James 3:13-4 & 7-8a
Continuing with our look at the book of James, this morning’s Epistle is about wisdom.
James’ teaching focuses upon the place of wisdom in the life of the believer. He compares God’s wisdom with earthly wisdom, James suggests that there is a conflict in every believer between these two sources of wisdom, and that to receive true wisdom we must turn to God.
So, this morning I am trying to address 3 questions:
What is wisdom? What is the difference between Godly and worldly wisdom? and, How can we gain Godly or spiritual wisdom?
To begin, we will look at what the bible means by wisdom and its importance in the culture of the time. The word wisdom is mentioned 222 times in the Hebrew Bible. It was regarded as one of the highest virtues among the Israelites along with kindness and justice. Both the books of Proverbs and Psalms urge readers to obtain and to increase in wisdom.
Whilst reading about wisdom in the bible I have been particularly interested in the way our senses are so often linked with understanding and wisdom. This link is well established in other literature too, The meaning of the word sense in this context is from the Latin sensus ‘faculty of feeling, thought, meaning,’ So for example, when Jesus tells a parable he often ends by saying: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9 and others) which is suggesting that our sense of hearing can help us to understand the underlying meaning of the parables, rather than just hearing the story.
St Paul says, “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place”,(Eph. 1:18) - here using the sense of smell to describe how we can spread the good news by diffusion just as a scent spreads. Psalm 34 says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good” - here the Psalmist is employing our sense of taste to enrich our understanding of God’s goodness.
And, again St Paul says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened”. This reference is suggesting that our sense of sight extends beyond physical sight to an ‘inner sight’; it is a metaphor for our understanding or gaining of spiritual wisdom. (You may recognise this quote from the song we have just sung.) This last link between understanding or wisdom and “seeing” is universal - we talk of God being ‘all seeing’ or omniscient. And it is believed that the saying, ‘as wise as an owl‘ arose because of the large size of an owls eyes in relation to its head which implies it could see more and therefore must be wise. We often say “I see” to mean I understand. These analogies can lead us to a richer understanding of biblical truths and hence to wisdom, they encourage us to employ not only our intellect to our understanding and search for wisdom but also our senses. In other words we can gain wisdom not by intellect alone but also through our senses.
The bible teaches us that wisdom comes from God, and shows us the right way to live, and James is separating this type of wisdom which he says ‘is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.’ from a worldly wisdom which is characterised by ‘envy, selfish ambition, greed, disorder and evil practices’. True spiritual wisdom can be measured by the depth of a person’s character. A tree is identified by the type of fruit it bears and so we can evaluate a person’s wisdom by their actions. But it is easy to be drawn into worldly wisdom, e.g. - are we tempted to pass on gossip or fan the flames of discord? The apostle Paul also separates the two wisdoms stating that worldly wisdom thinks the claims of Christ to be foolishness. However, to those who are being saved, Christ represents the wisdom of God (1Corinthians 1:17-31).
This interpretation of worldly wisdom is still very relevant today. We might consider that the prevailing wisdom of our society is worldly; we are constantly being bombarded by what our society regards as wise, which can often lead to selfishness. It is common for the media to impose "moral clichés", dictating what is right, appropriate and wise. For example:
“because you are worth it” - from advertising
“go-getting”- in business
“the end justifies the means” - doping in sport
“ruthless ambition” - you only need to watch The Apprentice
“cut throat” - competition
“achieving at any cost” - soaring number of cases of bulimia and anorexia
“bigging ourselves up” and “selling ourselves” - if we want success - job and university applications
“blame culture” - insurance claims soaring
our “rights” - entitlement to things
and so on ............
What kind of wisdom are these slogans promoting and are they drawing us closer to God? No, I think these are leading to the kind of selfish ambition James is talking about. But, all these things are not only accepted but often promoted, admired and endorsed by significant numbers in our society. Commercialisation and materialism are almost the accepted norm. It is easy to be drawn into wrong desires by the pressures of society; into greed and destructive competitiveness. So how can we reconcile societal norms and expectations that are aligned with worldly wisdom with our quest for godly wisdom? Seeking God’s wisdom can deliver us from the need to compare ourselves to others and wanting what we do not have.
James represents the choice as a conflict both within the individual and within the community, and urges his readers to desire, and to worship, God alone: ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you”.
How do we do this, and gain spiritual wisdom? I’m going to suggest 4 things I think we need to do:
1. Be Humble
The disciples in Mark’s gospel, this morning, were still set on the ‘human things’ (8.33) of selfish ambition. They wanted to be ‘the first men’, the respected leaders of the community. Such powerful people often ignore the powerless, and children – who had particularly low status in the ancient world. By taking a child in his arms, Jesus makes clear that ‘servant of all’ indeed means ‘of all’. It is a clear sign from Jesus that he expects his disciples (and us!) to be humble.
James also links wisdom with humility, “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”.
2. Submit to God
James says that we should not only ask God for what we need rather than fight and quarrel and covet things we don’t have, but also, that when we ask we should have good motives. Conflicts and disputes so often result from us wanting more - possessions, money, status, recognition - but instead of aggressively grabbing what we want, even sometimes asking God for it, we should submit ourselves to God and ask for help to get rid of these selfish desires, and trust Him to give us what we need. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan author says, “Unfortunately, in the West prayer became something functional; something you did to achieve a desired effect ......... “How can I get God to do what I want God to do?” This is our egocentric self deciding what it needs, and trying to manipulate God. This egocentric self will say its prayers but the true self IS a prayer. This is why Paul can say “pray always” (Ephesians 6:18). We pray always whenever we live in conscious union with God. Then every action is a prayer no matter how secular, mundane, or ordinary it might appear. Rohr says he “would more admire someone cleaning the house in loving union than a priest saying Mass outside of union.” This is the difference between doing God’s work - (what he wants) and working for God - (doing what I want to do for Him).
3. Draw near to God
This is about being in a relationship with God, and to be in relationship with someone means spending time with them. If we admire someone from afar we may know things about them but we will not get to know them. “Draw near to” is an imperative, an instruction - we actually have to do something about this. This drawing near could be through prayer, meditation, contemplation, reading the bible, worship and praise, listening or studying.
We should be aware of His presence and let it influence what we do. For example, if we have a child with us we might be more careful what we say, be careful what we watch etc. So as we believe God is with us all the time shouldn’t we ask ourselves “Am I happy to do this, say this, take part in this, watch this with Jesus by my side?”
So the promise is that if we draw near to God he will draw near to us - not a distant admiration - as we might admire a celebrity who will never know us. No, this is a true relationship - God comes near to us and knows us.
If we draw near and put Him at the centre of our life we will gain wisdom, and security. I was interested to discover that Stephen Covey, the ‘motivational’ speaker and author recognised this principle:
“Whatever is at the centre of our life will be the source of our security, guidance, wisdom, and power.”
So to conclude, how can we reconcile living in a society where worldly wisdom is the norm with a desire to seek and live by spiritual wisdom? I think the answer lies in this fourth point. We need to:
4. Be prepared
Ephesians 6 says this better than I can - here it is in the Message translation -“Be prepared, You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.” Amen.
Written & presented by Janette Mullett