Wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3.17-18)
Everybody’s experienced it; most everybody’s done it: misused wisdom as a wedge. A lot of the time, devious motives behind the ploy are so bald the tactic implodes on delivery. Even if the wisdom is sound, the objective disqualifies it, because the underlying goal is disrupting peace. Using what one knows to seed suspicions and discord proves how little wisdom one has. But how can that be, if we share our wisdom to spare others from eventual hurt? Before our defenses take charge, perhaps we're wise to consider: Are we really sparing them?
If I tell you the neighbor you sacrifice time and attention to love isn’t worth it, is my “wisdom” painless? I’ve essentially told you you’re wasting time. That hurts. I’ve also raised doubts that deprive the neighbor of your love. And who needs love more than one whom others dismiss? Now my “wisdom”—which amounts to no more than my opinion masquerading as counsel—creates conflicts that harm two people. The damage multiplies from there. You’re less trusting of anyone you’re drawn to love. The neighbor is less trusting of anyone who tries to love him/her. The ripple effect expands across time and space, as “wisdom” gets applied without discernment and passed along. Its prejudices generate the very behaviors and attitudes it warns against. Peace is destroyed.
When we’re tempted to misuse wisdom as a wedge—or when others succumb to the same temptation in their dealings with us—a flare goes up. Wisdom that disrupts and disparages is patently unwise. James 3.15-16 says, “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” With all of us having seen harms caused by the wisdom-wedge, James’s words surely ring true.
Our wisdom very well may be sound. Our life experience and spiritual knowledge may be useful for someone who appears likely to fall into traps that snared us. We are correct in our compassion to warn them against similar fates. Yet before we speak, the wisest thing we can do is to examine our hearts and the words we intend to say, purging any sign of envy or selfish ambition. Many times what we want drives our compulsion to speak, and we’re blessed to catch ourselves before we do. But forethought also enables our use of wisdom as a peacemaking tool. It makes us highly aware of how we address issues that trouble us and define outcomes we hope to achieve. This is what James calls “heaven-sent wisdom,” which he says, “Is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (v17)
It’s a checklist—one we’re wise to keep handy for when wisdom we’ve gained may prove useful to someone else. Prior to dialing the number or making the lunch date, we’re smart to evaluate what we plan to say against James’s criteria. The list also proves useful when we suspect another of misusing wisdom as a wedge. James teaches us to evaluate what we hear by the same criteria. If it honors them, we take the advice to heart. If not, we let it go.
Bucking the Trend
This is the week in Advent when our thoughts turn to peace—seeking peace, waiting for it, making it. The unparalleled scale of Christ’s coming invites us to consider it at a macro level. Our hearts ache for war to cease and violence to end. Yet conflicts of such global, impossibly unmanageable sizes grow from disruptive behaviors between neighbors, friends, and loved ones. How often do we neglect our calling to make peace by misusing wisdom to foster discord and suspicion? We don’t like hearing it, but villains we curse as warmongers and haters base their license to ill on our comfort in pursuing personal agendas at the cost of peace in our homes, families, and communities. Scope and visibility don’t distinguish peacemakers from peace's enemies. The wisdom-wedge is hateful on any scale, in any forum. Whether over a cup of coffee, with a hastily written email, on national TV, or in a multilateral treaty negotiation, it ends exactly as James predicts: in disorder and every evil practice.
Yesterday, our church lighted candles for three Chicago teens felled to gun violence last week—two of them young women—bringing the 2010-11 school year total to 18. Eighteen candles burn on our altar, with more undoubtedly to come. That’s 36 parents, 72 grandparents, untold siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and on and on destroyed by mayhem. There were future leaders and lovers, artists and examples among those 18—stories that may have gone bad but were destined to turn around. After service, I turned on the TV and what should come on? A promo for a “reality” series starring a gun-happy, faith-talking vice-presidential candidate who’s mastered communications channels to promote arms ownership in the private sector. The preview showed her drawing bead on a caribou. Hunting game is a personal choice. Yet my stomach churned as I wondered if, at the very same moment somewhere in my city, one teen was drawing bead on another. I sickened at how foolishly the ambitions of this loose-talking, self-proclaimed “mama grizzly” contribute to the genocide of our children.
The wisdom-wedge craze is completely out of hand. Disrupting peace, inflaming imaginations, and unleashing chaos are now maniacally profitable occupations. There’s too much power, pride, and money at stake to expect those possessed by these evils to surrender en masse so peace will break out around the planet. Bucking the trend has to begin with us, where we live, and in what we do. Christ comes to bring peace on Earth. We need not wait for it. We can make peace. The wisest among us will make peace where and when we can, heeding James’s wisdom in verse 18: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
Wisdom we give and receive rises and falls on the merits of its peaceful intentions.
Postscript: "Up to the Mountain"
This Patty Griffin masterpiece--here beautifully rendered by Kelly Clarkson--served as the emotional centerpiece of our church's Advent "peace" service yesterday. In testimony and sermon, we confessed a sense of futility in the struggle for peace. Some days, as the song so honestly says, we feel "nothing but tired." Still, we go up to the mountain, because God asks us to. We wage peace, rather than wedge wisdom.