November 2, 2014
Growing in Godly Wisdom
Okay, chocolate lovers out there: there was a study conducted recently using a special cocoa drink to improve age-related memory loss. The food company Mars concocted a powder from isolating a particular ingredient found in chocolate called flavanol. Participants in the study were between the ages of 50 and 69 and received either the high or low flavanol diet. After three months they were given a memory test. Those on the high flavanol diet improved their memory to that of a typical 30-40-year-old.
The study planners believe that dietary intervention can improve memory in the same way that diet and exercise improve one’s heart. Their study was conducted on a small group; however, the organizers believe the same results will be found with a larger pool of participants. Take a supplement and get smarter, or at least remember what you used to remember. I’m all for that!
In our scripture lesson for this morning, James is all about being smart, or at least wise. Who is the wisest person you know? What does a wise man look like? Would he be seated in a lotus position on a mountain top, sporting a long white beard? We may think of a wise man or woman as someone who has excelled in academics, like a college professor, a doctor, lawyer, or someone considered an expert in their field. We might call a person wise who has lived a long time and has developed a philosophical attitude, or someone who listens well and offers insightful advice.
In contrast, who is a fool? We think of one wearing a funny hat, like a medieval court jester. A fool is someone who should know something but doesn’t. How about one who is book smart but has no street sense, like an absent-minded professor? They can compute complex algorithms and recite the periodic table at will, but are clueless about how to relate with people and get along in the world. Are they wise or foolish?
If you aspire to be considered wise, James has either a challenge or an invitation for you. He asks the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” James defines wisdom from a biblical perspective, but wisdom in the Bible is a little different from usually accepted definitions.
One has commented that Biblical wisdom is never a head trip. By necessity, it has to include the state of one’s heart. James writes that the opposite of wisdom is bitter envy or selfish ambition, a boastful attitude, being disorderly and engaging in evil practices. These behaviors are unspiritual, earthly, and counter to God’s ways. True wisdom, however, comes from following God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom is pure. It is made known through mercy, love and consideration for others, peace, submission, sincerity and impartiality, along with righteousness.
From all we know about James so far, he is about actions that authenticate faith. If you claim to be wise, show it through behaviors that honor God. For James, wisdom, like faith, needs to be eminently practical. It is more than something we have or used to remember in our heads; it is something we demonstrate on a day to day basis. I hope that is a comfort to those who get frustrated forgetting names or places or finding the right word in conversation.
James states in simple language how to be wise. His plain words may be compared to parables of Jesus that contain more figurative language. In Matthew 7, Jesus tells the parable of the wise man who built his house upon rock. Winds blow and storms come, but the house on the rock remained intact. The foolish man built his house on sand. When the storms came, his house was destroyed.
Matthew’s gospel also gives us Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish maidens. Five wise maidens brought extra oil for their lamps as they were waiting for the bridegroom; five foolish maidens did not. The bridegroom was delayed and the foolish maidens ran to get more oil, but by the time they returned, the doors were shut and it was too late. These stories remind us that we need a strong foundation in God to sustain us through difficulties.
Jesus says that if you are wise, you would not put a lamp under a bushel basket. A wise person would not mend an old garment with fabric that has not been preshrunk; he would not allow his house to be broken into. A wise person uses new wineskins for new wine. A wise person recognizes a flawless pearl is worth selling all her other assets to obtain. Jesus talks like a poet and James reads more like a textbook, but their subject is the same – how to find wisdom.
James has been compared to the book of Proverbs because both books talk about how to be a wise person. Proverbs teaches that one who is wise is in awe of God and has a relationship with him. A wise person listens to advice. He or she is industrious, honors one’s parents, listens to God’s commands and follows them, and has learned to guard one’s lips. James would agree with these definitions of wisdom and more.
On the other hand, foolish people are more than simply silly. Proverbs says that fools are self-confident in the sense of putting themselves over God. They are self-centered, full of too many words, quick to be angry or to call someone names. Isaiah writes that, “The fool speaks folly, his mind is busy with evil. He practices ungodliness and spreads error concerning the Lord. The hungry he leaves empty and from the thirsty he withholds water.” To be foolish is to turn away from God and the goodness God wishes from us.
Paul also talks about how foolish people fail to honor God. He says in Romans chapter 1 that foolish people know God but do not give God the praise and thanks God deserves. He says such people become futile in their thinking. They may profess to be wise, but they are fools. Paul has similar words in 1 Corinthians when he says, “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’”
James has strong words about selfish ambition, boasting and envy, and especially for anyone who would presume to teach, whom James addresses in chapter 3. In contrast, wisdom is relying on God’s goodness. It is doing what God’s word says. Others will see how you rely on God as you endeavor to be good, pure and peaceful.
Wisdom is walking in humble submissiveness to God. The Greek words for humility are not found in Mark, Luke or John’s gospels. Only Matthew uses humility to describe Jesus and his followers. It is in Matthew chapter 5 that Jesus says the meek shall inherit the earth. Jesus used the same words as are found in Psalm 37, where the psalmist says to be still before the Lord, wait patiently, and commit your way to God. Refrain from anger, for the meek will inherit the land.
Wisdom is measured in the depth of a person’s character. Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree that bore no fruit. James says that the fruit of our lives is revealed in deeds done in humility with wisdom. If foolishness leads to disorderly behavior, wisdom leads to the fruits of peace and goodness.
We grow in godly wisdom as we grow to trust more in God. Believe God will fulfill his promises; God is your support and strong foundation. This is humble submissiveness – trusting not in ourselves but putting our confidence in the Lord. If we believe God is trustworthy, we are able to place more of our lives in God’s hands. Health problems? Give them to God. Decisions about job or relationships? Trust God will handle it in God’s good timing. Fear and frustration, worry and anxiety – if we can admit that on our own we lack sufficient resources to handle every crisis that comes our way, we can be released from all that weighs us down and allow God to guide and sustain us. Humble submissiveness is the beginning of godly wisdom as we bump ourselves off the pedestal and put God in the center where God belongs.
Don’t you want to live more in peace, and to be more gentle with others? The opposite is what James calls foolish – an unwillingness to yield or back down from an argument, which results in disorder, envy and self-centered ambition. The same peace we long to have in our everyday relationships is the same kind of peace we may enjoy with God. The peaceable attitude that allows God to be in charge is like the wisdom that allows us be open to reason.
Talk with God today about how to cultivate the godly wisdom James wants for us all.