By Cheri Lynn Cowell
My heart sank. I bit my bottom lip and shook my head in disbelief as I read the letter. My good friend was on the phone weeping over the accusations another friend of ours had leveled in the two-page indictment I was reading. I knew that a third person—a person who dabbled in dissention and self-ambition—had stirred the pot. Rumors were now flying, and I could see how many lives were about to be thrown into chaos. I uttered a quick prayer. Lord, help me know what to do.
I am a fixer type of person. My instinct was to pull these two friends together and set both of them straight. But I’d been studying the book of James and decided to apply heavenly wisdom and not my own earthly wisdom. James 3:13-18 is often quoted when studying the subject of wisdom. However, as is the case with most Scripture study, we don’t get a full picture of what James is saying about heavenly wisdom until we read the verses in context. So we must start with the beginning of the chapter.
The Tongue as Indicator
James begins chapter 3 by exposing how our tongues can be used for both good and evil. He offers several indelible images to make his point—the bit in the mouth of a horse, a rudder on a ship, and a forest set ablaze by a fire. He wants us to know the tongue speaks from what is deep in the well—if the water is brackish or fresh, that is what we will get from the “mouth” of the river.
We are warned that we cannot determine or control what the tongue does from the mouth for “no one can tame the tongue.” Yet isn’t that what you and I try to do? James tells us this effort is futile without addressing the source of the water. This section ends with the question: Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
Outside = Inside
At first glance it seems James is beginning a new subject in verse 13. He asks how we can know if someone is wise or understanding. In answering the question, James returns to the same theme echoed in the first part of the chapter, therefore connecting this section with the previous.
He points out that how one lives on the outside demonstrates what is on the inside. This is where the seat of wisdom rests. Our good works, or the way in which we live our lives, are to be done with “gentleness born of wisdom.” Here he is not speaking of a passive gentleness growing from weakness but rather is describing strength operating under control, like a stallion that is bridled. Such gentleness is characteristic of godly wisdom.
Next, James addresses a problem that existed in the Jerusalem church to whom he was writing, and it is a problem we still see in our churches today. He says if we harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition, we need to see these as big red flags indicating something is wrong. James’s readers were boasting in their defense of the faith and their position in the kingdom, setting themselves above and apart as special while gaining prestige for themselves and their group. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
James clearly states such wisdom does not come from above. He calls this sort of so-called “wisdom” earthly, unspiritual, and of the devil. But James does not leave us without a tool for discernment. He tells us to look for the telltale signs of disorder, especially of the political kind, and wickedness or folly, which prevents us from doing the good we were called to do. Selfish zeal and ambition lead people away from godly work, and this is always unwise.
The Big Contrast
James closes his argument with a contrast. He contrasts the earthly wisdom he just explored with wisdom that comes from Heaven. The basic characteristic of heavenly wisdom is its purity. This is not specifically of a sexual nature but rather is of a spiritual or sinless nature. It is seen in the motive of the action and is opposite of the self-seeking motive described in earthly wisdom.
He goes on to describe godly wisdom as peace-loving, considerate, gentle, and kind. Those with godly wisdom are not insistent on their legal rights but lean on love’s grace instead. Likewise, godly wisdom is yielding and submissive, “full of mercy and good fruit.” It stands ready with compassion first, showing no favoritism or partiality. Finally, it is sincere and without hypocrisy. It is honest, through and through. This is wisdom in work overalls. It is the kind of wisdom that is lived out from a life transformed by and anchored in Christ.
Our Wisdom Quotient
In summary, James 3:13-18 gets to the heart of the matter at hand. The verses demonstrate that what flows from our mouths and our lives is indicative of what is in our hearts. But just what is to be our measure of wisdom?
James wraps up this chapter by returning to a favorite topic—that of righteousness. His message is precise and hits home: a crop of righteousness cannot grow in the soil of bitterness and selfishness. The soil in our soul must be the soil of peace, and the Peacemaker can only cultivate that soil himself. When we sow peace, we reap peace. Therefore, we ought to measure our wisdom quotient by God’s measuring stick, and his is spelled p-e-a-c-e. The equation is simple: the more peace, the more wisdom.
The Way of Wisdom
When I asked the Lord to guide me in the messy situation with my friends, he gave me a clear and most difficult order. God told me to stay silent. He instructed me not to confront. He told me to wait—a very hard thing for this type-A person to do. Yet as I waited, I noticed peace began to replace my hurt. Eventually, when the situation came to mind, peace was my first thought and not simply the thing I sought.
Just this week the accusing friend called to tell me she had come to know the truth. God had revealed it in a way that only he could have. Healing is taking place in God’s perfect timing. If I had stepped in, as I originally desired, this perfect timing would have been thwarted. If I’d trusted in my own wisdom, healing might not have occurred and things would have likely been made worse.
Taking the time to cultivate peace in my heart was indeed the way of wisdom. James had it right. Peace is always at the heart of godly wisdom.
Cheri Lynn Cowell is a freelance writer in Oviedo, Florida.
“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. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 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. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”