“If I could teach this tough course, it would look so good on my curriculum vitae.” As preparations started for each new semester, the nursing faculty scrambled for teaching assignments. It was heady to be chosen for a course known for its academic content. No one publicly announced they were the more “academic” faculty member, but we all knew and strove to be that one. At times it got kind of spicy and tense as two faculty members vied for the top position. Sometimes sides were chosen as to who was more worthy and dissension budded in the ranks.
James 3:13 speaks to this scenario. “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.” We all wanted to be known as wise and understanding, but we missed the mark in the “humility that comes from wisdom.” Some of us were Christians, but we still harbored “bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts” (v. 14).
The Greek conditional clause of James’ question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” implies he was addressing an existing issue in the church. He challenged the early Christians, perhaps teachers or rabbis who clamored to be known as wise and understanding, to look deep into their hearts. Were they boasting of their accomplishments? Were they denying pride and arrogance in their desire to be known as the wise ones? Were they willing to bare their hearts’ covert desires, passions, and thoughts to the purity of God? To these “wise and understanding” and to us, James says not to boast about personal knowledge and accomplishments, but to demonstrate God-sought wisdom with humble, gentle, teachable behavior.
Why Wisdom Matters
Wisdom is the practical application of knowledge with moral reasoning in life skills. James explained that wisdom is humbly demonstrated by good behavior. One who is wise relies on God to see and live from his viewpoint. Wisdom is demonstrated in an active, ongoing dependence on God to respond to others with gentle, good behavior.
James cited two types of wisdom. The first does not originate from God, but is founded on one’s base nature, selfishness, and conniving. We see it exhibited by “harbor[ing] bitter envy and selfish ambition” (James 3:14). The Voice translation describes envy as a heart “that bleeds dark streams of jealousy.” Envy is wanting something someone else has or has become, but when the two Greek words for bitter envy, pikros zelos, are combined they depict a harsh, callous resentment of another. Envy shifts our focal point from God to our circumstances. Selfish ambition implies self-seeking, fighting to accumulate things, craving self-glory, and trampling over others to achieve personal goals. Envy and selfishness breed chaos and dissension, resulting in meanness, theft, murder, adultery, slander, fraud, spitefulness, and quarrels. This creates havoc in the work place, church community, and one’s personal life.
The second type of wisdom is founded in God (v. 17). Wisdom was with God before the world was created and was an active component in the creation of the world with God (Proverbs 8:22-31). The writer of Proverbs reveals, “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (2:6). God has promised to generously give us wisdom, if we only ask for it (James 1:5).
James described the wisdom that comes from God as “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17). God, the source of wisdom, is pure and holy. From purity flows all other behaviors revealing godly wisdom. The word pure means to be unsullied or untainted. In this reference, it means untainted with sinful acts or motives, such as bitter envy and selfish ambition.
The next characteristic of godly wisdom is peace-loving. The wise person pursues and relishes peace. Quarrels and conflicts that ensue with selfish ambition are the opposite of peace-loving. One who is peace-loving tempers quarrels and conflict with others. If your life is surrounded in controversy, search for the source and extend the olive branch of peace. As I was presenting an idea that I had thoroughly researched, a well-respected woman loudly and forcefully notified me and the class that I was wrong. I listened to her idea and gently closed the discussion on that topic. I pondered that event the following week, because I want to present correct information. Finally, without revealing the persons involved, I called my pastor for his input on the content. He confirmed that I was correct. I never mentioned the event to the woman or the class again. Several months later, she said she realized she did not have to be correct on every issue and was monitoring her speech. Peace reigned.
To be considerate is to be approachable and respectful of others’ feelings. The pros and cons of another’s point of view are pondered and, then, complimented and yielded to if it is valid. A considerate person does not insist on strict justice but reflects on the other’s circumstance and offers long-suffering love.
A submissive person may be viewed as weak. However, submissive means teachable; being open to reason and willing to listen to the ideas of others. It may include conceding to another on non-vital issues for the sake of peace. It means willingly obeying those who are assigned over us, such as an elder board, manager, teacher, or parent. It means submitting to laws and God’s standards. As a child I noticed my father ran a stop sign at a deserted country road. One day he stopped. I instantly said, “Why did you stop? You never do that.” He gently explained that it was the law and God wanted him to obey the law. He showed submission.
A person full of mercy shows compassion to people who suffer without plausible cause. In addition, merciful people show compassion even when the suffering is warranted. God poured out mercy on us and died for us when we were rejecting him. Mercy is connected to good fruits; doing something physically, financially, when convenient or inconvenient, to relieve the suffering of others.
Not showing favoritism or discrimination is being impartial. Impartiality includes an absence of favoritism to one of our children. Being impartial means not shading an issue or the truth when it may reflect poorly on self or for one’s advantage.
Having the quality of sincerity means one is not hiding behind a mask, but rather is vulnerable and genuine. Nothing is hidden in corners of the heart.
My Kansas wheat-farming father crisscrossed the field as the planter dropped one seed at a time into the rows. Each seed would produce full heads with multiple grains of wheat. If we sow bitter envy and selfish ambition one act at a time, we will reap disorderly havoc. If we ask for godly wisdom, treat others respectfully with a heart willing to yield, compassionately care for others, and avoid prejudicial thoughts with a genuine, transparent heart, we can reap peace that shines the light on God. I wonder what each new semester would have been like had we Christians asked for and demonstrated godly wisdom.
Gena Duncan is a freelance Christian writer and splits the year living in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Naples, Florida.