On NPR’s program This American Life, John Hodgman conducted an informal, unscientific survey asking the question: Which is better? The power of flight, or the power of invisibility?
Think about that question for a moment and decide which you would choose. Would you rather be able to fly or be able to become invisible? And what would you do with your newfound powers? Would you be a superhero or super-selfish?
What John Hodgman found surprised him. No matter which power people chose, they used it in self-serving ways. Their plans weren’t often heroic. In fact, they were almost never even kind. Hodgman wondered why no one wanted to take down organized crime, bring hope to the hopeless, swear vengeance on the underworld. If only a little bit. Instead, Hodgman found that his interviewees concocted schemes that all relied on their new super powers to acquire their personal desires.
Typically it went something like this: People who turn invisible sneak into the movies, steal cashmere sweaters at fine department stores, spy on their coworkers, stalk their exes, hang around showers, eavesdrop on conversations about themselves or slip onto airplanes for free rides.
People who fly stop taking the bus; they give up their cars. They check out the bar scene by flying in and around, hoping to gain attention. They fly off to Paris, or Prague, or Rio.
One typical respondent, who had chosen flight, commented, “I don’t think I’d want to spend a lot of my time using my power for good. I mean, if I don’t have super strength and I’m not invulnerable it would be very dangerous to fly. If you had to rescue somebody from a burning building you might catch on fire. Just having the power of flight, I don’t think it’s necessarily quite enough because you don’t have the super strength. I’d still be weak when I got there. I don’t fight crime now.” He finished with, “I’d go to Paris, I suppose. If I was a superhero, I guess I could be the ‘Going to Paris Man.'”
“Going to Paris Man” is not a superhero. But his answer is telling. It might just be a representative reaction of all of us, if we’re honest. (1)
This isn’t a surprise. It’s the wisdom of the world, and the apostle James warns us against such false wisdom. He says that the superpower we need is divine wisdom. James calls it wisdom from above.
James says there is such a thing as false wisdom. It is characterized by “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” It is “earthly, sensual, and demonic. 3:16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed” (3:15-16). This kind of false wisdom often results in conflicts, disputes and cravings.
Sometimes people in the church are that way. William Barclay once said: ‘There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever, with an acute brain and a skilful tongue. But his effect, nevertheless, in any committee, in any church, in any group is to cause trouble and to disturb personal relationships. It’s a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that he possesses is devilish rather than divine.” (2)
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Thank you very much. I so look forward to your issues. They spark my creativity. My congregation always comments ‘where do you get that stuff?’ — and I just smile.”
A user-friendly resource for busy pastors!
James insists that we need divine wisdom instead of this devilish wisdom. In Psalm 111:10 we find these words, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom….”
The wisdom that the Bible speaks about doesn’t focus on how much we know, but on what sort of person we are. Biblical wisdom is never mere speculative thought. Wisdom in the biblical tradition is always the wisdom that is thoroughly practical. James would say that you cannot teach the truth unless you’re committed to being that certain sort of person.
Theodore Roszak, writing in The Making of a Counter-Culture, says, “It is not of supreme importance that a human being should be a good scientist, a good administrator, a good expert. It’s not of supreme importance that he should be right, rational, knowledgeable or even creative of brilliantly finished objects as often as possible. Life is not what we are in our various professional capacities, or in the practice of some special skill. What is of supreme importance is that each of us should become a person, a whole and integrated person…” He is exactly right in saying the thing that matters in life is the kind of person we become. (3)
James says that true wisdom yields a “the fruits of righteousness.” In other words, James is arguing that you can talk all you want about being wise, smart, powerful, but unless your life bears witness to good works, you’re not too wise. James 3:13 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom.”
There’s a big difference between smart and wise. When we think about wise, we often think of the phrase “wise old owl.” Owls are our classic symbols of wisdom. perhaps it is their quiet ways, their wide-eyed stare or the fact that they can swivel their necks 180 degrees and so keep as sharp a lookout behind them as they can in front of them, that gives them this reputation for wisdom.
Crows, on the other hand, are known to be very smart birds. Like parrots, they can be taught to talk and can figure out fairly complex logistical problems. However, crows are also compulsive collectors, a lot like us humans. They will fill their nests with odd bits of shiny metal, gleaming buttons, bright strings. Anything glitzy and gaudy that catches their eyes is dragged home.
In today’s text, James calls Christians to embody wisdom, that means that we are to be the owls of this world. But too many of us have become crows. We are smart to the ways of the world, but stupidly suckered in to any bright new idea, any slick gimmick that comes along.
Owls and crows represent the distinction between clever and wise. The same distinction holds true in humans as well. Let me show you what I mean.
Quickly, without really thinking about it, call up a mental image of someone who embodies the word “smart.” Now get a mental picture of someone who flashes out the word “wisdom.” I am guessing that your mind’s eye didn’t bring up two identical images to fit with those two different words.
Typically, the smart person is attired in an expensive, but conservatively styled, business suit. This smart person has all the traditional earmarks of power and success. He has money, a good job, a nice car, sharp clothes. This smart person looks both impressive and intimidating. Or perhaps your minds eye drew a different picture. Perhaps you saw the classic image of a “geek,” someone with glasses and a pocket-protector, like Bill Gates.
But I am guessing that the word “wisdom” brought up entirely different features to your mind. The smart and savvy guy disappears. In its place is a face creased and worn, lined with a road map of wrinkles. Perhaps this person has gray hair. Instead of the telltale marks of success, there is a suggestion of satisfaction. This person is characterized by a sense of peace and contentment.
Your own images may be quite different. But for all of us, being smart and being wise are two different things altogether. (4)
The motto for our society could be stated this way: It is good to be clever. Our society values education, good grades, and important degrees. But James would reply, “It is clever to be good.” The really wise person lives a life that is good. To use the language of James, the world may say, “It is good to be wise.” But James says, “It is wise to be good.” (5)
Jesus said we should be as wise as serpents; innocent as doves. But how do we get this kind of wisdom?
James explains how we can access the true source of wisdom. Remember chapter 1 verse 5, “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.”
James says true wisdom comes “from above” (3:15, 17). This is true wisdom. It is characterized by purity, peacefulness, being reasonable, mercy, good fruits, impartiality, and no hypocrisy (3:17). It is the kind of wisdom that Jesus had.
Those terms are reminiscent of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians about love:
“Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Jesus had that kind of wisdom. In a remarkable verse in 1 Corinthians 1:24, Paul concludes a sentence with these words, “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Did you catch that? Christ is the “wisdom of God.” When we get wisdom from above, we will become like him.
The truly wise person is one who prays to be just like Jesus. I often say that we should pray that we will become less like us and more like Jesus. Jesus modeled for us the perfect kind of life, a life filled with the wisdom of good works and great faith.
Our text ends with these words, “Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (4:7-8).
Perhaps this is the real secret to wisdom. We need to resist the devil and stand firm against the temptations that come our way. At the same time, we are to draw near to God and submit ourselves to God. Now that is wise living.
1) Homiletics Online, Retrieved 8/18/03
2) William Barclay, The Letter of James, p. 110
3) Quoted in a sermon by Mark Ashton, The Round Church at St. Andrew the Great, Cambridge.
4) From a sermon by Rev. Sara Day Cheeseman, University Baptist Church, Columbus, Ohio,
5) Op. cit. Mark Ashton.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.