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What does it take to be wise?

In a television commercial for online yellow pages, actor David Carradine plays a guru to a young seeker. When the student asks, “How do I find enlightenment?” the master says, “Yellowbook.com . . . Everyone is searching for something . . . . After all, it is a material world, and with yellowbook.com, you just type in what and where.”

The ad is insightful. Wisdom does involve the practical use of knowledge to get what we are looking for. The commercial is also right in suggesting that wisdom is more accessible than many of us might have thought.

Could it be that easy? A New Testament writer by the name of James says followers of Christ can have wisdom for the asking. With a promise that sounds too good to be true, he writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (1:5).

James adds only one condition. He says we need to want to know how to trust God in the middle of our problems (vv.6-8).

Why would we need it? James wrote to people who were struggling with problems that tested their faith (James 1:2-3). As first-century followers of Christ, they probably had counted the cost of religious and social persecution. But they might not have foreseen all of the ways they would disappoint and disillusion one another.

From the beginning, Jesus had taught His disciples to love one another (John 15:17). Yet, just a few years later, His followers were at war with one another (James 4:1-2). With prejudice, hurtful words, and outright hypocrisy, family and friends were acting like enemies.

It is in this conflict-filled setting that James assures his readers that wisdom is closer than they might have thought. But he does more than tell them how to find it. He also shows them how to recognize a wisdom that comes from “above” rather than from “below.”

What does it look like? James writes that the wisdom from “above” is first:

Pure—James shows that the wisdom from “above” doesn’t mix faith in Christ with the motives of greed, envy, and selfish ambition (3:14-17; 4:1-3). This can be an eye-opener for those of us who are inclined to blame one another for our problems without looking at our own hearts.

When good relationships go bad, thoughtful people often ask one another, “What do you want me to do?” James, however, gives us reason to first ask ourselves, “Why am I so upset? Where is my heart? What motives am I bringing to this conflict? Is my intent really to show the presence of Christ in me?”

Only when we honestly want to be in line with the pure intent and heart of God can we respond to conflict in a way that is genuinely:

Peaceable—When our hearts resonate with the heart of God, we long for peace rather than conflict. Even when circumstances can never be the same again, “the wisdom that is from above” helps us to see the foolishness of a bitter or vengeful spirit. Enlightenment that enables us to value peace over conflict (1:5) is a gift from God. It is a new goal that gives birth to:

Gentleness—In the ancient world, this word was used of kings who wore their power with dignity, forbearance, and appropriate leniency toward their subjects.

Today, in the middle of mutual disappointments and hurts, this is the kind of wisdom that enables citizens of King Jesus to represent His authority with a royal spirit of kindness. A listening ear and a gentle voice can lower the temperature of a difficult moment.

Such strong and purposeful gentleness becomes a basis for wisdom that is:

Willing to yield—Because it takes two to tangle, one person who is willing to give up the urge to get even can make a difference.

Instead of repaying wrong for wrong, a willingness to return good for evil is an expression of strength rather than weakness. Surrendering to God, instead of merely focusing on the one who has hurt us, enables us to work patiently for an outcome that is:

Full of mercy and good fruit—When our heart is yielded to the wisdom of Christ, we see the value of planting seeds of undeserved kindness while waiting for the fruit of peace.

With the insight that comes from above (3:15-17), we are willing to give others the space they need to think for themselves. In the grace of patience, we give them time to experience the growing influence of Christ in their own lives. Rather than responding to others in a near-sighted and superficial way, we show a wisdom that is:

Without partiality—Earlier in his letter, James wrote about followers of Christ who were inclined to treat people of wealth and influence better than the poor and needy (2:1-10). Now he shows that responding to others without partiality is a way of showing the wisdom and heart of God. Rising above the influence of wealth, social standing, or appearance enables us to live with a wisdom that is:

Without hypocrisy—This seventh identifying mark of wisdom caps the rest. James uses it to celebrate the integrity of the enlightenment God wants to give us. He knows that in our better moments none of us wants to talk the language of faith while practicing the goals and politics of envy and ambition.

What can we expect? James is honest with us from the beginning of his letter. He wants us to know that God doesn’t make wisdom easily accessible to help us get what we want and when we want it (1:2-5; 4:1-3). His insight is offered to enable us to develop patience and a maturity that is full of the spirit of Christ. It is this patience, the “wisdom that is from above,” which is like seeds of peace that, in season, will give all of us what we really are searching for (3:18).

Father in heaven, thank You for promising us the enlightenment we need to patiently trust You. Help us to recognize the seeds of peace You value more than the material desires that divide us. —Mart De Haan

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