Connections 09.23.2018: Real Wisdom Indeed

James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a

My maternal grandmother died suddenly in 2012. She was eighty-two and had lived a good, long life full of blessings along with heartaches, but we still weren’t expecting her to die, and her passing hurt us all deeply.

When our family gathered to begin processing our loss and celebrating her life, we had fun telling stories. Some were hilarious, such as the time she put scoops of congealed salad on our plates at Sunday lunch and we were startled to find onions and peppers set into the green gelatin. Some were touching, such as the time she rubbed lotion on my grandfather’s back after his bath, his body wasting away with the effects of lung cancer.

She freely gave spoken bits of wisdom to her four daughters and eleven grandchildren—bits that were often begrudgingly accepted or even ignored. Not many people these days would still give a seven-month-old a chicken bone to gnaw on, for example. Not many mothers these days see the need to put their girls in dresses when they are more comfortable in shorts or pants. Not many couples these days see the wisdom in living in separate homes simply because they are not married. For better or for worse, some of Grandmama’s wisdom was viewed as judgmental nitpicking.

The best wisdom she gave us was not spoken; it was lived. Grandmama lost her first husband when she was in her early sixties. We walked through his illness, his death, and the aftermath with her. We watched her grieve, and then we watched her move forward. She began to, as she put it, “court” a friend. Eventually, they got married and relocated to a new home in a different city. She joined a group of women who went on trips and played cards together. To them, she was “Queenie.” She was involved in her church and used her sewing skills to create beautiful gowns for very sick newborns. She was a visible presence in the lives of her great-grandchildren, always bringing them a little treat when she came to visit and making sure they knew who she was.

What is “real wisdom”? Grandmama said things to us that she was expected to say. We could all debate whether some of her advice was actually wise. But her “good life” showed “works…done with gentleness born of wisdom” (Jas 3:13)—an indisputable example. We are wise when we find a way forward through terrible trauma. We are wise when we can see opportunities for growth. We are wise when we continue to use our gifts to serve no matter how old we get. I will always be thankful for Grandmama’s wisdom.

Discussion

1. In 3:13, James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” How would you answer this question? Who do you view as wise?
2. What qualities does a wise person have?
3. How can you tell the difference between “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom and “wisdom from above” (vv. 15-17)?
4. When has someone shared wisdom with you that wasn’t actually wise? How did you discern the truth behind the person’s words?
5. What can you do to cultivate wisdom in yourself? How can you share that wisdom with others in ways that are humble and not overbearing?

Reference Shelf

In 3:13-18 James contrasts the products of the wisdom from above with those of a “humanistic, merely intellectual, and devilish” (CPV) understanding. For James these distinct understandings yield two distinctive lifestyles. Diabolical understanding brings disorder and disrepute to the community (3:16). From this humanistic perspective self-interest is a primal instinct. Since goods are limited (whether tangible goods such as land, precious metals, or fine clothes or intangible goods such as seats of honor in the worshiping assembly) others possessing these desired goods are properly viewed as objects of jealousy and competitors (3:14-16). This perspective views community either as a means to selfish ends or as an obstacle to their fulfillment. This view from below is prepared to sacrifice the community for the realization of the individual’s self-centered desire. In contrast, the wise individual is free from ulterior motives (“pure”) and values the peace of the community (3:17). Thus, those possessing the wisdom from above are willing to yield and gentle with others, traits valuable in conflict resolution. Those marked by heavenly wisdom live for others; they are merciful to those in need; they are actively and practically good to others. The wise do not favor the rich in hopes of pay back; they value the poor among the community as brothers and sisters. These wise are genuine; they are not actors playing a self-serving part.

In calling out “the wise” (3:13a), James perhaps has in mind those desiring the role of teacher (3:1); wisdom and understanding are expected of teachers, though they are useful for all those engaged in the struggle. To these James adds a third quality: integrity, that is, consistency of understanding, speech, and action. The teacher’s (or disciple’s) good life is to be marked by those gentle deeds birthed by wisdom (3:13b). Just as living faith is demonstrated though appropriate actions, so also is wisdom (3:17). Just as inaction in the face of desperate need witnesses a dead faith (2:17, 26), inappropriate actions witness the dearth of God-given wisdom.

God-given wisdom is demonstrated through appropriate actions (3:17). The wisdom from above is pure, marked by undivided allegiance to God rather than by double-minded adoption of the world’s values (cf. 4:4,8). God-given wisdom is peaceable rather than war-mongering or given to partisan bickering (cf. 4:1-2). It is gentle rather than harsh (3:13); James perhaps has in mind those (teachers) who offer correction, though this advice is applicable to all believers expressing opinions. The wisdom from above is willing to yield rather than insisting on one’s own way or on one’s party’s agenda. Heavenly wisdom is full of mercy and good deeds rather than marked by inaction in the face of need (cf. 4:17; 2:15-16). Finally, that wisdom from above is marked by integrity of speech, motivation, and action rather than stained by partiality (cf. 2:1, 4, 9) or hypocrisy. The wise are genuine; they are not playing a part for an audience.

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews-James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 374–76.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley attends First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (13) and Natalie (11), and her husband John. Currently, she is looking for the next opportunity to be onstage in a local theater production. She also loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she will always be a writer at heart.

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