Proverbs 31:10-31 & James 3:13-4:10


I wonder who you think of as being wise? Maybe you have a particular writer whose insights you value. Perhaps there is a figure from history that you look to and draw inspiration from. There may a member of your family, a friend, whose counsel and perspectives you seek out. Wisdom is more than education or cleverness or intelligence. It has something to do with insight, understanding, timing. It seems to me that it also carries a sense of moral authority, of knowing and doing the right thing. It is usually seen as a positive thing to be wise.

In our reading from James this morning, however, we catch a glimpse of an ambiguity about wisdom, that it might not always be such a good thing. James describes two kinds of wisdom – one which is earthly, unspiritual, demonic – and the other which is from heaven. How does this perspective on wisdom tally with the rest of Scripture? Is it a lone voice, or is it consistent with other writings in the Bible? Well. There is, obviously a lot of positive material about wisdom in the Bible. James himself, earlier in his letter, writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all”. We’ve also this morning read from Proverbs, which is largely a hymn of praise to wisdom. One of the marks of a wife of noble character is that she “speaks with wisdom”.

In Psalms we read that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, and there are several examples of God being praised for wisdom. In the histories of the people of God, Solomon is famous for his wisdom, and commended for asking God for wisdom at the beginning of his reign, rather than for riches or power. In the gospel accounts, one of the things that astonish the crowds is Jesus’ wisdom. They ask, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” Jesus himself commends wisdom. In many of his parables he draws distinctions between the wise and foolish, and praises those who are wise. At the end of his teaching in chapters 5-7 in Matthew, the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells the story of the wise and foolish builders. The wise one is the one who builds on rock, the one who hears Jesus’ teaching and puts it in to practice. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul echoes the Psalms in his praise of God, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”

So, there is definitely plenty of support for the positive take on wisdom, on James’ approval of heavenly wisdom, but what about the other side of wisdom, the negative, unhealthy, wisdom? Is that there elsewhere in the Bible?

Let’s go all the way back to Genesis 3. God has created everything, and as the crown of creation has made human beings. God walks in the garden with people, and all is good. There is only one prohibition, they are not eat of the fruit of the tree in the centre of the garden. The serpent, one more crafty than all the other creatures comes to talk to Eve and Adam, and suggests that God hasn’t been honest with them about the fruit. Then in verse 6, what do we find, “When the woman saw that the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” The first mention of wisdom in the Bible is as part of the temptation to disobey God.

As we go on in the Bible, we get to Solomon, who we’ve already mentioned, but his famous wisdom didn’t actually turn out that well. He ended up drifting away from God, distracted by hundreds of wives and concubines.

As the people of God turn away from God, the warnings of the prophets also echo with the insufficiency of wisdom. Isaiah writes, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” and again, “ Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” These words are echoed by Jesus, who said “At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he picks up this theme, quoting Isaiah, and contrasts the wisdom of the foolishness of God with the wisdom of the world. “Where are the wise ones of the world?” he asks.

So, it seems that this darker side of wisdom is also acknowledged, and warned against, in the rest of the Bible. James is definitely on to something, and so it would be sensible for us to take note.

Let’s look first at the characteristics of unholy wisdom. From James we can see that it is characterised by bitter envy, selfish ambition, and coveting what we do not have. In addition to this, from the other places in the Bible that we’ve looked at, I would add pride – being wise in your own sight. We might be very intelligent, insightful, and perceptive. We might be really good at knowing what to do, and when. But if that wisdom is focussed on getting what we want, on building ourselves up, on getting one over on someone else, and if we are proud of this wisdom, then it is not of God. This might all sound a bit melodramatic, so let’s see if we can root it in a day to day example.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of having a conversation with someone, when you feel you’ve come off second best. Later in the day, you think of that killer argument, that one liner, that if you’d thought of it at the time, would have stopped them in their tracks, and you’d have made your point so much better. Or is it just me? When I’m in that situation, I am wishing I’d been wiser. That I’d known the right thing to say at the right time. But why am I wishing that?

If it’s because I’m still angry, or that I wanted to be more effective at hurting the other person, or proving myself right for the sake of it, then that is not a holy desire for wisdom.

What about holy wisdom? What does that look like? What does James say? He writes that it is seen in good lives, in humility. He suggests that it is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, sincere. This is entirely consistent with the descriptions that we find elsewhere in Scripture. It is also immensely practical, even though some of those descriptive words can sound a bit beyond us. Again, let’s root it in a possible conversation.

Again, you’re looking back at a conversation and wishing you’d known what to say. Perhaps you were sitting with someone who’d been bereaved or was poorly. Perhaps you’d wanted to share something of your faith with someone. You feel like you didn’t do a great job, that you could have handled it better. When I’m in that situation, I’m wishing I’d been wiser. But this time it’s because I wanted to help that person more effectively, I wanted them to see Jesus more clearly, I wanted to be wiser, not for my sake, but for theirs.

So, we’ve talked about unholy wisdom, and Godly wisdom. If we want to turn away from unholy wisdom and grow in Godly wisdom, what do we need to do?

What does James say? Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil. Come near to God. Wash your hands, purify your hearts. Humble yourselves before the Lord. It’s easy! Well, easy to say, not so easy to do. But there are some things that we can do practically.

We can get into the habit of watching over our thoughts. When we’re reflecting back on conversations we’ve had, we can ask ourselves – why am I replaying this conversation? Is it for my sake or theirs? If it’s for my sake, I can bring it to God, pray for the person that I was talking with. If they are our enemy, then be honest with God about that – we are commanded to pray for our enemies, so let’s do that. If it’s for the sake of the person I was talking to, I can bring that to God. As we noted earlier James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom you should ask God”.

Humility is a necessary starting point in all learning. It is only when we admit that we don’t know something that we can be open to learning it. If we think we know it all, then the chances of us learning something new are low. This is the case with wisdom. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have a right confidence in our faith and beliefs. Jesus says that his teachings are rock – we can build on them. However, there is a danger to being too sure of ourselves. I know that I’m wrong about some of the things that I think and believe. If that weren’t the case, then I would be claiming to be 100% right about everything. I just don’t know exactly what I’m wrong about, otherwise I’d change my mind.

As we go into this week, let us ask for wisdom, not so that we can show how clever we are to those around us, but so that we can serve them, do good, bring peace, and point to God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, the source of all holy wisdom.

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