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)
My grandmother often warned to beware educated fools. “The person who brags about how much he knows doesn’t know anything,” she said. Her advice resurfaces every time I see “experts” toss out facts and figures like grenades to destroy one another's credibility instead of providing insights to the topic at hand. We aren’t interested in who’s smarter. We’re looking for wisdom. Whether with a gallery of pundits or a group of friends, when discussions escalate into arguments, wisdom’s door slams. Its pursuit is corrupted by conflict, rudeness, one-upmanship, intolerance, and vanity. None of these qualities conforms to wisdom’s ways.
One needn’t belong to MENSA to see using knowledge to belittle or alienate others is unwise. First, it assumes one’s knowledge forecloses another’s right to think and believe differently. If that were true, we could gladly defer to experts. But what seems empirically true from the ivory tower rarely resembles ground truth. Second, passions stirred by intellectual conflict only increase confusion. Ego tramples the soul of the issue, leaving no cause to continue the discussion. Finally, cuts and bruises obtained during clashes of minds inevitably affix to the issue. It becomes a sore spot that never heals. When Isaiah opens his prophecy, Israel is deeply scarred by differences. “From the soul of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil,” he writes. (Isaiah 1.6) How can they remedy their condition? “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’” (v18) Wisdom seeks to heal and purify. Intellectual arrogance hopes to divide and demean.
Climates and Creatures
When Jesus dispatches the disciples, He says, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves,” adding, be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10.16; KJV) His parallels to the animal kingdom are most enlightening. He alerts the disciples they’re venturing into predatory climates where creatures instinctively pounce on new and unconventional ideas. The disciples should anticipate challenges and outright attacks. But rather than engage in conflicts, He instructs them to employ snake-like strategies while adopting dove-like behavior. This sounds contradictory until we consider how Scripture describes serpents and doves. Genesis 3.1 reads, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made,” Snakes are endowed with heightened sensitivities to their situation. They’re extremely focused on their objectives and their subtlety is why they’re so persuasive. Unlike wolves that frighten their prey with snarls and bared teeth, snakes steal into striking range.
We get what Jesus means—don’t resort to intimidating methods that characterize arguments. But He stops short of endorsing any reason to strike. “Harmless as doves” means we remain pure, staying above the conflict rather than being swept up by it. The Bible’s first sighting of a dove comes in Genesis 8, where Noah sends it out to see if the floodwaters have receded. Verse 9 says, “But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth.” Like every Christian principle, this is counterintuitive. We rise above baseness of arrogant knowledge by humbling ourselves in service to wisdom. We’re aware of the climates and creatures around us, just as snakes are. Yet like doves we elude confrontation. We don’t light where danger and confusion exist.
“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 says. Purity calls for us to examine our motives closely. Are we trying to introduce wisdom to the discussion for the benefit of those seeking it? Or are we using wisdom we’ve received to prove how smart we are or how little someone else knows? Now, follow James’s line of reasoning from there. If our wisdom is pure, it promotes peace. It considers others’ limitations, i.e., it operates at their level. It submits where knowledge asserts, preferring “I don’t know for sure” to “you sure don’t know anything.” Wisdom takes this tack because it’s merciful. Its prime concern is planting and nurturing healthy ideas. Doing what’s right takes precedence over correcting what’s wrong, which is where self-aggrandizing knowledge always goes awry. Then, when we follow the aforementioned ways of wisdom, there can be no doubt that what we say and do isn’t about us. Accusations of partiality and egotistical phoniness won’t stick.
More to Know
Let’s be clear: knowledge is vital. Wisdom can’t exist without it. So we constantly crave knowledge to increase wisdom. But unlike fools who suffer delusions they know it all, we admit there’s always more to know. Above all, we know boasting in knowledge is unwise. Proverbs 17.27 insists, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.” The moment we sense we’re losing control is our wake-up call. We’ve left wisdom’s ways for knowledge’s ruts, forsaken peace for confusion. How is that wise? Paul writes, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” (Romans 15.1) This isn’t high-road idealism. It’s sound advice. If we engage in knowledge showdowns, we’ll never get anywhere. Proving we’re the sharpest minds in the room may bring momentary satisfaction. But it won’t change others’ hearts and minds. We’re not wolves and snakes. We’re doves, creatures of peace. Knowing that—being that—should please us more than anything, because it pleases God most.
When we use our knowledge wisely, we're harmless as doves. We foster peace and understanding, rather than create discord and confusion.
(Next: Every Step You Take)
Postscript: My Kind of Preacher
I've been keeping tabs on David Gillespie for a while now, looking in on his blog from time to time, staying casually acquainted via Facebook, etc. Lately, however, I've been following him more closely, soaking up as much as much as possible of what he has to say on his site, Southern Fried Faith, because David (aka Rev. Gillespie) is my kind of preacher. He's rooted and grounded in the Word and sufficiently confident in his faith to ask questions and derive answers that challenge us in very important ways.
Today, while reading his post of a sermon he preached nearly three years back, I was bowled over. And the cherry on the sundae came when his concluding paragraph cited the scripture we examine above. It just seemed like an augur of sorts--a gentle nudge from above to make sure each of you knows David's there and worth your time and attention. His posts read like silk, but I don't doubt they tie many conservatives, legalists, and traditionalists in knots--as well they should! Here's a sample to whet your appetite:
See, the stories we’ve constructed around Jesus are easy stories, when you get down to it. To paint a portrait of Jesus as friend or lover of our souls or life coach or even as personal Lord and Savior really doesn’t demand any change in our global framing story. Other than perhaps a few moral demands in terms of personal behavior, it doesn’t demand any newness, any genuine repentance (in the truest meaning of the word) on our parts. To see the essential core of Jesus’ message as saving us from our sins in order that we can go to heaven and escape hell doesn’t really require any major shifts in our own framing story. In fact, I’d argue that it allows us to not challenge the framing story.
But to see the message of Jesus as the now present Kingdom of God, a framing story of peace and love and creativity and equity and compassion — or to use the words of Micah the prophet, of doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly — or to use the words of the author of James when he describes this alternative wisdom as pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering without hypocrisy or when that author describes the essence of true religion to be found in acts like visiting orphans and widows in their distress — or to manifest this wisdom as described by the author of The Epistle to Galatians as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control — to live as those whose lives are framed, whose lives are transformed, by a different, alternative story... now that’s another thing.
That’s just the end. There’s plenty of equally amazing, provocative ideas floating through this piece from the beginning. Click over and (as us Southern-fried folks say) dig in!