,” but I intend this for issues of daily practice as well.
Wisdom Teaches Us That We Do Not Deserve Wisdom
Fourth, wisdom teaches us that we do not deserve wisdom. We’re finite creatures, so God owes us nothing, let alone our existence; we’re sinful creatures, so we deserve damnation. For God to break through our stubborn self-righteousness with the Gospel and to create faith in our hearts is grace, and grace is humbling. That God had to send His Son to die on our behalf in order to do this for us is foolishness to the perishing world but profound power and wisdom to us who are saved. Paul uses this truth as one antidote to the Corinthians’ factionalism. The Corinthians eagerly lined up behind their human teachers for all the wrong reasons, and they still sought “wisdom” according to worldly standards. Paul had to describe God’s wisdom at length in chapter one, a wisdom that confounds the worldly wise. And finally, Christ is made to be our wisdom. The upshot: “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1:31, KJV). James himself, in the passage under discussion, also pits godly wisdom against factionalism (3:14ff), but we will reserve this verse for Part 2.
Any wisdom we have comes from God. He can easily turn off the tap. My friend and former co-author Coart quipped, “I once had something worth saying. But I needed a second sentence.” I know what he meant. Having agreed to a monthly article here at SharperIron, I’m learning how fast one’s pet issues are exhausted and how fast one runs out of fresh, scintillating new insights. (Ouch—think my tongue just went through my cheek.) But the point is this: only God is a truly original thinker. Those we call “original thinkers” are derivative; those who are wise and correct are so by the grace of God. We don’t deserve even them; they, too, are gifts (Eph. 4). Put away Augustine, Calvin, Lloyd-Jones, Carson, Bruce, Young, Strong (all the Strongs), Hodge (all the Hodges), Moo, Plummer, and on and on. Now you prepare a sermon. You and I are derivative to the umpteenth degree. Let us humbly and contentedly rejoice that we’re in the queue at all.
Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good way of life his works with meekness of wisdom. I have tried to tease out the various reasons that true wisdom effects meekness. Bringing it around to immediate application, this correlation between wisdom and meekness greatly influences the way I read SharperIron. I am not particularly impressed with gray hairs or sheepskin or size of ministry or sphere of influence or wit or eloquence. I am impressed with meekness. If you’re shouting to make your point, if you’re overstating your claims or making blanket dismissals or not taking the time to read the other posts carefully or charitably, you’ll find my ear resistant; at best I will begrudge you the time it takes to read your post. If you wish to bend my ear, bend it with meekness.
I expect to be held to the same standard. Christ, help me.
James has not finished his discussion, and neither have I. James is about to contrast the wisdom from below with the wisdom from above. We will discuss this contrast in Part 2.
1. Derek Kidner, The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, in The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), p. 13.
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Online publication, Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002, available at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.html), p. 32.
Mike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University. He co-authored the teacher’s editions of two BJU Press high school Bible comparative religions textbooks What Is Truth? and Who Is This Jesus?; and contributed essays to the appendix of The Dark Side of the Internet. He lives with his wife, Becky, and his infant daughter, Felicity, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they are active members at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue a further degree in apologetics.