Earthly Things or Heavenly things?
Ever describe something as “heavenly”? When it’s so good or pleasant that it seems other-worldly? There are things that are earthly and things that are heavenly. James says wisdom is that way, and he describes heavenly wisdom like this: “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 NIV)
There are different kinds of smart. There is book-smart, street-smart, people smart, and then there is smart-aleck or smarting off. Well, in the same way there are different kinds of wisdom, and different outcomes from each kind. You could technically make the case that all True Wisdom (with a capital W) comes from the ruler of heaven, and all earthly wisdom (with a little w) comes from the ruler of that other place. (Kinda like the difference between a “wise man” and a “wise guy”).
Lots of Earthly Kinds
If you think about it, there are a lot of different kinds of earthly wisdom. There is cunning wisdom that manipulates the facts and sounds logical even when it is false. Our media and politics are filled with this kind to the point that we are sick and tired of it. There is shrewd, self-serving wisdom; this type is not always flashy or in your face, but those who possess it maneuver well in business, are able to evaluate things and make the right moves so that they come out ahead.
There is the narcissistic, “look how much I know” wisdom; this type often dominates conversation and drops facts to demonstrate that they know more than you do. There is condescending academic wisdom, the kind that delights in subject mastery and putting naïve students in their place. Then there is a “my mind’s made up” kind of wisdom, that has investigated, arrived at a position, and will not be swayed.
There is the type A “I’m always right” wisdom. (Say! Have you ever noticed that the ONLY people who ever proclaim their personality type are ALWAYS “type A”? No one ever says, “Well you know, I’m a type C personality”. I think whoever invented that classification system must have been the more assertive type and naturally wanted their classification to be “A”, the FIRST letter in the alphabet… I probably just made a bunch of type A people mad, but it’s ok because I’m like a type C personality. Or D, I forget…)
So, What’s the Difference?
But it seems that a lot of earthly forms of astuteness are somewhat self-serving or driven by ego and being confrontational (like I just did there with type A), as opposed to the heavenly kind. I’m not saying that such people are not wise—they are—but that there’s a difference between earthly wisdom and the kind that comes from God.
James says the kind that comes from heaven is pure. It is not tainted by selfish motives or coupled to ambition. Godly wisdom is peace-loving and considerate. It is not aggressive but is submissive, using the Greek term that means gentleness, indicating controlled power—so even when it yields to others it is not submissively weak and ineffectual. James builds much of his letter around this important concept, and it is hard to underestimate how important humility is in the Christian life.
It’s Hard to be Humble When You’re as Wise as I am
In modern times, the three most important things in real estate are said to be “location, location, and location.” Augustine perhaps originated this logic when writing about being a Christian long ago: “When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, `Delivery’; what was the second rule, `Delivery’; what was the third rule, `Delivery’; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, `Humility’ ” (Institutes 2. 2. 11).
Godly wisdom is humble. True heavenly wisdom doesn’t raise its hand and call attention to itself like earthly wisdom does, but it gets our attention when we hear it. It is not only humble but also merciful, impartial, and sincere. The next time someone impresses you as wise, place their wisdom alongside this verse; you’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if it is heavenly wisdom–or if it came from that other place.
Two Different Kinds
Earthly wisdom knows just how to scheme or to connive,
To help the folks who have it stay alive, and even thrive!
Wisdom that’s direct from heaven has a different lure;
It offers answers from a source that’s sanctified and pure.
Such wisdom is considerate, submissive and sincere;
It loves the peace, and offers mercy when it’s needed here.
True Wisdom doesn’t come to you because you think you’re smart,
But it will bear much fruit when it is hidden in your heart.
If you long for wisdom, then it’s not too late for you:
Ask the Lord some to give you some in everything you do.
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