How to Live with Wisdom

Pastor Craig Carter

The New Testament letter of James is filled with practical advice and tells us how to live as God’s people. We have learned how to live with patience in times of trouble … in victory over temptation … with others both inside and outside the fellowship … by faith that is real and alive and … and with a controlled tongue.

In each case, James says it’s not enough to know the right thing to do, we must do it. But therein lies a two-fold problem. First of all, how do we know what to do in any given circumstance? And second, how do we go about doing it? That takes wisdom.

It takes wisdom to know what to do when we face an illness no one can diagnose or to live in victory over sin and temptation. Wisdom is also needed for us to know how to respond in loving and compassionate ways to those around us and it takes wisdom to speak with a controlled tongue.

This past week I found some helpful advice in that regard: “It’s easy to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.”

Living in the year 2020 definitely requires a large measure of wisdom, doesn’t it?

As the stock market tanked this spring, we wondered what was the wise thing to do with our money.

When stay-at-home orders were put into place, we needed wisdom about how to work from home or keep from killing our kids who were locked up inside all day.

As things began to re-open we needed wisdom about whether to venture out and if so, how to maintain social distance and keep ourselves and others safe from the virus.

Are you ever left in a complete quandary about what to do or how to do it? If so, James says that puts you in a good place because it may drive you to God.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. (James 1:5 NLT)

Let’s see what James says about how to live with wisdom …

The first thing we have to do is define “wisdom.” Wisdom is not the cute little sayings we might find in the Farmer’s Almanac, read on the walls of Coram’s Restaurant, or see on Pinterest. For example: “The most important things in life aren’t things,” “Life feels like a test you didn’t study for,” “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have enough time,” “Every woman is waiting for the right man to come along, but in the meantime she gets married.”

These so-called words of wisdom may be true, but they aren’t wisdom in the biblical sense. So what does James mean by “wisdom?”

While it can be the mark of an educated, learned person, more precisely, James is referring to the ability to relate what you know to be true to the complex problems of life.

The smartest person in the world can be a complete fool. We all know someone who fits this description! As the saying goes, “A smart person knows what to say, a wise person knows whether or not to say it.”

Some degree of knowledge is required, but knowledge and wisdom are not the same. Here’s one way of distinguishing the two: “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”

Wisdom is knowledge applied, so it has both intellectual and behavioral components. That means even biblical knowledge is not enough. As James tells us, a truly wise person does what God’s Word says.

There is a big difference between someone who knows the Bible and someone who uses their knowledge of Scripture to live a God-pleasing life. How to apply knowledge is oftentimes learned through experience.

Wisdom is sometimes associated with older persons because, over the years, they have accumulated both knowledge and experience. But that, in itself, does not make a person wise. That’s why there are lots of “old fools” running around!

I’ve found that some people will never be old enough to know better. Wise people use their knowledge and experience to see the big picture and make good, sound decisions.

According to the Bible, all true wisdom is from God: “The Lord grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6 NLT)

So wisdom is obtained by asking God for it.

As we’ve already observed: “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.” (James 1:5 NLT)

We don’t have to be timid in seeking God’s wisdom. The Lord will never reply, “I can’t believe you’re asking me for that.” Instead, He is a “generous God” who will give us exactly what we need.  

James then goes on to tell us how to ask: “But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” (James 1:6-8 NLT)

The NIV says when we ask, we are to “believe and not doubt.” I like the NLT version better as it gets right to the heart of the matter (“be sure that your faith is in God alone”).

The Greek word sometimes translated, doubt, means to decide between two choices. So it’s not a matter of distrust or disbelief as much as it’s a matter of wavering between different options. It’s the “divided loyalty” James talks about.

This idea is expressed as being “double-minded” in other translations. The compound word appears nowhere else in the Greek language so James may have made it up (I guess he was a preacher at heart!)

Here’s what James is trying say: We face a dilemma and don’t know what to do, but we have some ideas of our own. James contends we can’t ask for God’s wisdom in order to evaluate our options and then choose to do what we please.

Simply asking for the Lord’s opinion will not get an answer. That approach is not “faith in God alone.”

And if that’s the path we choose, James says this will be the result: We are “as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed about by the wind” (v. 6) and become “unstable in everything [we] do” (v. 8)

Having loyalty divided between God and the world causes us to be tossed about by every ill wind that blows.

But undivided loyalty to God and unswerving trust in His wisdom helps us stay on course and keeps our ship steady – even in the worst of storms.

So instead of going to God and seeking His wisdom as one option among many, we must be single-minded in our intention.

It’s saying, “Lord, I’m asking for You to show me the way and I’m telling you in advance that I will follow Your guidance. I’m signing the bottom of the work order before it’s written. Just fill in the directions and I’ll obey them – no matter what. Whatever you say, I’ll do. Wherever you lead, I’ll go.”

When that’s our attitude, God says, “100% of the time, I’ll give you wisdom.”

Twentieth century pastor and author A.W. Tozer sums it up this way: “Most of us go through life praying a little, planning a little, jockeying for position, hoping but never being quite certain of anything, and always secretly afraid that we will miss the boat. There is a better way. It is to repudiate our own wisdom and take instead the infinite wisdom of God. God has charged Himself with full responsibility for our eternal welfare and stands ready to take over the management of our lives the moment we turn in faith to Him.”

Who do you think knows better how to run our lives – God or us?

The Apostle Paul came to this conclusion: “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Romans 11:33 NLT)

I’m sure Paul didn’t always understand God’s will or His wisdom, but he trusted it. When we come to the same conclusion, we are well on our way to learning how to live with wisdom.

Since it is hard, however, “to understand [God’s] decisions and his ways,” how do we distinguish His wisdom from our own? That is, how do we know our thinking is being shaped by a heavenly perspective and not an earthly one?

Later in his epistle, James shows us the difference between earthly wisdom and godly wisdom. He contrasts the two in chapter 3, verses 13-18:

13 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15 For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. 18 And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18 NLT)

Let me make a couple of observations. First, we don’t think our way into wisdom, we act our way into wisdom.

At every turn, ask God, “What’s the wise thing to do?” Then do it!

Second, wisdom is always found in combination with humility. It takes humility to say, “God, I don’t know what to do, but I believe you do. Show me and I’ll do it, no questions asked!”

James goes on to list some criteria by which we can distinguish God’s wisdom from the world’s. His teaching on the subject can be summarized:

Human wisdom involves… Jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, lying.  It results in…. disorder and evil of every kind.         

God’s Wisdom is… Pure, peace loving, gentle, willing to yield to others, full of mercy and good deeds, sincere, impartial. It results in…. peace and righteousness.

Putting this into a practical scenario, suppose you are at odds with a classmate or co-worker and don’t know what to do. As James teaches, you act in faith and ask God for wisdom. You get an answer, which comes through thoughts that enter your mind. But since it’s not an audible voice, you question its source. “Is this God speaking or is it me and my own thoughts?” God says, “It’s me” and you then ask, “Was that God or me?”

James provides us some tests we can apply to determine if it’s God’s wisdom. If, on the one hand, you think you should spread nasty rumors about the other party, try to get them expelled from school or fired from their job, or if all else fails, choke them to death, where do you think that idea comes from? It might be a pretty good guess that it’s your idea, not God’s.

But if, on the other hand, you desire to compromise, do something nice for them, or speak kindly about them to others, you might be led to think you’ve heard from God and received His wisdom in the matter.

Which wisdom you choose to follow makes all the difference in the world. Worldly, human wisdom leads to disorder and all sorts of evil. Godly wisdom results in peace and righteousness.

The Bible is clear in stating that we reap what we sow. In this regard, when we live according to God’s wisdom and order our steps accordingly by planting “seeds of peace,” we reap a “harvest of righteousness.” That is, we are right with God and live as He intends us to live. And how does God intend us to live? Wisely.

“So be very careful how you live. Do not live like people who aren’t wise. Live like people who are wise.” (Ephesians 5:15 NIRV)

Look again at the characteristics of God’s wisdom in James 3. Who does that describe? It sounds an awful lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?

Listen to what Paul says about Jesus in 1 Corinthians 1:30a NLT, “God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself.”

God wants to give us wisdom but His goal in doing so is not to make us happy, healthy, wealthy or wonderful. In the end, the Lord wants to make you and me like His Son, Jesus.

And for us to be like Jesus, Wisdom Incarnate, we have to know how to live with wisdom.

What’s the wise thing to do in any situation? The answer is easy: WWJD? (What would Jesus do?)

But James cautions: it’s not enough to know what Jesus would do…we have to do it!

Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. (James 1:22 NLT)

Some of you are facing a dilemma and don’t know what to say or do. Will you ask God for wisdom, believing that He’ll give it to you and promising that you’ll do what He tells you to do?

Some of you have already heard from the Lord but you don’t like the answer He gave you. Today will you trust Him and obey? Will you follow His leading in complete faith and total obedience?