I’ve recently begun a Bible study in the book of James. Unlike other guided studies which lean heavily on leading questions, this one focuses primarily on prayerfully engaging with the Word of God itself–allowing the Holy Spirit to be the only intermediary. It’s been a blessing to shut out other voices and tune into God’s voice alone speaking through the pen of James the brother of Jesus.
One of the earliest themes to arise in this epistle is that of wisdom. Muddy-headed from an exhausting week and not-quite-enough sleep, when I came to my bible time this morning I wasn’t sure where to jump in. I read the first few verses on wisdom, and it hit me–that is just what I need!
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God.
Well, that seemed a great place to start.
As I pleaded with the Lord to give me wisdom, I remembered that James deals with it twice in his short letter–in chapters one and three. I thought perhaps I should take a closer look.
Here’s the passage in chapter one:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
And again in chapter three:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Words of Wisdom
I have the book of James printed out so that I can highlight, circle, and underline to my heart’s content. My pages were already marked up before today’s time of study, so I began taking notes in my bullet journal based on patterns and connections I had observed previously.
Jotting down all the words associated with wisdom in the book of James proved to be very helpful. Some are prerequisites, like recognizing our lack of it, having faith in God’s goodness and unchanging nature, and asking Him for the wisdom we so desperately need. We can also see very clearly wisdom’s source: “from above”.
Many of the rest of the positive statements about wisdom help us to understand what it produces. Good conduct. Meekness. Purity. Peaceableness. Gentleness. Reasonableness. Mercy. Good fruits. Impartiality. Sincerity. Righteousness. These aren’t too far afield of the fruit of the spirit, now are they? It struck me just how relational most of these words are. Some uses of the word wisdom in the Old Testament imply doing things with skill. It seems a big part of what wisdom is in the book of James involves skillfully (and righteously) relating to other people.
There are also a few things we can discover about wisdom that aren’t directly stated. Since doubt and a lack of wisdom produce instability (James 1:5-6), we can infer that faith and wisdom produce stability, so that we aren’t tossed about by every wave. This has immediate relevance to how we hold up in times of trial and testing (that’s the context of these verses!).
Later in chapter three, we learn that two of the characteristics that are opposed to wisdom, jealousy and selfish ambition, lead to disorder, allowing us to infer that true wisdom will lead to order. I can’t help but relate this to the classical concept of ordering the affections, meaning this has much more to do with how our hearts are aligned (read: what we love most) than with the amount of clutter in our homes (though it’s wise to stay on top of that, too). Godly wisdom will help us to prioritize, and as we can see from the words James uses in this letter, people are higher on the list than things.
Many of the words James uses in chapter three illustrate what wisdom is not. These are every bit as instructive as the positive list–perhaps even more so considering how easy it is for us to assume we have wisdom by simply agreeing with its propositions. This intellectual assent can blind us to the ways in which our lives demonstrate the very opposite of godly wisdom. Spend some time with this list of what wisdom isn’t and ask yourself the question James posed to his readers: “Who among you is wise and understanding?”
Wisdom Hits Home
This little letter is humbling. But that’s a good thing. It reminds us to throw ourselves on the grace of God offered to us through Jesus Christ, seeking Him as we plead for wisdom to live in a way that’s worthy of the gospel.
As this exhortation meets my daily life, I know I need to be grounded in the foundational truth that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Also, consistent with James chapter three’s focus on taming the tongue, it’s good to remember the example laid down in Proverbs 31:26: “She opens her mouth in wisdom, And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” My husband and children have a front-row seat to my application of godly wisdom. When it’s lacking, they feel the effects of it.
Ultimately, what I see in the book of James is this: To be wise and understanding is to be like Christ. Jesus is the answer to James’ question: “Who is wise and understanding among you?”
Seeking wisdom merely for our own benefit or as an intellectual exercise misses the point.
The heart of wisdom outlined in James chapters one and three speaks to every other issue in the epistle: trials, temptation, relating to others in either anger or peace, doing rather than just hearing the word of God, keeping ourselves unstained by the world, not showing partiality, putting hands and feet to our profession of faith by loving others in deed and truth, using words appropriately, loving the eternal God rather than the temporal world, using our money to bless others rather than take advantage of them, being humble before God and others, submitting plans to the Lord’s will, waiting for the day of the Lord, and praying for and lifting up the lowly.
Whew! You bet I need God’s wisdom and grace for these things!
Seems to me that at the end of the letter of James, we ought to circle back around to the beginning:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all generously and without reproach.”
Our good, gracious, dependable God will answer this prayer. He’s the one who has invited us to pray it, after all.
What have you been learning from the Word lately?