What are the qualities of real wisdom? How do we know whether someone is truly wise? How can we become wiser? Some would say with age comes wisdom, but that's only half the truth. There are people who get older, but not wiser. Wisdom is more than knowledge or experience. The Scripture mentions at least three times that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111 verse 10, Proverbs 1 verse 7 and Proverbs 9 verse 10). But it's only the beginning. So where do we go from there?
Apostle James, the brother of Jesus, challenges us to live an honourable life, doing good works with humility that comes from wisdom. He adds that envy and selfish ambition are unspiritual and not God's kind of wisdom. James then outlines the wisdom that is from above; which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield to others, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere (James 3 verse 17).
These virtues are all Christ-like qualities. However, there are many opposites and subtle distortions that so easily entangle us. The mental quality we develop as we seek God's wisdom is called discernment. Let's take a look at each virtue along with their opposites and distortions.
#1: Purity. How could one live a life beyond reproach: unadulterated, clean, innocent and unblemished? The opposite of purity most of us battle with is lust; not only lust for sexual gratification, but also lust for wealth, comfort, recognition and power. On the other extreme lies the distortion called self-righteousness. When we overshoot our goal, we often become proud of our 'moral achievements' and like the Pharisees, we may be in danger of becoming too strict and judgmental on others.
#2 Peace. Peace entails qualities such as friendliness, calmness, contentment and harmony. The opposite of peace would be discord or agitation. Times when we are hungry or tired may test our peaceable spirit. When we seek to put others down or desire to impress others, there is disorder. The distortion of peace-loving, on the other hand, is compromise. In all our peacefulness, there are times when we need to draw hard lines. A fellow PSI writer, Richard Kwon, wrote a thoughtful reflection on this topic titled “The peace-loving gossiper”.
#3 Gentleness. A gentle person is considerate, reasonable and gracious. Jesus was the perfect role model; he dealt tenderly with children, the helpless and the vulnerable yet was firm with the Pharisees and the religious leaders. The opposite of gentleness is harshness or roughness. The distortion of gentleness is to be a people-pleaser. Being gentle should not come from the fear of offending others but from the fear of the Lord. Again, there are times when we need to be gentle and when we need to be confronting, just as Jesus Himself demonstrated.
#4 Willing to yield to others. A willing person is helpful, available and accommodating. He or she does not easily object to do a favour for someone. We can find in the Gospels that Jesus never turned down a request for healing, although His timing and testing of faith often confound us. The whole story of Jesus was one of constant availability (but according to His schedule, not mens!). The opposite of willingness is reluctance or unhelpfulness. The distortion of willingness is to be a 'yes-man’ who cannot refuse a request and unable to suggest better timing or ways of doing things. Again, our challenge is to find the right balance to avoid both extremes.
#5 Mercy. The world encourages us to get even, to demand our rights and to give others only what they deserve. But mercy shown in Christ is different. Mercy is often equated with compassion but is supremely demonstrated in forgiveness. This is because forgiveness requires something beyond sympathetic feelings. The opposite of being merciful is uncaring and the distortion is indulgent. Most Christians are rarely merciless, but often become indulgent when the joy of being part of something significant exceeds the joy of serving humbly. This leads to a 'feel-good' cause or ministry that can subtly blind our own hearts.
#6 Fruitfulness. Being fruitful is not only referring to high yield, but also being constructive and fertile. The opposite of fruitfulness is fruitlessness. The act of justifying fruitlessness by pointing to our circumstances actually indicates our lack of trust in God. The distortion is best described as fruit-obsession. It is quite possible to achieve success in the world's eyes and yet have 'stillborn' fruit. For example, rushing to decisions without making sure people are truly ready may make the numbers look good, but is the fruit sustainable?
#7 Impartiality. Being impartial means steadfast, immovable and without wavering. The opposite of impartiality is wavering or favouritism, and the distortion would be inflexibility. In the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who refused to bow down to the gold statue of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), the three had determined never to worship an idol and courageously took their stand. Why didn't they just bow down and tell God later that they didn't mean it? Were they inflexible? The remarkable fact is that obeying God was more important to them than being accepted by men. That is what we call an unwavering faith!
#8 Sincerity. A sincere person is genuine and honest. There is no hidden agenda. If we consider the friendship between David and Jonathan and the friendship between Ruth and Naomi, we learn that they came from different tribes and cultures, yet their friendships were the deepest and closest recorded in the Bible because of sincerity, loyalty and genuine love for each other. They allowed nothing to come between them, not even career or family problems. The opposite of sincerity is hypocrisy and the distortion is insensitivity. It is important to be sincere but at the same time, we need to speak the truth in love. When we fail to do that, our sincerity may turn into insensitivity. Again, the wisdom calls for the boundary marker between the two.
Having examined the eight virtues of real wisdom, the important question still remains: how can we become wiser? One thing we do know now is that reflecting on these virtues at least deepens our understanding of true wisdom.
There is a saying that natural knowledge can be learned from any source, but wisdom comes only from God. How uplifting it is for us to know the Lord's promise: "If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and He will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask Him, be sure that your faith is in God alone" (James 1 verses 5-6). Let’s ask Him with pure motives!
Daniel Jang is a senior advisor with Ministry of Health New Zealand. He is an experienced writer, speaker and mentor to Press Service International (PSI) community. Daniel holds an MA in Applied Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and GradDip in Theology from Laidlaw College.
Daniel Jang's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-jang.html