Having explored the “meekness of wisdom” in James 3:13 and drawn out the possible reasons wisdom should lead to meekness (Part 1), with James we now contrast the wisdom from below with the wisdom from above.
James singles out meekness as the chief external virtue that shows forth wisdom, and he immediately contrasts this godly meekness with self-seeking factionalism. “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory [boast] not, and lie not against the truth” (3:14, KJV). In other words, if on the inside you have self-seeking instead of wisdom, your modus operandi is going to include a lot of boasting, politicking, muscling, wheeling and dealing, and whatever it takes. This boastful bullheadedness is a tell-tale sign of bitter envy and strife. C’mon, says James. Who are you kidding? Don’t lie against the truth. Anyone who is boasting in his so-called “wisdom” only betrays the fact that he has no true wisdom. Mental acumen is not the same thing as wisdom; in the hands of a self-seeker, mental acumen is a dangerous, deceptive faculty. If you want to be taken seriously as a wise man, be meek. The alternative is ugly.
James’s Greek places the “not” at the beginning of verse 15—not is this the wisdom that comes from above. It’s as if James wants it to be perfectly clear that this factionalism and self-seeking is not what he is urging upon his readership. This “wisdom” is actually “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (ESV), yet another biblical reference to that trio of enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Earthly. Pseudo-wisdom is characterized by a this-worldly affection and a this-worldly perspective. Unspiritual. There is nothing spiritual in its self-servingness. Demonic. Ultimately, people who pursue this kind of “wisdom” aid the devil’s cause. Christians too are at risk because with despicable subtlety, the devil can take zeal for the faith once delivered and pervert it into a personal vendetta.
The saint John Newton once warned of this danger in a letter to a friend about to engage in controversy. As Newton considered the upcoming controversy’s potential effects on his friend, he remarked,
Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defense of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers that are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God… . The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but also peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savor and efficacy of our labors.
Even those who have their theology and practice straight can become wise in their own eyes. Proverbs tells us the fools have more hope than such people (Prov. 26:12). I suppose that fools at least know that they reject wisdom. The wise-in-their-own-eyes people think they have wisdom but do not really have it. Such people try the patience of roommates, classmates, congregations, and fellow employees everywhere. There is no talking to them. They can’t even discuss things outside their own vocabularies and preconceptions and categories. Their egos are so massive, space-time curves as it nears their noses. (Or maybe they can’t see straight.) You almost cringe when they agree with you because their ego is a liability. John Henry Newman wrote that some men “are so intemperate and intractable that there is no greater calamity for a good cause than that they should get hold of it.”
James elaborates further on the dangers of the wisdom from below. “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (3:16, KJV). The Bible is superbly coherent and unified; the wisdom from below is not. The wisdom from below is a cacophony of confusion, and it’s everywhere. Pick up any variation on Chicken Soup for the Soul or read an advice column in your local newspaper. Too often we apply Paul’s warnings about the “wisdom of this world” to philosophy and scholarship only, but the wisdom of this world appears both as pseudo-erudition and also as homespun common sense. The wisdom of this world is flying around your head at the office as well-intentioned little old ladies advise you about childrearing, marriage, the judiciary, and Social Security. The wisdom of this world creeps into casual greetings: “How are you?” “Can’t complain. Wouldn’t do any good anyway.” The wisdom of this world is the lifeblood of advertising campaigns, 401-k informational meetings, and office ethics. My own company, wanting to uphold good ethical standards, recommended the “mother standard”: don’t do anything you’d be uncomfortable telling your mother about. Now praise God, my mother is a Christian, and maybe that “mother standard” would work pretty well with my mother. But first, it wouldn’t work so great with many mothers I’ve known; and second, my own mother is Christian enough to tell me to find something better than the mother standard. The worldly wisdom approved by many mothers allows you to divorce your spouse for greener pastures, have marital love without a marital covenant, abort your baby, euthanize your grandma, dishonor your parents, lie on your resume, cheat on your taxes, and pirate software. The worldly wisdom many mothers devour comprises daytime TV’s full menu of mutually contradictory psychologists who are interviewed on talk shows and called in as witnesses in court.
From this cacophony of worldly wisdom, people appropriate to their own lives various tidbits, exercising little consistency beyond pragmatism. The pragmatically, often self-servingly employed tidbits ultimately lead to nowhere in particular. “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Prov. 26:7). Even when the world gets it right and applies the correct aphorism to the correct situation, they are still fools at heart if they lack the fear of God, and their flash of good insight only intersected with the truth. They have not begun with truth, nor will they end there.
On the other hand, we find in the perfect law of liberty a delightful simplicity. I mean by simplicity not “easiness” but “harmony” and “unity.” Even as God’s attributes have both an ultimate complexity and an ultimate simplicity (i.e., that God simply is the sum of His complex attributes and that no attribute exists apart from the others), so is His revealed will simple. There are many duties, many complex circumstances, for application, but one simple ethic. Love is my delight in God and my desire to please Him (Matt. 22:38–40). Faith is the confidence that God rewards those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6). And wisdom teaches me how to seek Him, where to place my foot next. “If you seek [wisdom] like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:4–5, ESV). Augustine linked love and wisdom thus: “Prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it.”
I suppose the SharperIron readership endures this worldly cacophony just as much as I do. Dear fellow believers, what shall we do to counter this? We who confess Jesus as Lord of every square inch of the universe (to paraphrase Abraham Kuyper) must be ready in an instant to call unbelievers to account for making their own desires, minds, and wills the final standard of wisdom. Postmodernity is here to stay, where publication is cheap and easy, and every surface is fair game for an advertisement. The volume of chatter increases. We can “shout” to be heard with another gimmick or with intemperate arguments and harangues or with cleverness and “advertising”; or we can seek to demonstrate the true wisdom with meekness. I suggest that we consider this when deciding our evangelistic methodology.
So what does this unified ethic, this godly wisdom, look like? “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:17–18, KJV).
Pure. This is single-minded pursuit of righteousness as God defines it. Purity is put first, for there is no true peacefulness without righteousness. The “meekness of wisdom” does not mean giving in to sin; it does mean giving in to God.
Peaceable. Do you pick fights, or do you end them? SharperIron posters, before you dash off a rebuttal, do you ensure that you’ve understood the post you’re objecting to? Do you let conflicts shift from the subject matter in question to conflict about the conflict, ad infinitum, until the original, potentially worthwhile discussion has disappeared? In the world, do you reconcile people to each other and to God?
Gentle. This one includes something as small as body language, tone of voice, and word choice. SharperIron ought to “sound” better than talk radio, which is heavily populated with bad men promoting good causes. Boldness? Good. Courage? Good. Speaking the truth? Good. Belittling others, cutting them off, patronizing them? May it never be! You are handling arguments; you are handling eternal souls. Be careful: much is at stake.
Open to reason. You are about to make a big life decision. Someone raises an objection to your plan. How do you react? Or, you’re satisfied with the established way, but someone objects and suggests something new. Do you consider it? When someone points out a personal fault in you, even if you conclude that he is mistaken, do you seek to go above and beyond not to give offense? With your coworkers or spouse, how often do you come to say, “You know, scrap my idea. I think yours is better.” Part of godly wisdom is knowing that we are not the people and that wisdom will not die with us (cf. Job 12:2). We could be wrong.
Full of mercy and good fruits. This is the tricky part. The “meekness of wisdom” might be attained simply by never opening one’s mouth (cf., Prov. 17:28) or by staying home. But wisdom does not consist in simply not offending people. Wisdom is not aloof or uninvolved. Wisdom is a godly ethic, and godliness includes serving one’s neighbor. You have to know how to do good to your neighbor, a skill that often takes in social skills and tact and a knowledge of other people’s needs. The Christian does not commit “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Rather, the acts of kindness are motivated, and the acts of beauty are sensible.
Impartial. Party politics are not allowed. Can you criticize your own group as much as you do others? Or can your party, your denomination, do no wrong? Can your kids do no wrong? At work, there are people you like and people you do not care for. Do you overlook the flawed work of friends while insisting on perfection from others?
Without hypocrisy. The newspapers will give good advice on how to massage the truth in a job interview. Will you? Will you enjoy poking fun at your conservative Christian friends when with your more progressive Christian friends, and casting aspersions on the progressives when with the conservatives? Screwtape would be very happy with that behavior.
Here are seven characteristics of the wisdom from above, and none of them tells you just what to do in any given situation. Instead, you must demonstrate wisdom by discerning how to get your daily conduct to look like these seven characteristics.
The result of such a spirit and such conduct is tantalizing: an orchard full of righteousness and peace. Let’s resolve ourselves to sow this fruit together.
1. John Newton, “On Godly Disputation.” Published in IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 4, Number 27, July 10 to July 17, 2002. Available here (PDF). I would urge that this letter in its entirety be permanently posted at SharperIron and that it be required reading of all SharperIron members.
2. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, quoted by Martin J. Svaglic in the Introduction to The Idea of a University (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), xxvi.
3. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, trans. Richard Stothert, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff [New York: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890]), available online here.
4. C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is an imaginative series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, advising his nephew, Wormwood, on how best to tempt the “patient.” The “patient” has professed Christianity, but he also has met some worldly friends. Thus Screwtape advises, “Sooner or later, however, the real nature of [the patient’s] new [worldly] friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realize the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a ‘deeper’, ‘spiritual’ world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction” (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), pp. 55–56.
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.