Redefining Wisdom: What the Bible Says About Being Wise
What comes to mind when you think about wisdom?
A professor lecturing before an engaged audience? A cultural expert proving his point of view in a highly streamed TED talk?
I tend to define “wisdom” with that kind of intellectual emphasis.
Who doesn’t want to know more than they do now? I certainly do. I love trivia contests and trying to win them (Here’s to you, Young Life trivia night!). I love adding insight to a conversation that no one has thought about.
And... to my chagrin, there’s a part of me that wants to be “the smartest in the room.” Although, my best hope of gaining that title is to sit alone in a room and lock the door.
The thing is, being the smartest in the room is not the kind of wisdom that the Bible describes.
The Wrong Kind of Wisdom
James 3:13-15 says,
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct, let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealously and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every evil practice.
The meekness of wisdom? How is wisdom supposed to be meek?
Wisdom that compares itself to others (jealousy) and measures significance by how much more we know (selfish ambition) is earthly? Unspiritual? Demonic?
Meekness of wisdom means not drawing attention to itself. It’s a wisdom that focuses on the wellbeing of others, not on itself.
This means that wisdom can’t be about how much we know intellectually, nor how much we know compared to others. That definition of wisdom is truncated and misdirected. It might feel harmless, but James says it leads to disorder and even evil.
Certainly, wisdom has an intellectual component, but James wants to expand our definition of what wisdom entails.
The Right Kind of Wisdom
James continues in verses 17 and 18,
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
James’s description of wisdom sounds like Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit and his description of love in 1 Corinthians. It even sounds like Jesus’s description of goodness and godliness in the Beatitudes.
This means wisdom must expand far beyond mere intellectual knowledge.
So what is wisdom?
Wisdom is Moral
Wisdom isn’t revealed by the trivia trophy sitting on our desk. Or even the diploma hanging on our wall.
Instead, James says that wisdom is displayed by the good actions of our lives.
It’s not even moral discernment or knowing the right thing to do in a situation. Wisdom is more than knowing. Wisdom is knowing that leads to doing.
When we do good, we show wisdom.
Wisdom is Relational
According to James, the sage or guru sitting on the hill away from society may not be that wise. You can internalize all the information in the world but still lack wisdom.
Wisdom is not theoretical. Instead, it’s applied to and affects others.
Wisdom is more about how you treat other people than what you know on your own. Are you understanding, empathetic, merciful, gentle, at peace with others? Wisdom is made known through love.
Wisdom is Spiritual
Wisdom has an orientation. It trusts in something beyond itself and focuses on an external purpose.
Selfish wisdom is actually unspiritual or even demonic because it looks inward, rather than upward, to God.
So, if in an attempt to be wise, you trust only your own understanding. If you view your own mind and intellectual prowess as sufficient to solve the problems in front of you. Or if you rely on humanity’s collective wisdom alone to make the world a better place... You’re not being wise. You’re being proud.
“Wisdom” apart from God is not wisdom at all. It is a hubristic rebellion against God. And when “wisdom” is focused toward your own ends and purposes, apart from God’s work and will, you’ve actually rejected wisdom. Falling instead into mere selfish ambition.
Wisdom is Humble
Wondering why James’s description of wisdom sounds so similar to Paul’s summary of the fruit of the Spirit? Wisdom comes from the same source-- the Spirit. And it operates on a bigger scale than our human minds can comprehend.
Wisdom doesn’t just absorb facts about the world. It places those facts in the larger story of what God is doing in the world. And it leads you to live according to that end.
“Wisdom” that tells you to rely on yourself does not account for how limited and fallible we are as humans. However, true wisdom recognizes and embraces these limits. It admits it can’t calculate all that needs to be figured out. Nor see the whole picture affected by our individual actions. Nor even bring about the best hoped-for results through its best efforts.
True wisdom is humble before God. In wisdom, we look to him for guidance through his Spirit. Without the Spirit, there is no wisdom.
James shows me that the desire to have the “smartest person in the room” kind of wisdom settles for so much less than what wisdom really offers. Instead, the Bible invites us into a wisdom that incorporates all that’s possible through the power of the Spirit.
May God help us desire, orient us toward, and work in us to develop more of this wisdom for his glory.
When you seek to grow in wisdom you also glorify God. Read more about how to bring glory to God in every aspect of your life in this post by Crossing Students Director Jeff Parrett.