James 3:13-18: How To Grow In Wisdom
Here’s the bad news: if you lack wisdom, you can’t fix it by heaping information into the hole.
Never has there been a generation with more access to information, and never has there been a generation with less access to wisdom. Consider this.
On Sundays, the average American pastor stepped into the pulpit after hours of access to the original Greek and Hebrew, commentaries penned by the best living and dead thinkers, and entire works of literary criticisms orbiting around single syllables and sentences. Today’s pastors might have more information than yesterday’s, but they are no wiser than, say, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, or St. Augustine.
Likewise, the average American marriage has more immediate access to solid Christian books and helpful Christian blogs on marriage than ever before. And today’s marriages might have more readily available information than yesterday’s, but any statistical kernel you might uncover about marriage and divorce supports this finding: never has there been so much information, and so little wisdom.
James is ministering in a context not altogether different. Listen: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
When James asks the early church if there are any who are wise and understanding among them, it’s important to rightly be flattened by the tone of his question. It comes to us in the context of an emergency. The early churches are being dismembered by slander, gossip, and selfish ambition, and when James asks this question, it’s as if James is walking into the crime scene of a shooting with bloody bodies scattered around him asking: is anybody a doctor? It’s as if James is walking into a crime scene with bloody churches scattered around him asking: is anybody wise?
The need for wisdom has always been urgent like this: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out” (Proverbs 1).
At least four barriers stand between us and wisdom.
1. Bitter jealousy: I once read a well-written and researched article about the benefits of jealousy. This is the conclusion the article drew: “people who were feeling envious experienced an increase in their ability to pay attention to the target of their envy… (so) envy can serve an important personal and social function. It spurs competition and improvement.” In other words, jealousy leads to competition, competition leads to improvement, so in a roundabout way, jealousy is good.
But if you’re a Christian, improvement is not your chief end in life, Christlikeness is. Document all the statistics you want, but James is right to call “bitter jealousy” in verse 14 “demonic wisdom” in verse 15.
2. Selfish ambition: Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote to the effect of: “the dominant relationship between humans is one of competitive hostility.” Mothers, you have a tendency to look at other mothers and see them as hostile competitors. So you won’t learn from them. Peers, you have the tendency of looking at people your age as hostile competitors, so you won’t learn from them. Selfish ambition transforms brothers and sisters into competitors. Again, James is right to call “selfish ambition” in verse 14 “demonic wisdom” in verse 15.
3. Confirmation bias: You begin with a presupposed belief, and if there’s any information that opposes that belief, you ignore it. If there’s any information that supports your belief, you adore it. That’s why if you’re a Calvinist, you have ten or fifteen books on Calvinism on your bookshelf and zero on Arminianism. That’s why if you’re a conservative, you watch FOX and not NPR.
Your inability to even learn from opposing opinion is a barrier to you gaining wisdom because to gain from a differing opinion would require you to do the impossible: admit that you could be wrong.
4. Confusion: The world doesn’t know what wisdom is. If you polled Aristotle about wisdom, he would probably respond by saying: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom.” If you asked Immanuel Kant, he might say, “Wisdom is an organized life.” Socrates would answer, “The only true wisdom is that you know nothing.” The Beatles, on the other hand, wrote, “When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me/Speaking words of wisdom/Let it be/And in my hour of darkness/She is standing right in front of me/Speaking words of wisdom/Let it be/Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be/Whisper words of wisdom/Let it be.”
But if you polled the Lord, he might say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.”
Wisdom isn’t information, wisdom is fear of the Lord: your heart palpitating at the thought of him opening his hand and dropping you, your pulse quickening at the thought of your entire life existing between the Lord’s thumb and pointer finger. You have been given the capacity to fear. You have been given the ability to fear. It is stupidity to waste your fear by spending it on fear of man, fear of approval, fear of opinions, and to so dry your reservoir of fear that you have nothing to approach the Lord with but flippancy. But it is wise to approach men casually and the Lord fearfully, and when you feel this, you are sensing the beginning of wisdom.
And if fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, where does it end? 1 Corinthians: “In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Oh my! God’s wisdom is not ultimately his total omniscience; God’s wisdom is not ultimately his complete possession of every bit of information; God’s wisdom is not ultimately his utter ownership of every fact ever; it’s not even God’s all-powerful ability to synthesize facts, truths, and information with everyday life. God’s wisdom, ultimately, is the cross!
Wisdom is almost always cross-shaped, which is why James uses cross-shaped words to describe wisdom. Words like “meekness” in verse 13, words like “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy” in verse 17. These are all descriptions that are best embodied in the body of a hanging Christ on a cross.
This is the wisdom the world needs to flourish. This is the wisdom your marriage needs to flourish. This is the wisdom your holiness needs to flourish.
So, later this week when this article creeps back into your mind during some downtime, you will find yourself wondering: am I growing in wisdom? You’ll be tempted to answer the question in these ways: did I memorize any intelligent quotes? How many book sentences can I remember? How many bits of information did I collect? In Christ, these are no longer your measurements for wisdom.
The cross is now your measurement for wisdom. If you want to know whether you are growing in wisdom, ask yourself: are my relationships marked by peace? Am I becoming meeker in my conduct towards others? Am I becoming more weak in my conduct before the Lord? As James so rightly says, “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
Folly says: How can I win this argument and seem intelligent? Folly says: How can I defend my argument even in the face of logic? Folly says: How can I crucify my enemy?
It is only wisdom that so radically asks: How can I crucify my bias, my argument, or my self?