One day Jesus called His twelve disciples to Him, gave them supernatural power over demons and disease, then sent them throughout the land of Israel to minister to needs and to preach the gospel of the kingdom. He said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV). Their serpent-like wisdom would govern the words they spoke as well as the activities they carried out. Jesus wanted them to communicate His message wisely, but without hurting the people who heard it—as harmless as doves.
Solomon had linked wisdom with words hundreds of years earlier. “The heart of the wise teaches his mouth,” he said (Proverbs 16:23). True wisdom affects the way we speak. Again, “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable” (Proverbs 15:2). A person may have a head full of knowledge, but wisdom helps his tongue to express it in an appropriate and acceptable way. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). God’s wisdom, expressed through the tongue, results in healing rather than harm, just as the Lord Jesus said.
Some folks consider themselves to be wise, but their words hurt rather than heal. That leads us to believe there is another kind of wisdom besides God’s, and the Apostle James confirmed that. He, like Solomon, linked wisdom to the way we use our tongues. Immediately after twelve verses on the tongue, he wrote, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom” (James 3:13). He is talking about our entire manner of life, not just words. But we cannot eliminate words from what he said. He goes on to mention bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (v. 14), things which are normally expressed by destructive communication. “And where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:16). Unwise words harm rather than heal.
We may think we have used good sense and sound judgment in what we have said, but if it has produced disorder, dissension and turmoil rather than healing, it has not been God’s wisdom, but rather a counterfeit wisdom. “This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (James 3:15). It finds its source in one of three places: in earth-bound motives, in our old sinful natures, or in Satan himself.
You really don’t want that kind of wisdom, do you? I would assume you want the real thing, wisdom from above, wisdom that helps and heals, that brings peace and harmony, that increases love and good feelings among God’s people. How can we know whether our words are prompted by godly wisdom or by counterfeit wisdom? James gives us a sevenfold standard by which to measure them. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Let us weave that standard into the fabric of our thinking, so that we too can be wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves.
It is no accident that James said, “first, pure.” He means exactly that. First and foremost, the wisdom that comes from God must be pure. The word pure was originally applied by ancient Greek writers to the supposed purity of the pagan gods, but later it came to describe the purity necessary to approach these gods—not just outward ceremonial purity, but purity of heart. That is the way New Testament writers use it. Wise words come from a pure heart, pure in every sense of the word, a heart that has been cleansed of error, moral impurity, bitter jealousy, selfish ambition and ulterior motives. Our words are a reflection of what goes on inside us, so if our hearts are impure, our words will ultimately betray us. We may be able to fake it for awhile, but eventually the truth will be known. Good communication begins with a cleansed heart.
How can we get our hearts cleaned up? The Bible portrays them as deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). It is obvious that this is no self-help reformation project. It demands radical divine intervention. That is exactly what God did when He sent His Son to earth to die in our place. Basically and fundamentally, it is the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses our hearts of sin (1 John 1:7). When we acknowledge our sinful condition and place our trust in the sacrifice offered for us at Calvary, God applies the cleansing power of His blood to our lives. He purifies us and removes our guilt.
The assurance that we are clean, that our sins are forgiven and that God has accepted us, becomes the basis for wise words. It frees us from the need to demean others in order to compensate for the guilt we feel over our own shortcomings. Our burden of guilt is gone! It frees us from the need to make ourselves look good, or to have our own way, or attain our own ambitions in order to prove that we really are worthwhile people. We know we are of value in Christ. It frees us from the perverted attempt to appear sophisticated by using impure speech. The more we understand of the debt Christ paid and the greater appreciation we develop for the magnitude of God’s grace, the wiser and purer our communication will become.
Now that our relationship with God is settled, we are ready to deal with our relationship with others. “Then peaceable,” James says. It must be in that order. “Then” is a word that clearly indicates succession of order. If you are trying to patch up your marriage, repair your influence with your children or straighten up some mess with the boss or the neighbors, but have yet to receive Christ as your Savior, you are making it doubly difficult for yourself.
Once we trust Christ, we have two advantages. First, we have the assurance that God has wiped the slate of our lives clean. We are forgiven and accepted. And second, we have the supernatural power of His indwelling Holy Spirit to help us communicate wisely. He enters our lives and enables us to express the wisdom of God in our words and actions. When we allow Him to do that, our words will be peaceable.
The person who is filled with God’s wisdom is not easily provoked into arguing. He isn’t quarrelsome or contentious, but consistently seeks a peaceful solution to the problem. He believes that strong, loving relationships are more important than winning arguments. He takes the exhortation of Paul seriously: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). He weighs his words carefully, and endeavors to phrase them in such a way as to avoid arousing antagonism in others. If others attack him with angry, exaggerated accusations, he refrains from responding in kind, but calmly seeks to understand their needs and what he can do to help them. He is a peacemaker, whom Jesus called a true son of God (Matthew 5:9). He knows how to avoid arguments and solve conflicts.
Jack is a man who is growing in God’s wisdom. He still has his faults, however, as we all do, and one of them is his failure to help his wife at those times when she is overwhelmed with her responsibilities—the burden of housework, caring for their three small children and acting as the superintendent of the Primary Department of the Sunday school. When she chides him about his indifference, he gets angry and cool toward her. But one night he was thinking about how much he loves her and appreciates her, and how much he wants her to know it. So while she was at her departmental meeting at church, he not only put the kids to bed, but cleaned up the kitchen and vacuumed the house.
When she came home she was temporarily stunned, and blurted out rather foolishly, “I hope you don’t think that makes up for all the times you left it for me to do.” There was a time when words like that would have precipitated an angry argument with counter accusations being hurled at each other long into the night. But Jack is learning about the peaceable wisdom from above, so he said, “No, this doesn’t even begin to make up for all those times. I just want you to know that I love you and that I’m going to try to be more sensitive to your needs. I hope this is just a small beginning.” Not only did the rest of the evening go beautifully, but their relationship was strengthened. Wise words are peaceable.
Gentle is a difficult word to render into English. There is not one English word that sums it up adequately. If refers to a mild, gentle and kind forbearance that refrains from insisting on the letter of the law, a gracious, yielding spirit that refrains from tenaciously standing up for one’s own rights. A gentle person recognizes that there are more important things than rules and regulations, namely people and relationships. And while he may have the right and the power to enforce the law, he tempers strict justice with mercy.
So he bends in consideration of other people’s feelings. He makes allowances for their weaknesses. He lets them be human. He knows the importance of “going by the book,” but he also knows that the people and the circumstances involved may warrant an exception to the book once in awhile. Since he doesn’t insist on the letter of the law, he is usually the first to ask forgiveness of someone with whom he has quarreled, even if the other person was more wrong than he was. And he has a way of forgetting the wrongs committed against him rather than storing them up to use in a future confrontation.
Let me tell you about Sue, a woman who is growing in the gentleness of God’s wisdom. She had been terribly hurt when several of her friends at church turned against her and began excluding her from their morning coffee session. Rumors of unkind things they were saying about her kept filtering back. She was tempted to tell her pastor what they were doing, but realized that her motives were basically to put them in a bad light, so she decided against that. Instead, she went to them one by one in meekness and asked how she had offended them. Their complaints were petty, but she sincerely apologized for each one, and in her heart she fully forgave them for their unkindnesses to her.
In the days that followed, she treated each one of them with genuine respect and love. Her gentleness was, rewarded when one of them came to her for advice on handling a problem with her children, and all of them began to reach out to her once more. Human wisdom would say, “Let everybody know what those gossiping ladies are like.” Sue had the right and the power to do that, but she didn’t. She let gentleness prevail, and it contributed to better relations between God’s people.
The King James Version says “easy to be entreated,” and that explains this word rather well. But it is only one word in the Greek text, so either reasonable, conciliatory, yielding or submissive might be acceptable English equivalents. The reasonable person is not stubborn or inflexible, but pliable, ready to listen to reason, willing to yield to reasonable requests or opinions. There are professing Christians who, once they make up their minds, simply do not want to be confused with any more facts. They refuse to moderate or alter their stand no matter how much new light is presented, or how many people disagree. That is not God’s wisdom. It is human wisdom at best, devilish wisdom at worst. The wisdom from above is always open to consider the other person’s point of view.
Few things are more detrimental to good relationships than the attitude of a person who thinks he is always right. If you see it one way, he will probably see it another. And the possibilities of his ever changing his mind are slim indeed. You either give in to him, or live with the constant friction of open disagreement. Compromises are out of the question for him. You play by his rules or you don’t play at all. People like that rarely understand why others back away from them, and they may keep on insisting that they are right until their last friend is gone.
Is it possible that you could be operating on human wisdom in this area? Ask your wife, or your husband, or your children, or some acquaintances whether they view you as reasonable. Then ask God to fill you with His wisdom, wisdom that listens to reason.
There are two ideas here, but they go together. True wisdom is filled with mercy—feelings of sympathy and compassion toward people who are suffering. But mercy does not stop with the feelings. It causes us to speak words of kindness and encouragement, then do something to help relieve the suffering. James wanted to be sure we understood that. That is why he quickly added, “and good fruits.” God’s wisdom working through us extends practical help to others in need, even people who have wronged us.
That is an element of mercy we find difficult to express. Real mercy restrains the urge to get even, then goes one step further and reaches out in kindness to help. Sue, the woman we met who was gentle, would also have been full of mercy and good fruits had she cooked a meal for one of those women who had hurt her when the woman and her family were down with the flu. Wisdom like that will go a long way toward overcoming conflicts with others. People who overlook little slights and keep reaching out to help one another with acts of kindness will have very little problem maintaining harmonious relationships.
This aspect of God’s wisdom helps us stand firm on biblical principles and undivided in our allegiance to Him. But it also keeps us from vacillating according to the expediency of the moment in our relationships with each other. The person with human wisdom is shifty. He may speak well of a person one day, but cut him down the next, whichever is to his advantage. He may insist that one course of action is best today, but insist on the very opposite tomorrow, whichever is to his advantage. He may assure you that what he is doing is legal, but if his competitor does it, he will tell you that it is dishonest. He may let his children engage in certain behavior one day, but not the next, because it happens to get on his nerves more then. He can usually justify his contradictions with irrefutable logic, but it is wavering human wisdom, prompted by pride and selfishness. And it harms his relationships rather than healing and strengthening them. God’s wisdom is consistently fair, reasonable and considerate of others.
The word hypocrite was used originally of Greek actors on the stage, people who could play a role expertly, often wearing masks. But it came to be applied to anyone who covered up his true self and pretended to be something he was not. That is what human wisdom does. It is deceptive, evasive and clever at concealing its real character, aims and motives. The person who uses it answers you in ambiguous and confusing terms so you cannot pin him down and know exactly what he is like, what he is thinking or what he is after. He lives with his guard up and his mask on, seldom letting you know what he is really feeling. It is nearly impossible to develop any kind of mutually satisfying interpersonal relationship with him.
The wisdom from above is the very opposite of that. It is open, honest and straightforward. The person who has it does not try to disguise his feelings to make himself look good or gain his own ends. If he is disturbed about something, he says so, kindly but honestly. He doesn’t say, “No, there’s nothing wrong between us,” just to avoid the unpleasantness of confrontation, or to cover up his pickiness. He shares his feelings openly, without criticizing or finding fault with others, and so helps to keep the channels of communication open. He contributes to an atmosphere of peace and harmony, and that is the kind of atmosphere in which righteousness can grow. James concludes this chapter about words by reminding us that the peacemaker who sows in peace, reaps the fruit of righteousness (James 3:18).
Will you ask God for His wisdom? He makes it available to you freely and abundantly (see James 1:5). When you have it, your words will be wise, and your relationships will be peaceful, and righteousness will abound.