How to Obtain True Wisdom
Advice is cheap. Wisdom is rare. King Solomon said, “Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding” (Prov. 3:13) and “How much better to get wisdom than gold!” (16:16). Some have likened the book of James to Proverbs, calling it New Testament wisdom literature.
Wisdom is best defined as skill for living. There are two types of wisdom in this world. One can get us into trouble; the other can get us out of it. It’s important to know which is which so we can heed true wisdom and reject the imposter. That was the essence of James’s message to the Jewish Christians forced to flee Jerusalem due to persecution in the formative years of Christianity:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic (Jas. 3:13–15).
The original Greek language implies the existence of bitter envy and selfish ambition, and it admonished believers to stop being arrogant and lying against the truth. They were following the wrong wisdom.
What the world considers wisdom does not emanate from God. It’s earthly, not heavenly, and belongs to the fallen, corrupt realm in which we live. No one has to teach people to be greedy, selfish, or nasty. It comes naturally. Wisdom from this realm is characterized by jealousy, selfishness, ego, ambition, and so forth. It focuses on self.
Furthermore, it belongs to the natural, rather than the spiritual, realm. We live in the natural, physical realm, which revolves around rebelliousness and arrogance due to our fallen nature.
Earlier this year, I read of a politician who was telling people it’s time for those who disagree with the current government to take to the streets. That is not God’s wisdom. It’s the world’s wisdom. God tells people to get on their knees and pray. The sin nature’s wisdom says, “If you’re not getting what you want or what you like, then take steps to make sure you do.”
Worldly wisdom contradicts the truth. It follows the lie that goes all the way back to Genesis 3, when Satan told Eve if she disobeyed God, “You will not surely die” (v. 4). God said she would die. And die she did. After Adam sinned, death passed to all humanity; and we all die (Rom. 5:12).
The world’s wisdom runs contrary to God’s wisdom because it is related to Satan. He is the “god of this age” who blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4). He is the one with authority over the natural realm. James warned believers that earthly wisdom breeds “envy and self-seeking” and is filled with disorder, “confusion, and every evil thing” (Jas. 3:16).
In fact, Satan’s realm is committed to disorder, destruction, death, and evil. Jesus, on the other hand, is the Good Shepherd:
I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them (Jn. 10:10–12).
God’s wisdom promotes life. Satan’s wisdom destroys it: It wrecks relationships, ruins lives, ravages reputations, and destroys careers. All we have to do is observe how the world is falling apart. Destruction, disorder, and evil are on the rise; yet few people understand what truly is happening.
The world tells us, “Defend your personal rights. Stand up for yourself. Do what makes you feel good. It’s okay to lie. God doesn’t want you to suffer. God wants you to be happy and wealthy. Get a divorce and move on. It’s okay to have an abortion and kill the unborn babies, but we must save the whales.”
God’s value system is not the world’s system. The Almighty operates on a different plane entirely.
God’s ways are not the world’s ways: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isa. 55:8–9).
Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mt. 6:33–34). He also said, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (7:12).
The world says, “If something or someone hurts or hinders you, get out of that situation.” Such advice is the very antithesis of what James was saying. He said, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience [endurance]” (Jas. 1:2–3).
We should embrace heavenly wisdom, which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (3:17). Such wisdom is from above, dispensed from God’s realm, and readily available to everyone who asks for it: “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).
God’s wisdom provides skill for living. “For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). This wisdom enables us to cope with our circumstances, trials, and pressures so that we may glorify God. It is skill for aligning our lives with His. This is the wisdom James wanted his readers to seek. It is of the Spirit, relates to God’s nature, and fits with God’s character. When we follow it, we glorify Him.
Heavenly wisdom promotes what God wants to accomplish in our lives. It is the seed of righteousness, making us more like the Lord Jesus—which, after all, is the great goal of our lives: to be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29).
The big question, of course, is “How do we distinguish between worldly and godly wisdom?” Godly wisdom is critical to spiritual maturity, which is the consistent application of the appropriate biblical wisdom to life’s circumstances. Half the battle involves endurance (consistent application). The other half involves selecting what to be consistent about. James asked, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (Jas. 3:13). Whose wisdom do you accept, and whose do you reject?
The answer involves discernment. We cannot take advice because it’s convenient or pleasing. We must only take advice that comes from God. Here are a few ways to develop discernment:
(1) Observe lifestyles. Are your “advisors” living Christlike lives? “Let him show by good conduct [behavior] that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom” (v. 13). We are to seek counsel from people who evidence maturity and godliness in an ungodly world.
As the apostle Paul said, “Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22–24). Seek advice from people walking with the Lord.
(2) Observe service. Find those who evidence good works by serving others. When Abraham’s servant was sent to find a wife for Isaac, he asked God to show him the right woman by having her volunteer to water his camels (Gen. 24:14). He was looking for a servant’s heart.
James said, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (Jas. 1:27). When seeking advice, go to people who serve others and aren’t focused on themselves: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
(3) Observe relationships. Go to those who are gentle, humble, and relate well to others—who are “temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous” (1 Tim. 3:2–3). These qualifications for leadership serve as good guidelines.
Ask yourself, Are these people humble like Jesus or demanding and self-centered? Are they kind or antagonistic?
(4) Read God’s Word. I can’t stress this point enough. Ask God for wisdom. He loves to provide it (Jas. 1:5)! The more we read His Word, the more able we are to think as God thinks, understand His values, discern godly wisdom—and follow that wisdom in the power of the Holy Spirit.
For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly (Prov. 2:6–7).