What does it mean to be wise? James (and we are reading James 3:13 – 4:8) uses the tradition of wise sayings from the Old Testament (often called the “Wisdom” tradition), and will quote from Proverbs (3:34) but he is ruthlessly practical. No exams and certificates, no obscure theories. As faith must show in action, so must wisdom.
Some things aren’t wise. Bitter envy and selfish ambition are destructive; by no means unknown among religious people, they are the opposite of God’s wisdom, they cause disorder and evil. But what are the alternatives? There is a link to humility.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.James 3:17
all this is very desirable – especially in other people! The trouble is that worldly wisdom is often about “getting on” – put bluntly, outperforming others, getting to the top of the pile. That is not what James is talking about. 4:4 reminds us that friendship with this world means being God’s enemy. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy anything; it does mean that your outlook, priorities and ambitions must not and cannot be formed by what everybody does. We need to be careful what we celebrate – achievement yes, as somebody making good use of their gifts, persisting in training. As beating others into a lower place, making the competition look silly, NO.
Church is meant to model a form of cooperation, where everybody learns, everybody benefits, not a form of competition, where a few take prizes of precedence, superiority, title. But in our world, everybody fights everybody else. Sometimes literally, because people get on one another’s nerves. But also because of the inner conflict of disordered desire spills out. What do you want? Actually, if you can reduce it to one thing, you could probably have it. – but could you limit yourself to one thing, and pursue it systematically?
Even our personal religious life can be ruined by not being clear about our aim – what do you really want from Christian faith? Many forms of words would do –
- to follow Jesus be his disciple and learn from him;
- to live a life that fulfills what it was created and intended for;
- to be a blessing to other people.
Follow through any of those, and I think it will bring you back to what James is talking about. James tells us to ask God 4:2, but also that in asking it’s no use imagining that God will help us against others. We need to ask, not for our pleasure, but for the good of all people. That would be wise.
We are easily distracted. We get another agenda from our friends, from advertisements, from “what everybody says”. God doesn’t work like “the world” – and the way of “the world” doesn’t work, because otherwise we would have lots of happy, contented, people.
God tells us to be humble, to submit to his plans and ways resisting the devil. That will bring us close to him, and we shall probably find that it brings most of the things we really wanted, leaving out some that, on reflection, would not have been so good after all.