I prepared to speak on wisdom in the Bible book of James this week. In the process I reflected on how little I hear wisdom mentioned these days. People may be called clever, brilliant, silly, or more, but rarely are they called wise. I wonder why.
Is it because of shifting language use? Certain words lose energy and need to be replaced. Emotive words, for instance, tend to have a limited shelf life: awesome, sweet, cool, lovely—to name a few—are well past their recall dates. So word preferences can vary over time.
Yet wisdom doesn’t operate in the emotive range. Instead it refers to applied values, sound judgment, productive experience, and the like. Wisdom is the quality of making sound choices when others are making poor choices: more a pattern than an event. It represents character—not spicy or sexy but steady and solid. A wise person works with the bigger picture in view and not just for the moment. Wise people can be trusted.
Another reason for its scarcity—maybe related to the low emotive range—is that wisdom seems to be less valued than in the past. Today people look for the immediate: for existential impact. So most of us may understand what it means to be wise but many of us may not value wisdom above popularity or notoriety. To be wise seems a bit dull—sort of 1950’s: “She’s a wise homemaker.”
Wisdom may also be rare these days because the world prefers folly. We can think back to Solomon’s nihilistic comparison of wisdom and folly as he asked, “why have I been so very wise?” in the face of death—the shared fate of both the fool and the wise person (Ecclesiastes 2:15). As the West is moving into a secular and post-Christian era the “picture of life” amounts to having as much personal security, power, and wealth as possible before dying.
The result is an explosion of pragmatic choices—reflecting short-term values—rather than choices made with broader concerns in view. In the banking scandals of 2007 and beyond, for instance, we know in hindsight that incredible moral carelessness was behind the flawed mortgage schemes of the day. Profits for a few were allowed while national economies were put at risk. And we can think of the growing threat to our global environment yet dismiss it in the light of short-term comforts.
The love of folly, in fact, has a host of expressions today. In the use of abortions and abortive pills to shelter short-term sexual desires. Or the flood of media options that treat violence, sensuality, degrading humor, demeaning portrayals of other cultures, and more, as entertainment. The wise person may not have a great sense of community here.
With this broad reflection in mind I found the message about wisdom in James to be strikingly apropos for today. There is, James wrote, an “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom that features selfish ambition as its core motivation and it produces “disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:14-16).
Thankfully we have another option—generated by our new birth in Christ—a wisdom “from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (3:17).
What do we do with this comparison? Should we run and hide from our increasingly foolish world? Or do we become educators offering comparisons of foolish choices over against wise? Or, perhaps, do we just ignore the problem in hope that it might go away?
I like the answer James offered. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7). It’s clear enough: a wise person always turns to God for wisdom in how to confront evil. It can be done in any given moment: “Lord, let me be wise in making this choice—I want to get closer to you through what I do next!”
So, do you want to be wise? So do I. Let’s go there; and let’s invite others to come with us.