Wisdom from Above

In a previous post, we considered what James teaches about bad wisdom, or “wisdom from below.” In this post we will take a look at good wisdom, or “wisdom from above.”

A Boutonniere of Peace

England’s William Gladstone is not only recognized as one of the more perceptive statesmen of all time, but also as a persistent apostle of peace. One day as the courageous man stood in Parliament arguing for the freedom of Ireland, a rose dropped from the lapel of his coat. After Gladstone had left the chamber, a fellow member of the House retrieved it, saying: “It keeps me mindful of a great heart pleading for a better world.”[1]

Peace in Our Time?

To all those here who long for peace in our world, for peace in our time – let me assure you of the one thing we do not want to hear. It cannot come. It cannot come because the wisdom of this world cannot achieve it. Peace treaties, overtures of lofty speeches, policies of lawmakers and monarchs, trade deals, and so many things sound so good and promise so much, don’t they? But let me assure you of one thing. Peace throughout the world cannot come, not now. Why? Because the wisdom of the most skillful orator, the skill of the most accomplished ambassador and diplomat, the most intricate and compelling treaty on a paper – these things cannot rise above the wisdom of this world.

It is a limited and faulty kind of wisdom that cannot ultimately deliver what really needs to happen to achieve peace. Underneath all of these attempts at peace are hearts people of this world with bitter, envious hearts; political, self-seeking hearts; braggadocios, boastful hearts; earthbound, immoral, demonically influenced hearts. And for the nation who has ally nations on their side, can it really be said that they enjoy real, genuine, lasting peace with their allies? Even with allies, a nation does not enjoy true and genuine peace.

While all of this may be true (and rather hopeless sounding), let me assure you of one thing. Peace is possible, true peace is achievable somewhere else, somewhere here and now, somewhere called the church – and in particular, a local church. That is to whom James is writing here in his letter, a church (or churches). So allow me to quote again from the fellow of William Gladstone who spoke of the rose petal that fell from Gladstone’s coat,

So while the world may not be able to achieve peace in our time until the Lord Jesus Christ establishes His future reign of peace upon the Earth in person, any biblical church should have as a clear and unmistakable mission to achieve and to maintain peace within the family, within the family of Christ, the community of born-again believers whom God has assembled.

In order to accomplish this mission, we must first understand the destructive, uncontrollable, contradictory power of the tongue. And knowing this, we must then be able to identify the wrong kind of talking, the wrong kind of wisdom that induces this destruction and division in a church. How? By looking past the compelling, skillful words to the attitudes and behavior that characterizes the person doing the talking. But there is another far more encouraging point to make. It is this: learn to identify good wisdom by the good qualities and effects that accompany it.

Learn to identify good wisdom (James 3:17-19).

If we will learn to identify destructive speech and the low level wisdom that employs it, we must also learn to identify the kind of speech and wisdom that we must embrace, that we must encourage, and that you must work so very hard to foster in your church, by God’s grace. What does this kind of good wisdom look like?

Divine wisdom features some important corresponding qualities (James 3:17).

There are two kinds of wisdom: the kind that is from below, and the kind that is from above. Both are legitimate, real, bonafide kinds of skill with words and persuasion to take certain steps of action and to adopt certain attitudes and perspectives.

But one of these skillful approaches is not from God. James calls it “the wisdom that is from below.”

  • It is low-level because it is earthbound wisdom that cannot take into consideration eternal details and spiritual perspectives.
  • But it is also low-level wisdom because it is hellish, demonic It is the kind of thinking, talking, and acting that the devil and the demons themselves follow.

Remember Peter in Matthew 16? He advised the Lord to not go to the cross. This kind of wisdom does not see the eternal as more real than the temporal. It does not see divine things as more important than human things. It does not see spiritual things as more significant than earthly things. And how did Jesus respond? He rebuked the devil. He recognized that Peter was giving him wisdom that was not only earthbound in its perspective, dipping into the dust and the dirt of this temporal world, but he was in fact at a lower level than that – he was dipping into the flames of hell.

But there is another kind of wisdom – “the wisdom that is from above.” This is the wisdom that found no place nor appreciation in this world. And so this wisdom retreated to heaven. And now God provides this wisdom to each one of His children who are alive in this world, to embrace and to employ as far as they will take it. Jesus Christ, who is Wisdom personified, Wisdom in Person, Wisdom in Divine and Human form – all at once – makes Himself available in all of us.

Do you recall James 1:5?

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

And do you recall James 1:17?

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

To have and to exercise the kind of skill, the kind of words, the kind of wisdom that is from God and resides in heaven above, you must realize that you lack having it. That’s what James 1:5 tells us. If you think you are a wise person, think again. You don’t have wisdom until you’ve asked from God.

You don’t have wisdom until you’ve asked from God.

So you must ask God. You must look up, up towards the lights, the stars above, because the wisdom you seek is not found in this world. It is found in God alone. It is FROM ABOVE, above the stars in a sense! But He will certainly give it to you whenever and as often as you ask. So, what is this wisdom like?

Good wisdom is morally and ethically pure – first.

The order here is not insignificant. It is important. Notice that James doesn’t only provide a list; he specifically points out that this first point is indeed first – first in priority, the thing that is the starting place, the source, the beginning for of the rest of things in the list. And what is that quality? It is purity.

From the study that I’ve done on this word, it seems best to describe this word as expressing something like this – purity of morals and ethics. Purity in the passions and purity in your principles.

How may purity be described? It may be described as something consisting of one consistent element.

Remember science class in 8th or 9th grade? Remember learning the Table of Elements, also called the Periodic Elements? How many elements are there?

As of 2014, the periodic table has 114 confirmed elements, comprising elements 1 (hydrogen) to 112 (copernicium), 114 (flerovium) and 116 (livermorium).[2]

These elements are natural forms of matter that consist of one element – not mixtures, compounds, or subatomic particles – and they are distinguished by the number of protons in their nucleus. For instance, water is not an element because it contains multiple elements in its molecular structure – oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen has 8 protons in its nucleus, and hydrogen has one.

And do you know that gold is a basic, simple, natural element? And have you heard the phrase, “pure gold?” What does that mean? That means that the gold in question has been heated up so hot that all other elements have risen to the top and been removed so that the gold you are looking at is 100% gold, with no other elements mixed in. It means that the gold you are looking at only has molecules with 79 protons in their nucleuses (nuclei).

And that’s what James is talking about. But he is talking about your heart, your inner man. He is not talking about the Periodic Table. He is talking about a heart that:

  • Does not feature all kinds of motives,
  • Does not meditate on all kinds of moral fantasies,
  • Does not hide away all kinds of secrets,
  • Does not love all sorts of things,
  • Does not worship multiple gods, and
  • Does not attempt to love the world and God at the same time.

James is talking here about a heart that is united to fear God, love Him, and to serve Him, not distracted or polluted with other objectives.

Is your heart pure? Or is it pulled in many directions? Is it a heart that is single-minded, focused on God and His kingdom? If it is, then the wisdom of God is there. But if your heart is pulled in many directions – morally and ethically, then you have a heart that is mixed. It is mixed up. It is impure. That kind of heart will produce the kind of wisdom we looked at last week.

  • For a boy or man of any age, a pure heart loves one woman as a spouse. The woman who will one day be your wife (even though you may not know her yet). The woman who is your wife (if you are married).
  • For a girl or lady of any age, a pure heart loves one man as a spouse. The man who will one day be your husband (even though you may not know him yet). The man who is your husband (if you are married).
  • It is a heart that operates on the same principles of godliness and honesty at church, at work, and at home.
  • It is a heart that follows the same principles around other people and when you are alone.
  • It is a heart that only has one set of books!

A person once told me that in a particular culture, there is a common joke told about the men of the culture. They say that the men have three sets of accounting records. One book the man shows to his wife. Another book he shows to his mistress. And a third book is the real and accurate one.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it should not be so with us. We should be pure. One set of books. One way of living and conducting our lives. Purity.

Why is divine wisdom so scarce, so hard to find these days? I believe it is because purity of heart – in morals and in ethics – is so scarce, so hard to find these days. And as a result, one thing is very easy to find these days – anxiety, worry, and stress. But divine wisdom is not this way.

Good wisdom is free from anxiety.

James tells us that a pure and unmixed heart will produce a peaceful attitude, a tranquil spirit, not a restless one, one that is contentious, and stirring up trouble. Why do we have a tendency to stir up trouble, contention, rivalry, and division – all in the name of wisdom and discernment? I’ll tell you why. It’s not ultimately because we’re anxious and uneasy about the people we are targeting with our talk; it’s because we’re anxious and uneasy about ourselves.

When you have an impure heart – your morals and your ethics are not unmixed, drawn from God and toward God alone. The impure heart is a restless heart. The heart that loves a lot of things is a restless heart. The heart that loves the wrong things is a restless heart. The heart that keeps three books is a restless heart!

And a restless heart will produce godless, low-level wisdom. But the pure heart that is at rest with God will make possible a peaceful demeanor and attitude that is tranquil and harmonious, quiet and calm, in any sort of circumstance.

Consider with me the example of King Solomon. When you consider the start of his reign over the nation of Israel, you will notice that he was a pure and peaceful person. He asked God for wisdom, and God gave it to him. He did not ask for riches. He did not ask for power. He did not ask for fame. He asked for one thing – and had an unmixed, pure heart.

But what happened? As his kingdom progressed, his heart grew divided. He loved many women. He accumulated 700 wives and 300 additional, unofficial wives. He multiplied wealth and possessions. And so many other things happened. His heart grew divided. And you find that the pure and peaceful wisdom of Proverbs, many of which were written by him, switched over to the disturbed restless of the book of Ecclesiastes.

But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father (1 Ki. 11:1-4).

And how about you? Are you restless? If so, what mixed motives, what ethical contradictions, what moral contradiction inconsistencies plague your heart? And that’s what does it, doesn’t it?

  • Ethical contradictions in your heart and behavior
  • Moral inconsistencies in your heart and behavior

These things rob a man or a woman, a boy or a girl of the tranquil spirit, the peaceful heart – the heart free from anxiety – that makes true, divine wisdom possible. But when the purity of God takes over the heart who has made things right with God and with neighbors, oh the peace that floods the soul, and the wisdom that follows! And other qualities also enter in.

Perhaps you may be saying, yes there ARE ethical contradictions and moral inconsistencies that plague my heart today. What should I do?

The short answer is, confess them to God specifically and know that He will cleanse them away by His blood and forgive them today. And if they are offenses against another person in a way that you have breached your obligation to them or have hurt them clearly, then you must also seek their forgiveness.

Good wisdom is courteous and reasonable.

The believer who allows God to purify his morals and ethics gains the peace of heart that eliminates anxiety and all of its complications. And this makes a certain kind of wisdom and attitude possible. It enables a person to be gentle – which means that a person genuinely exhibits good manners, which is the opposite of being rude, abrupt, and mean.

So when a person is rude, abrupt, and mean – you can know that the wisdom of God from above is not happening at that moment, at the very least. And you should handle whatever is said with judicious caution. Even if it sounds rational and logical, even biblical – if the presentation is not courteous, be cautious.

But when your heart is free with God, you have nothing to prove and nothing to hide. God is on your side and He will give you wisdom in any situation. And so you have no selfish interest to preserve, no personal anxiety or jealousy to enforce, not point to prove to the world at large.

You are free to be gentle! You are free to use good and gracious manners to anyone at any time, even if you find that others will walk all over you – as they did our Lord Jesus Christ. You are free to be reasonable, to think carefully and calmly. You have no urgent rush to speak and defend your points. You can be gentle!

Good wisdom is willing to listen and learn.

Here, the word is easy to be intreated. It coincides naturally with the previous feature of gentility and gentleness. The idea is simple and so greatly desirable. We all want this of others, and we all desire it for ourselves. It means that you will not be afraid to listen. You will be approachable.

You know what it is like, don’t you, to be afraid to talk to this person or that person because of how they may respond? You’ve heard or used the phrase, “Talking with that person is like walking on egg shells.” What does that mean? It means that you have to walk so very carefully so that you don’t crack the egg shells – so that you don’t make them angry or get them to react in some undesirable way!

I have that experience as a pastor, to be honest with you. As a pastor, I have to talk to all kinds of people about all kinds of things. Sometimes I have to say things that are not popular or may not be well received, or may be easily misunderstood. And yet there are some people that I find myself more afraid to talk to than others. Why is that? Because some people are easy to talk to. No matter what I tell them, I know that there will be no rise of spirit, no flushed cheeks, no quick responses, no angry words, no threats, and no arguing. But it is not always that way. Sometimes I have a sense that there will be some of these things – reactions, anger, frustration, animosity, debating, and so forth – and I am afraid or nervous.

And what is the key for me – and for all of us? Be first of all pure in morals and in ethics. Learn the peace of God that comes from this priority, and then it becomes a lot easier to be courteous and to be easily addressed.

The idea here for the word “easy to be entreated” also has a layer of meaning that seems to contrast with the “disorder” of low-level wisdom. In a church body, for instance, there is order to be followed; the church is not a free-for-all. While all contribute and serve, all should follow a particular order.

As a pastor, I find myself in front of the order, so to speak. So this requires me, more than all, to be courteous and reasonable. That being the case, the rest of the church should follow in a courteous and reasonable way, following the order the God has arranged.

Without pastoral leadership, the service of deacons, and the teamwork of the saints, chaos and disorder ensue. Meetings and functions of a church should resemble the beauty of a well-rehearsed symphony and not the chaos of a Senate chamber!

So in a church, you must recognize a certain order to things. And regardless of age and gender, regardless of all of these kinds of things – you need to recognize the order that is there. If a SS teacher or choir leader speaks to you about the wrong behavior of your child, be easily entreated. Don’t react. Listen. Be courteous and take the advice to heart. If an usher, of any age, asks you to change pews, keep food out of the auditorium, etc. – don’t argue with them. Realize that there is an order to things and that they have a responsibility to fulfill. Be easily entreated!

Good wisdom is forgiving and generous.

A person who is first pure is themselves then a person who is able to be merciful and generous. Why? It is a very natural (ahem, supernatural) thing. Here’s why. Because no one is naturally pure in morals and in ethics. To become pure in morals and in ethics, we need a couple of things.

  • We need forgiveness from God. We need God to release us from our impurities. And guess what? He does!
  • We need grace from God. We need God to release to us His own purity to replace our own impurities. And guess what? He does!

And so a person who has experienced this forgiveness and purifying work by God in their own hearts, and is in fact experiencing it in an ongoing way – they will be wise and skillful in these qualities themselves! They will be:

  • Merciful – always ready to forgive; they will not hold grudges, and will not insist on letter of the law perfection.
  • Full of good fruits – always ready to give, they will not be stingy, but will meet the needs of others when able.

Why? Because that is how God is treating them. Always forgiving, always giving!

Good wisdom is fair and impartial.

The person who displays divine wisdom does not display prejudice in judgment and treatment based upon unimportant qualities, which the world may view differently – things such as financial status, skin color, ethnicity, level of education or skill, and so on. This person does not show mercy and meet the needs of some people and disregard or disdain others, based upon the details of this kind. They will be like God Himself, the provider and originator of divine wisdom, who expects justice for every person equally, died for every person equally, and makes salvation possible for every person equally.

And we should display the same heart – for it is indeed true wisdom. The kind of wisdom that emphasizes distinctions, elevates one social class over another, sets one party at odds against another, one culture at odds against another, one trade at odds against another, one age group over another and so forth – one group in the church at odds against another, etc. This kind of wisdom is not from God.

Now, this impartiality does not mean no discrimination. In fact, the very point that James is making is that we must discriminate or discern what is important. We must recognize and handle worldly wisdom and talk one way, and godly wisdom and talk another, because worldly talk is destructive, and godly talk generates peace. And Paul also teaches the important making biblical distinctions and passing biblical judgment on things that are contrary to the wisdom of God – in another key passage regarding wisdom from God (1 Corinthians 2:15).

Good wisdom is genuinely sincere and transparent.

What you see is what you get; no fine print, no disclaimers, no hidden motives or agendas; not pretending, but authentic. Oh, how we long for this don’t we? We long for people in our lives who are the real deal. People who are not pretending. People who are not performing, but are genuine, and genuinely good. And that is the kind of person that James is appealing for, and believing that they can still exist, and can exist in great numbers in the church of Jesus Christ!

This is not the person who says, well I just speak my mind. That makes me an honest person! Well, maybe it makes you honest, but it doesn’t make you wise. Again, the point James is making here is that a wise person will not speak his mind if what is on his mind is wrong, or tainted with the wrong attitude or by the wrong behavior! Sincerity is more than just speaking your mind. That’s the best that low-level, earthly wisdom can offer in the name of honesty. But divine wisdom speaks its mind and what comes out when that happens is good things.

Ultimately, good wisdom produces good effects (James 3:18).

James teaches that when believers in a church assembly practice divine wisdom, the kind that comes from God above, two things will happen.

  1. Righteousness and justice increase.
  2. Harmony and tranquility increase.

Here is the point. When a bad king rules a country, he tolerates and promotes the wrong agendas, and he punishes and promotes the wrong people. What is the result? An increase in disorder and confusion, and an increase of all kinds of immorality and evil. But when a good king rules, he tolerates and promotes the right agendas, and he punishes and promotes the right kind of people. What is the result? An increase in order and harmony, and an increase in all kinds of moral and good behavior, similar to Isaiah 59:14.

And judgment is turned away backward, And justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, And equity cannot enter.

When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: But when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn (Proverbs 29:2).

When the wicked rise, men hide themselves: But when they perish, the righteous increase (Proverbs 28:13). 

The same is true in a church. When worldly wisdom is the talk of the day, disorder, strife, and trouble increases, and so does immorality and all kinds of other sins. But when godly wisdom is the talk of the day, peace, harmony, morality, and goodness increases!

In conclusion, this teaching from James is an appeal to turn away from the low-level, earth-bound kind of wisdom that destroys true peace among God’s people, and increases division and confusion. And by sharing this study, I am advocating for the kind of interaction with your brothers and sisters in church that comes out from a heart that is increasingly pure in morals and in ethics, in passions and in principles.

And with this in mind, a church that is able to interact with one another with gentleness, listening ears, courtesy, forgiveness and graciousness, fairness, and genuine sincerity and transparency.

You might say, well that’s impossible! If we are talking about international or national or city-wide peace, perhaps this is entirely true. But that is not the scope of this study. James is talking about a church.

But you might still say, well this is still impossible! James gives you hope that we don’t have to resign ourselves to something less than true wisdom. What is the key? A commitment to humble, faithful obedience to the Word of God. Faith that puts into practice what the Bible says, one step at a time. That’s the big picture of the book of James anyway, isn’t it?

By sharing this study, I hope to be an advocate for peace, gentleness, and godly wisdom your church – as William Gladstone was for a free Ireland. I want to maintain the faith of a child, believing that this goal, this hope, this dream is entirely true.

_________

[1] G. Curtis Jones, 1000 Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1986), 270.

[2] Wikipedia, cited on June 22, 2015

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