Being a Wise Guy
I told some of you this last week, but this proverb also fits today. When I feel relaxed or excited, I have a bad habit of running my mouth off, especially when I think I’m being clever. So as a child, my parents often asked me: “Why don’t they send donkeys to college? Because nobody likes a wise… guy.” Unfortunately for my parents, being a wise guy, my response was often: “Well, if you already knew the answer, why bother asking me?” Today we continue our exploration through the book of James, a letter written by the half-brother of Jesus and meant to be read by experienced, mature Christians as a reminder and encouragement to persevere in the faith now that they’ve been doing this Christianity thing for a while. While it is a New Testament letter, James is an odd one out… because in many ways James has more in common with Old Testament books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job than with any other books of the New Testament. The reason I say James has more with such Old Testament writings is that all those books—James, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes—they all fall under the genre of Wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is all about gaining Godly wisdom… so that you can live life well. And in a way, that’s what makes James so unique among the New Testament books: it’s a how-to guide all about gaining wisdom and living rightly under God, just like those Old Testament books of sayings and life advice. So let’s dive in to see how James wants us to be wise guys.
What is wisdom? I once heard the following: “Strength is being able to throw a tomato at someone. Agility is them being able to dodge that tomato. Intelligence is you knowing a tomato is technically a fruit, not a vegetable. Wisdom is knowing that, even though it’s a fruit, tomatoes do not belong in fruit salad. Charisma is marketing a tomato fruit salad to others by calling it ‘salsa’.” I always liked that definition of our human attributes. But James says that wisdom is revealed “by your good life, by works done with the gentleness born of wisdom.” And he also says that heavenly wisdom is “first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield to others, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” So looking at these attributes of wisdom, it seems that wisdom involves what you do: good works, not playing favorites, personal purity and holiness, not preaching one thing but then doing another. Wisdom does good things: that makes sense. But according to James wisdom also involves not doing things, involves self-restraint. James says wisdom means yielding and showing mercy, which is to say wisdom means being easy-going, flexible, open to persuasion, and putting others’ needs first. Wisdom, according to James, gives you a good life because it helps you live at peace with God, with yourself, and with others by pursuing purity, goodness, and an easy-going flexibility that can bend to fit its circumstances without breaking from the essentials of Christian purity.
But there’s a problem. James says there’s a second, rival kind of wisdom which he labels “not from above… [but rather] earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” This unspiritual wisdom is filled with “bitter envy and selfish ambition… [and is] boastful and false to the truth.” Unspiritual wisdom ultimately leads to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.” What is James talking about? How is that wisdom? None of those things sound like pieces to living a good life! Who would ever choose unspiritual wisdom? Truthfully, I think we all do. Again, wisdom is the quality, the character trait, that enables you to lead a good life. Heavenly wisdom gets you a good life by helping you to be at peace with yourself, God, and everyone and everything around you by pursuing goodness, purity, mercy, and humility at all times. But there is another way to chase after peace with the all things and a good life for yourself: by being stronger and smarter than the rest. And such unspiritual, selfish wisdom is all to common in our world.
Think about this. In ancient Rome and Greece, the cultures that first heard the gospel following Christianity’s bursting forth out of Judaism… in ancient Greece and Rome, humility was not a virtue. Being meek was often seen as a cowardly, slave-like weakness: humility was a vice to them, not a virtue. A good person, in their minds, was instead bold, confident, and glory-hungry. This ancient unspiritual wisdom shares some qualities with James’ heavenly wisdom: both promote self-control, generosity, fairness, etc. But unspiritual wisdom promotes self-control because such discipline gives you the strength you need to achieve your ambitions, whereas heavenly wisdom promotes self-control in order to honor the Lord. Unspiritual wisdom promotes generosity because giving to the poor will bolster your honor and social status, whereas heavenly wisdom encourages secret, hidden generosity so your kindness is known only by God. Unspiritual wisdom desires fairness because fairness provides rules and systems you can use to get ahead in life, whereas spiritual wisdom desires fairness because the Lord God is fair and just. Both wisdoms have similar end goals, but their means and reasons differ. Both chase after a kind of success, but their hows and whys differ.
But if the ancient Greeks and Romans are losing you, let me show you how that same contrast—heavenly wisdom and unspiritual wisdom—persists to this very day, even among us modern Christians. Wisdom is all about living a good life, yeah? So let’s look at modern heroes in US pop culture who seem to know what they’re about, succeed at life, have self-control, or the like.… but who probably wouldn’t qualify as wise. For comedy fans, look at the nerdy main characters of The Big Bang Theory. By and large, Big Bang Theory’s characters are all geniuses, and they all get what they want in the end: career success, love and families, the whole nine yards. But are they wise? No. Ambitious, successful, and driven? Sure. But wise? Or look at Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network or Dr. House in the television show House. Both are brilliant men who achieve worldly success. Do they seem to be able to hold onto inner peace? No, they only gain peace by subduing whatever is bothering them. But that kind of peace never lasts, for something new always comes to upset them. Or consider practically every superhero, most crime drama criminals, most detective drama detectives, most Disney villains, and so many other larger-than-life characters. They often get what they want. They’re smart, snarky, fun to see. Half the population wants to be them, and the other half want to be with them. But do they seem at peace with themselves? Is the happiness they earn something that really lasts forever? They have wisdom… but it’s an unspiritual, unheavenly wisdom that fails in the end. Their wisdom relies on their own strength, their own cunning, their own power. And typically all these heroes and villains fall to their own pride, blinded by their ego. They’re intelligent and charismatic, but they’re not wise. Their wisdom was not from heaven but from earth alone.
So what is the key difference between earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom? Both promise success of a sort. Both offer peace of a kind. Both give guidance for living this life well, in a way. So what makes spiritual and unspiritual wisdom different? Well, there’s lots of reasons, more than I can cover today. But I think the reason most relevant to the letter of James that we’re reading in our series… is that heavenly wisdom is the meeting point between faith and good deeds. James’ main theme in this letter is that a living faith must overflow into a life of good works. Wisdom is the pipeline for that overflowing of faith into good deeds. Wisdom is where head-in-the-clouds faith meets the practical realities of trying to do good for God and other people here on Earth, because wisdom draws inspiration from faith and applies it well to the living of that faith in your day-to-day. Wisdom is connected to faith, because as the Bible declares in Proverbs 1:7: “reverent awe before the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Faith recognizes that you and I are not God, are not perfect, that we make mistakes, that we need more than this life alone. In short, faith recognizes that you and I can’t make it on our own, and that faithful realization brings about humility, for you realize just how small you are. But such faith also brings about a self-assured confidence, for you realize it’s not about how strong or smart you are but how much God loves you. Faith enables you to carry that awareness with you. And that awareness… is wisdom, for you desire holiness, purity, and mercy in order to honor and thank the God who loves your first. And it’s wisdom because you embrace humility, gentleness, and flexibly yielding to others… because you know you’re not the sovereign God of the universe, and that’s okay. Heavenly wisdom is the awareness of yourself and the world that emerges from faith, and it equips and enables you to do the good deeds James talks so much about. In contrast, earthly, unspiritual wisdom relies on human cunning, strength, or grit to get by, but it relies on mortal things that cannot endure or succeed forever. Heavenly wisdom embraces our created nature through humility but finds confidence in looking to our Creator.
Christian wisdom—that heavenly wisdom James celebrates here—doesn’t require you to go be a guru hidden on some distant mountaintop. Heavenly wisdom isn’t only when you’re serene and calm as you are thrown to lions. James’ point is that you and I make decisions every day—what we eat, what we post on Facebook, how we spend our leisure, how we react to insults or disappointment—our daily, ordinary and small lives… give us infinite moments to practice wisdom. And while wisdom promises to lead you to a good life, heavenly wisdom realizes that a good life isn’t about earthly success, fame, or smarts… but rather is about accepting yourself as someone lovingly created in the image of God, someone who isn’t almighty themselves but is indeed loved by the Almighty, someone who makes mistakes but strives to be holier, purer, more merciful, kinder, more yielding to others… every day, not because we must to earn God’s love but because God already loves us. Wisdom is where the rubber of faith meets the road of daily choosing good in our lives. So First Presbyterian of Lapeer: “Who among us is wise? Show by your good life that your works are done with the gentleness born of heavenly wisdom. For the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, ready to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Praise be to God for the gracious gift of faith, which grants us such wisdom from above. Amen.
 Most translations render this phrase with the more literal translation, “fear of the Lord.” Fear is indeed the best literal translation of the Hebrew original. However, I find that translation confuses most Americans, who assume Proverbs is saying that being frightened by God is somehow a good thing. Whenever the Bible speaks of “fearing the Lord” or “God-fearing people,” do not instantly think of horror films. Think instead of Aslan the lion from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, who is an allegory for the Christian God. When the children realize God in this world is a lion, they ask one of the locals if he is safe, they are told, “Safe? 'Course he isn't safe. He's a lion. But he is good.” It’s that kind of healthy respect for God’s otherworldly glory, power, scale, and holiness that the Bible says is the start of wisdom. Proverbs doesn’t want you fearing God the same way children fear monsters under their bed. But it is saying that we must have reverent awe in the presence of God, just as we might when standing on the edge of a volcano or when looking across a forest glade at a wild bear. God is loving, so we need not be terrified of the Lord, but God's power and holiness are far greater than our mortal limits can withstand, so a healthy respect—or fear—of the Lord is also a wise place to start.