One way to define gaining knowledge is the acquiring of facts or information. Wisdom, though, is the ability to use that knowledge in the right way: with sound judgment, a wholistic perspective, and in lessons learned through personal experience. There are different kinds of wisdom, James is quick to point out, and, like other attributes he has explored so far, the kind of wisdom that he is talking about can be seen in the life.
Though other characteristics of wisdom are explored in subsequent verses, James first focuses on the meekness of wisdom. Knowledge, when not tempered with wisdom, can easily lead to arrogance, a completely disproportionate view of one’s own self-importance. Perhaps it’s due to humanity’s natural bent toward selfishness or the inaccurate metric of accomplishment to determine self-worth; in whatever case, nearly everyone can think of someone who comes across as arrogant because of how they wield “how much they know” about this or that. Wisdom, when it’s the right kind, allows the knowledgeable one to see their knowledge in its context, and see themselves in the proper context too. This “proper context” can also be called reality, and it results in meekness.
This week’s lesson will explore how not all wisdom is created equal, but the Christian doesn’t have to be confused about the good and the bad—just like everything else, the evidence is in the fruit.
Certain sections of the Bible have timid readers scurrying for cover lest they die of boredom. A common culprit is lists: genealogies, sins to avoid, people who were there, and attributes to embrace. But each of these items hold their own blessing and insight, even if they require a little more time to discover. The Biblical authors were not pressured by word counts—so every thought behind the words is worth our consideration.
James’s definition of heavenly wisdom is one such list—nice words that are often glazed over. But what can be discovered when taken one at a time? What is heavenly wisdom, really?
Pure: It is untainted, unsullied by sinful attitude and motivation; this is the first evidence that it is heaven borne, since all purity is only possible from God Himself.
Peaceable: True purity leads to true peace; this wisdom can bring peace among quarreling parties, and even more so, brings peace to the heart in a way nothing else can. Thus this wisdom both shares peace with others and fills the possessor with peace.
Gentle: True wisdom does not hammer what it knows into other people; it deals with them gently, whether in agreement or in error.
Willing to yield: True wisdom is open to discussion, open to reason, open to conversation, to change, and to being wrong; it does not change out of people-pleasing, neither does it remain obstinate “just because.”
Full of mercy: True wisdom tells the possessor that he should extend to others the same mercy he has been the recipient of; after being the receiver, he is now a conduit.
[full of] good fruits: True wisdom is expressed in the life because it’s held genuinely and sincerely; the evidence in the life cannot be helped any more than it can be forced.
Without partiality: True wisdom does not “respect persons” (Deut. 16:19) because it knows that this is foolishness (as James has already established in chapter 2).
Without hypocrisy: This wisdom does not pretend to be something or someone it is not; there is sincerity and realness. It’s not a façade someone wears, but rather permeates the entire being of the one who has it.
These are not attributes to be used to conjure heavenly wisdom; they’re not to be scrounged up and pieced together, so that the possessor can declare, “Aha! I have heavenly wisdom!” Instead, this is a picture of what someone will look like, be like, and live like when they have wisdom from God. They are the effects, not the causes, of heavenly wisdom.
After delving into the differences between living faith and dead faith in the previous chapter, James continues this kind of comparison in the context of wisdom: wisdom that descends from above and earthly wisdom. James takes the time to describe demonic wisdom for the sake of his listeners to understand what it is and to steer clear of it.
Earthly, sensual, and demonic wisdom is found where the individual has bitter envy and self-seeking in his or her heart. It’s a kind of wisdom that’s self-focused, using what it knows to promote self and seek the place of others, and sees achievement as something in which to beat others. Envy includes seeing others as competition or obstacles to getting what one wants, instead of the fellow brothers and sisters they actually are. Self-seeking shows the possessor is not walking in love, because the focus is on oneself instead of God and others. When envy and self-focus are in the heart, James warns, do not take this as an opportunity to “boast and lie against the truth” (James 3:14). Earthly wisdom, like earthly knowledge, can be used as an excuse for arrogance and an inflated view of oneself; this is a lie, though, and distorts reality.
Envy and self-seeking are not standalone sins: “Confusion and every evil thing are there” when these two are held in the heart (v. 16). Instead of “good fruits” (v. 17), earthly wisdom brings countless sufferings, evils, and distortions in its train. Like most things in the great controversy, these are not two options for wisdom that are “kind of good” and “kind of bad”: there is one that leads to untold misery and evil and another that leads to peace and righteousness.
Tragically, worldly wisdom can still look like real wisdom—in part. It can be charming, enticing, successful by the standards of the world that humanity is constantly bombarded with. It can look really good. Again, this shows the importance of the fruit of the life. What fruits are borne from the wise person’s life—both on stage and off? What happens when they are challenged? Do they listen, consider, and are they “willing to yield” (v. 17)? What happens if they are misunderstood? Do they seek clarity and mutual understanding, or does their fire-and-brimstone response give evidence of a different spirit?
The condition of the heart shows what kind of wisdom has taken up residence there, and the condition of the heart is displayed in the life.
James ends chapter 3 with a mildly cryptic sentence: “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). It helps to unpack it backwards, since it’s written backwards chronologically: (a) there are people who make peace; (b) these people sow seeds of a certain kind; (c) these seeds bear the fruit of righteousness. Within the context, James is still talking about heavenly wisdom. It is a sign of spiritually mature and wise people to encourage peace between individuals, to sow peace, work peace, encourage peace, and be peaceable. This peace bears the fruit of righteousness; like agricultural seeds, it may take time, but it is sure.
Quite literally, that’s exactly why Jesus came: to create peace practically between estranged humanity and God. Paul explained that, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . When we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son. . . . We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Rom. 5:1, 10, 11; emphasis supplied). Jesus is the Greatest Peacemaker there ever was, both fulfilling God’s requirement of righteousness and taking on the consequences of humanity’s failures. His sacrifice makes no sense in the context of worldly wisdom: why would God risk all of heaven for the sake of wayward creatures? Maybe it could be understood to die for someone who was righteous, but why die for one’s enemies? (Rom. 5:6, 7, 10). Why take a punishment that someone else deserves? Why share a reward with someone who merited none of it? Jesus chose to do these unexplainable things out of love: not for Himself, but for humanity.
This Greatest Peacemaker extends His mission of peace to all who love Him; by being compelled by His same love, His disciples become His ambassadors to plead with others to be reconciled to God, to accept the peace that Jesus secured for all who will accept it (2 Cor. 5:14, 20). His children represent the God of Peace who fills believers with peace, enables them to live in peace, and, most miraculously, to be at peace with Himself (Rom. 15:13, 33; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 4:9). Peace, then, is not just a mental state, a word to be cross-stitched or sought after—it is a theologically rich and deeply practical experience that was earned by Jesus and freely given to His children, who, in turn, will not be able to keep from giving the good news to those around them.
The Bible is God’s great lesson book, His great educator. The foundation of all true science is contained in the Bible. Every branch of knowledge may be found by searching the word of God. And above all else it contains the science of all sciences, the science of salvation. The Bible is the mine of the unsearchable riches of Christ.
The true higher education is gained by studying and obeying the word of God. But when God’s word is laid aside for books that do not lead to God and the kingdom of heaven, the education acquired is a perversion of the name.
There are wonderful truths in nature. The earth, the sea, and the sky are full of truth. They are our teachers. Nature utters her voice in lessons of heavenly wisdom and eternal truth. But fallen man will not understand. Sin has obscured his vision, and he cannot of himself interpret nature without placing it above God. Correct lessons cannot impress the minds of those who reject the word of God. The teaching of nature is by them so perverted that it turns the mind away from the Creator.
By many, man’s wisdom is thought to be higher than the wisdom of the divine Teacher, and God’s lesson book is looked upon as old-fashioned, stale, and uninteresting. But by those who have been vivified by the Holy Spirit it is not so regarded. They see the priceless treasure, and would sell all to buy the field that contains it. Instead of books containing the suppositions of reputedly great authors, they choose the word of Him who is the greatest author and the greatest teacher the world has ever known, who gave His life for us, that through Him we might have everlasting life. (Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 107, 108.)
Many of our youth suffer shipwreck in the dangerous voyage of life, because they are self-confident and presumptuous. They follow their inclinations, and are allured by amusements, and indulgence of appetite, till habits are formed which become shackles, impossible for them to break, and which drag them down to ruin. . . . If the youth of our day would, like young King Solomon, feel their need of heavenly wisdom, and seek to develop and strengthen their higher faculties, and consecrate them to the service of God, their lives would show great and noble results, and bring pure and holy happiness to themselves and many others. (Ellen G. White, SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 2, 1024.)