Default or Discipline
We are going to take a look at two kinds of wisdom and two sources of wisdom. There’s a quotation I first heard from Ken Boa that I think will help us think through this together.
“The world will define you by default; but the Word will define you by discipline.”
In other words, be passive… do nothing… and the world will lead you, tell you who you are and what you value. But the Word will only do that through disciplined reading, meditation, and study. That seems to be the consensus of the biblical writers and church history.
Since our Scripture is from the Book of James, let me first tell you a little about James. The Book of James has been called the “Proverbs of the New Testament” because it contains a lot of wisdom sayings, like Proverbs. It’s not a narrative. Instead, it is a general letter written somewhere between 40-60 AD, mainly to the Jewish Christians who had to leave Israel and were “scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). These were Christians who were experiencing persecution and suffering from both Rome and the Jews.
The author, James, was the brother of Jesus. James didn’t start off following Jesus. He didn’t believe. But some time after the resurrection not only did he believe in and follow Jesus, but he became one of the key leaders in the Jerusalem Church.
It was after the death of Stephen in the Book of Acts that many of the Jewish Christians had to flee Jerusalem because of the increased persecution. Thus, James would have known many of the names and faces of the people to whom he wrote, and they certainly would have been glad to hear from him.
That is also why James addresses suffering, since these Jewish Christians were going through so much of it. But he also addressed other themes such as faith and works, the words we say to others, and wisdom, to name a few.
What Wisdom Is Not
I find I pray for wisdom more consistently than almost anything else I pray about. I often find I’m in short supply of it. Can you relate to that?
But what is wisdom?
I grew up reading stories or watching movies where a person had to climb up a great mountain to find a wise guru sitting at the top of it, someone who could tell the seeker the meaning of life.
Or, maybe when thinking of a wise person we think of someone like Gandalf, the wizard from The Lord of the Rings. Even the word, “wizard,” is derived from the word “wise,” and so it means “wise one” or “teacher.” And so, we might think that a wise person has to wear a long flowing robe and walk with a staff… and don’t forget about the long beard.
Even the philosophers of Greece argued over who the real philosophers (lovers of wisdom) were versus the ones who were merely playing a part to gain a following.
Or maybe when you hear the word “wise” you think of the smartest person you know. A person who knows a lot of information. Someone who would easily win Jeopardy.
What Wisdom Is
Well, none of those ideas really capture, what James means when he writes on wisdom. Biblically speaking, wisdom is much more concerned about and connected to our character and daily living. And that’s the point James is making in our Scripture. In verse 13, James writes,
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. (emphasis mine)
The Hebrew meaning of wisdom could be defined this way: “skill in the art of living.” It has to do with application. In other words, wisdom must show up in how a person lives their life.
Furthermore, biblical wisdom is always connected to humility because it’s a gift. It is not something you were able to come up with on your own. James is saying heavenly wisdom is not self-serving and arrogant. Instead, it’s a gift that should glorify God and bless others. It’s a gift that shows our daily dependence upon the Giver of the gift.
Therefore, it should impact the way we live each day – how and what we say, do, think, and desire.
But James says worldly wisdom emerges when we live without reference to God and his Kingdom. Such wisdom is not informed by God’s will and ways. With such wisdom, God is not the one who influences one’s perspective.
James cautions us by saying this kind of wisdom leads to bitter envy and selfish ambition, which, according to James, creates disorder and evil practices (v. 16). James says worldly wisdom is earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic (v. 15).
The Father of Worldly Wisdom
In a Bible Study I teach on the Old Testament, we recently studied Genesis 3. Read the following exchange between the serpent and Eve from that chapter.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-4) (emphasis mine)
This earthly, unspiritual, and definitely demonic wisdom came from the father of lies (John 8:44). It was meant to create division, disorder, and depravity. It took Adam and Eve’s eyes off of their loving and gracious Creator who had already created them in his image and had provided for their every need.
But the serpent’s “wisdom” was to call God’s Word into question and cast doubt in their minds as to whether God was trustworthy and had their best interest at heart.
Unfortunately, the lie worked and we’ve been dealing with it ever since.
The Liar Versus Jesus
That same kind of wisdom was offered on another occasion. Recall this conversation in Matthew 4.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted v by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matthew 4:1-11)
This tempter, this father of lies, tried to tempt our Lord. He even quoted Scripture.
Yet as he did with Adam and Eve, the liar was only offering Jesus what already belonged to Jesus. Moreover, he offered something that wasn’t his to give. Perhaps worst of all, he was trying to tempt Jesus with what sounded like an easier way to have it all… no suffering… no Cross.
Just rebellion and betrayal to his heavenly Father.
But Jesus wasn’t just smart, though he was. And he didn’t just know a lot, though he did. He was wise. In fact, the Apostle Paul calls Jesus the very wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 1:24. And Jesus knew who he was. He had nothing to prove. He had nothing to gain. The devil twisted and manipulated Scripture to deceive and tempt Jesus. But Jesus responded with the correct interpretation and application of Scripture. That’s wisdom.
Because Jesus did not “live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), he was prepared for that moment.
The Fruit of Wisdom
We live in an upside-down world where many of the beliefs and values we hold dear run counter to much of the world around us. We see that when we look at the virtues listed in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 or the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.
The fruit of God’s wisdom we find listed in James 3 looks a lot like those two lists. James writes,
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
A life that bears this fruit is the good life according to James 3:13. Such a good life is made up of godly character and good deeds done in the humility that flows from godly wisdom.
Don’t you want to live that good life – not the good life that’s often portrayed in our ambient culture, but the good life James describes? I sure do. But when I’m thinking, speaking, and acting unwisely – or according to worldly wisdom – I experience the discord and disorder James warns us about.
Every Word of God
On the other hand, when I’m saturating myself in the Word of God and walking in the power and direction of the Holy Spirit I feel aligned with God’s will. It’s that very point the Apostle Paul addressed with these words in Romans 12:2.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I want to be aligned with God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. I want to have and live a transformed life. But to do so I need to renew my mind daily. I must soak in the wisdom of God. That’s true for all of us.
When I’m tempted by the world, the flesh, or the devil, I want to have the wisdom Jesus had when he was tempted. I want to think, speak, act, and desire what glorifies God. But to go back to the quotation from the beginning, if I don’t discipline myself to be a student of God’s Word, then I’ll end up drifting down the stream of the world by default.
Fellowship of the Word
I praise God we have so many opportunities at the church I serve to be people of the Word together. To be sure, we ought to be reading and studying Scripture on our own. But that value and impact is exponentially multiplied when we gather in fellowship with other Christians. We grow when we talk about what we’ve read and how that wisdom can mold us, shape us, and align us more and more to God’s will.
In Ephesians 1:17, Paul told the Church at Ephesus that he prayed they would be given the Spirit of wisdom (Ephesians 1:17). By the Spirit’s wisdom and power we’re able to know God better and grow in the wisdom James is talking about and bear its good fruit.
That is my prayer for you too.
Thanks be to God.