“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). This verse was the foundation for a letter of encouragement I recently wrote to a young man.
What follows is not a verbatim reproduction of the letter I wrote to the young man. Rather, it is an expansion of the thoughts I expressed to him. As I wrote the letter, I thought a brief exposition of the verse might be an encouragement to you, the readers of this blog.
It should be noted that authoring this article does not mean I’ve mastered the subject matter. I look forward to more growth in this area of my Christian walk, with the help of my church elders and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Wisdom from Below
James 3:17 is set in the context of a larger passage of Scripture, James 3:13-18, which reads:
“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Suffice to say that wisdom that is not from above, is from below, from the world. It originates in the fallen, sinful minds of humans who are dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1-3). Wisdom from below is marred by bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, arrogance, and/or dishonest. It “is earthly, natural, demonic.”
Satan Doesn’t Make You Do It
While Satan cannot possess Christians, he can influence them. Christians can be subjected to demonic influences. Pastor John MacArthur has an interesting perspective on how Satan can influence Christians. In his sermon, “Satan: How Does He Operate?” Pastor MacArthur said:
“You want to know where Satan is most active, it’s within the framework of religion, and in our case, the framework of the Christian religion. ‘No marvel’ – don’t be surprised – ‘for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light; therefore it’s no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness.’ Satan does the work of perverting by putting his own demon-influenced and demon-possessed people in pulpits, propagating false doctrine.”
Satan can influence the way Christians think, including the kind of wisdom they exercise, by exposing them to false teachers and false teaching (Matthew 24:24).
However, more often than not, a Christian whose wisdom is tainted with bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, arrogance, dishonesty, and/or some other sin is not so much influenced by Satan as he is by his own sinful desires.
“But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
While not the subject of this article, it is important for Christians to self-check their decisions against James’ list of sinful attitudes and behaviors. If any of the before-mentioned characteristics are present in your decision-making, then rest assured the wisdom you are attempting to exercise is not “from above.”
The Only True Wisdom Comes from God
James begins verse 3:17 with these words: “But wisdom from above is…..”
Puritan theologian John Gill asserted that wisdom from above is that “which has God for its author; which is infused into the soul by the Spirit of God; and leads into the knowledge of things that are above, of heavenly things; and which only is true wisdom and knowledge.”
James describes wisdom that comes from God Almighty–the Creator of all things (including the consciences of men). This wisdom is in stark contract to the wisdom of the world. James goes on to describe this holy wisdom, beginning with the inner quality of godly wisdom.
Wisdom from Above is First Pure
Marvin R. Vincent, in his classic work “Word Studies,” commented as follows regarding purity taking the first position in James’ definition of godly wisdom:
“[‘First pure’] emphasizes its inner quality, pure, as distinguished from its outward expressions. The idea is not first numerically, but first essentially. The other qualities are secondary as outgrowths of this primary quality.”
Every aspect of wisdom, without the purity of God as its foundation, is subject to defilement. Since He is pure, everything He does, every gift He gives to His people, including wisdom and all its characteristics, is likewise pure.
With that pure foundation laid, James lists some of the outward expressions of wisdom, beginning with peaceable.
Wisdom from Above is Peaceable
Christians are to seek peace with all people. It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s not possible. However, we are to be at peace with people, to the extent it is possible (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).
If you are not motivated by a true desire for peace–peace with God and man, then you should not have confidence that your wisdom is from God. Sometimes conflict is inevitable, even necessary.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. ‘For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.’
“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).
However, a desire for conflict, a love for the fight, or an insatiable need to be right and to be acknowledged as so, is not emblematic of peacefulness born out of pure, godly wisdom.
Additionally, true peace is not derived from acquiescence. Acquiescence (the acceptance of something without protest), by definition, includes an attitude of reluctance. Reluctance is not an attribute of peacefulness. Reluctance is uncertainty. Reluctance implies an attitude of fearfulness. It also suggests a lack of trust in God. A reluctant decision is hardly a peaceful one.
Take the time to seek godly counsel if you are unsettled about a pending decision or action to such an extent that it renders you reluctant to move forward. Start with the Word of God. What does God have to say about the situation? Seek the help of your pastors/elders if you need additional counsel. Draw from the wisdom of those to whom God has given responsibility for your spiritual care. You may discover that the reluctance you are experiencing is the Holy Spirit’s providential way of slowing you down to think more deeply, more scripturally about the decision you are about to make or the action you are about to take.
Wisdom from Above is Gentle
Wisdom from above is gentle. In the context of this verse, gentleness carries with it a sense of leniency–not in the sense of letting someone off the hook, but in the sense of forgiveness in what the person may owe you, particularly regarding tasks the person has promised to do for you.
Used also in 1 Peter 2:18, the Greek word translated in James 3:17 as “gentle” means to be “indulgent towards errors: considerate: yielding, not exacting all which justice might demand.”
Of course, the word “gentle” in this verse also means exactly what we would expect it to mean.
“Mild; meek; soft; bland; not rough, harsh or severe; as a gentle nature, temper or disposition; a gentle manner; a gentle address; a gentle voice.”
In his commentary on this verse, Theologian Albert Barnes speaks in terms that are all-but-foreign in today’s society, including in the visible church. He speaks of gentlemanliness.
“It is from this word that we have derived the word “gentleman”; and the effect of true religion is to make everyone, in the proper and best sense of the term, a gentleman. How can a man have evidence that he is a true Christian, who is not such? The highest title which can be given to a man is, that he is a Christian gentleman.”
Christian women are to have a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4). Christian men are to behave like gentlemen. And it is this same Christ-like trait that is indicative of godly wisdom.
Wisdom from Above is Reasonable
It is helpful to look at multiple translations of James 3:17 to understand what James meant by “reasonable.” While the NASB translates the Greek word εὐπειθής as “reasonable,” other translations render the word as follows:
- “Considerate” (NIV)
- “Willing to yield to others” (NLT)
- “Willing to yield” (NKJV)
- “Open to reason” (ESV)
- “Easy to be intreated (KJV)
- “Compliant (CSB)
It’s quite clear that reasonableness is more than simply being agreeable or level-headed. The Christian who is reasonable is a man or woman who is teachable.
Matthew Poole (a 17th century, nonconformist, English theologian) had this to say about this characteristic of godly wisdom: “True wisdom makes men yield to good admonitions, good counsel, good reason. This is opposed to implacableness.”
Wisdom from above is often communicated through godly Christian men and women who provide Scripture-based, Christ-centered counsel to the fellow Christians seeking to exercise wisdom.
A Personal Testimony
I led para-church ministries of one kind or another, for many years. Each ministry I developed included an Advisory Board–a group of men comprised of laymen and elders from various churches. While none of the men were “yes men” (I tried to be careful to avoid including such men), more often than not the groups functioned as sounding boards and not advisory boards. I would advise the board what I was doing or planning to do, rather than seeking their collective advice before making plans or decisions.
Oh, I listened to what my advisory boards had to say, and sometimes I even changed my mind based on their advice, but my modus operandi was to do my own thing, having already convinced myself what I decided was the right or best thing to do. There was no “consent” in these “advise and consent” operations.
What I just described is one of the great and dangerous traps of para-church ministry.
Today, my ministry is under the authority of the three elders, of my local church. These men give advice and consent. This requires me to exercise reasonableness when trying to exercise wisdom and discernment. I have to be considerate, willing to yield to others, and compliant in my interactions with my elders. The result and benefit: I am experiencing more spiritual growth and I am making far fewer ministerial mistakes. I am wiser today than I was a year ago because I am now in actual, biblical submission to the elders of a local church. I am more reasonable today because of not only my elders’ influence in my life, but also my elders’ authority in my life.
And to give credit for this testimony where credit is due:
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, But to Your name give glory Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth” (Psalm 115:1).
“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17).
Wisdom from Above is Full of Mercy and Good Fruits
A characteristic of godly wisdom is mercy. Mercy is best defined as the aspect of God’s character in which He does not give people what they deserve. Those who are merciful pity those who are afflicted. Merciful people pity those who afflict or offend them. Their default response to those who harm them is pity, not vengeance.
If the wisdom you exercise includes a vengeful, get-even spirit, you can rest assured your wisdom is not godly. It’s demonic. It’s sinful.
Wisdom from above always seeks to take the high road. Like godly love, godly wisdom “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Good fruits characteristic of godly wisdom is the opposite of the evil works James lists in James 3:16: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”
Godly wisdom when exercised will result in the good works God prepared for His elect people, before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 2:10). Such wisdom is expressed in considering others more highly than one’s self and considering the needs of others before one’s own (Philippians 2:3-4), with the needs of Christian brethren taking precedence over the needs of those outside the body of Christ.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:34-46).
If the wisdom you exercise always seems to have your interests and needs in mind, before anyone else’s, if you always seem to come out on top, then your wisdom is selfish, not godly.
Wisdom from Above is Unwavering
To be unwavering, is to not vacillate. The wisdom you exercise, if it is unwavering, won’t result in making a decision today, only to change your mind tomorrow, and then change it back again later on. Additionally, in the context of James 3:17, to be unwavering is to be impartial.
Once again, Albert Barnes’ commentary is helpful:
“The word here used (ἀδιάκριτος adiakritos) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It means, properly, ‘not to be distinguished.’ Here it may mean either of the following things:
(a) not open to distinction or doubt; that is, unambiguous, so that there shall be no doubt about its origin or nature;
(b) making no distinction, that is, in the treatment of others, or impartial towards them; or,
(c) without strife”
As you can see, there is overlap between the characteristics of godly wisdom.
Unwavering wisdom comes from an inner sense of assurance. Like faith, which is only as reliable as the object of that faith (Hebrews 11:1-3, 6), assurance is only as reliable as that which upon our assurance is based. The apostle Paul understood this. Paul, a very wise old man by the time he wrote his letter to the believers in Rome, was a man of impenetrable assurance.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Lastly, a characteristic of godly wisdom is that it is without hypocrisy.
Wisdom from Above is Without Hypocrisy
The opposite of hypocrisy is sincerity. Wisdom from above is sincere.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “Of all the things in the world that stink in the nostrils of an honest man, hypocrisy is
John Bunyan wrote the following in his poem, “Meditations Upon an Egg”:
“But chicks from rotten eggs do not proceed,
Nor is a hypocrite a saint indeed.
The rotten egg, though underneath the hen,
If crack’d, stinks, and is loathsome unto men.
Nor doth her warmth make what is rotten sound;
What’s rotten, rotten will at last be found.
The hypocrite, sin has him in possession,
He is a rotten egg under profession.”
Just as a healthy chick will not come from a rotten egg, a godly man with godly wisdom will not come from a hypocrite’s heart.
Godly wisdom would never lead the Christian to act as if he is someone he isn’t. It would not lead him to put on airs, or to live the life of a chameleon–fraudulently changing his personality, beliefs, and alliances according to his personal needs at the moment.
Godly wisdom will never lead you to cheat on your taxes. It will never lead you to lie about your income level so you can qualify to be a car or a house.
Godly wisdom will never lead you to fudge on your resume, or falsify a job application, or exaggerate during an interview so you can get the job you want.
Godly wisdom will never lead you to cheat on a test because you’ve convinced yourself that the only way you will earn your degree is if you get a better grade in a class. Wisdom from above will never result in you committing theft as a cover for laziness.
Godly wisdom always comes from and leads to integrity, not hypocrisy.
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:17).
Wisdom from above is pure, not defiled by sin; peaceable, not looking for conflict; gentle, not demanding; reasonable, not unteachable; merciful, not vengeful; productive, not destructive; unwavering, not facilitating; without hypocrisy, not dishonest.
You can discern godly wisdom from worldly wisdom. You can recognize when you are making godly decisions. However, your barometer must be the Word of God. The counsel you receive from others must be Scripture based. You can have no assurance that the wisdom you seek and the wisdom you exercise is from above, if you are refusing to seek it from the only source of true wisdom–the Word of God.
If you are making decisions that are not motivated by or resulting in actions that express Christ-like characteristics, such as purity, peacefulness, gentleness, reasonableness, mercifulness, fruitfulness, unwavering commitment, and integrity, then your decisions are neither wise nor godly. And you ought not expect the blessing of God upon your decisions. So, seek wisdom from above in all you do.
“The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; And with all your acquiring, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7).
“How much better it is to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver” (Proverbs 16:16).
“He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; He who keeps understanding will find good” (Proverbs 19:8).