“Who” James asked,
“is wise and understanding among you?”
– James 3:13
This is in the same letter that all but began with an invitation to wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
It’s interesting that these days I don’t hear many people talking about wisdom. Much more is said about being “smart” or learning how to “make it in life.” But, whether it’s popular or not, wisdom seems to be something important. “So here it is: “God, please give me wisdom!” I want it, I need it, and I’m asking for it. In everything I do and say. And, if I can be bold: soon, please!
As I ask for wisdom I know that it’s one of the “ribbon” topics that we find threaded through the entire Bible. It seems to be very important to almost all the Bible writers.
But the first reference to wisdom in Genesis is an eye-opener. In chapters 1-2 God is presented as both creating and offering “good”, more “good”, and “very good” surroundings and care for the first couple, Adam and Eve. They were made by God, for God, and in a bond that displayed God’s relational image: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Yet the first mention of wisdom comes in chapter 3, amid this idyllic and dynamic relational launching of humanity:
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that is was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked. [Genesis 3:4-7]
The context for this exchange was a brief and surprising argument. God had told Adam earlier that he would die right away if he ever ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We’re not absolutely sure why such a deadly tree was planted in a garden full of goodness, but most scholars assume it represented freedom—the option to do something other than what God called for. Which is certainly the way events unfolded when the serpent called God a liar. God said “you shall surely die” and the Serpent said “You will not surely die.” A very bold move.
God, a liar? That’s a very strange idea, especially if we think of lying as a usually selfish attempt to reshape reality, as in “No, officer, I didn’t know I was speeding” . . . even if the throttle had been intentionally set at 12 mph over the posted limit. So lying can be treated as a useful ploy for someone in a defensive position like a speeder caught in a speed trap, but God is the creator of everything. He shapes reality, so the idea that he would ever lie in order to reshape the reality that he created is utter nonsense.
What is even odder is that Adam and Eve both accepted the serpent’s invitation to treat God as a liar, and to eat from the fruit of the tree that would make them wise. But they had their reasons: it was, after all, their chance to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” Yet even that option was odd because they knew the “good” already. Everything around them was good, good, and very good. The only new feature the serpent was pressing them to embrace was the chance to know evil.
Later in the Bible we return to the moral issues of wisdom that are obvious in Genesis 3. A set of books are, for instance, called “wisdom literature” and among that set the Proverbs are most explicit in pointing to the importance of wisdom. A central theme is offered in 1:7—“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Yet there is much more. Let me cite two more segments as examples of the range of topics Proverbs offers: one treating wisdom as the basis for God’s work of creation and the other elevating the priority of wisdom.
The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew. [3:19-20]
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. [4:7]
So we find these texts inviting us to see God’s wisdom expressed in his creation. Yet wisdom is not treated as a built-in component of human nature, though humans are a part of that creation. Wisdom needs to be pursued by the wise person. And we would also see, in a broader reading of Proverbs, that there is a connection between knowledge and wisdom: wisdom is needed in order to accurately engage knowledge.
With that bit of background in view, let us return to the book of James. Again in chapter 3 where he invites readers to embrace wisdom he also points to two types of wisdom in 3:15: one that “comes down from above” and another that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” In the latter version it becomes clear that the serpent’s offer of wisdom made in Genesis 3 is still alive and active!
So what is the ultimate difference between God’s wisdom and the serpent’s version? It has everything to do with the ultimate axis of reality: either God, the Creator, is the center of reality; or we, the creatures, are the center of reality—functioning as if we are “like God.” So that everything either pivots on God’s character, works, and words; or everything pivots on our individual concerns and our pursuit of happiness.
With that distinction in mind, listen to the way James summarized the outcomes of the two competing wisdoms:
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. . . . For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
True wisdom, then, begins with God. It treats others as fellow creatures, made by and for God; and companions with us under God’s loving care and direction. It makes life work!
But the alternative wisdom begins with self at the center allows a person to be a “winner” in office politics; and it allows a person to “beat the system”; and it has a self-centered source, in the wiles of the serpent who calls God a liar.
One wisdom is rooted in the true reality in which God’s love is at work, and our wisdom is aligned with him and with his love. The other starts with a love of self, and it leaves everyone else at risk. It is a wisdom located in the knowledge of evil the serpent offered us in Eden.
I prefer the wisdom from above, and pray for that wisdom to grow each day. And it starts with my delight in Jesus, the author of all creation . . . who also loves me, and you.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.