Wisdom: Inside-Out, Outside-In



Dwite Schrute once said, “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think: would an idiot do that? And if they would, I do not do that thing.”

Dunder Mifflin’s Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dwight, picks up on a long tradition of “Stupid is as stupid does.”

This points up to the larger truth that…

…we live our lives from the inside out.

“WHO IS WISE AND UNDERSTANDING AMONG YOU?”, James will ask a diaspora group of Christians in James 3.

After a dire passage on how no one can tame the tongue, we might expect James to talk about how no one can really exercise wisdom in this world. But he comes back now to a theme he started in the first chapter, which is that wisdom comes from above, from God, and is available to all who ask.


Two Ways


It seems like God’s people are always coming up to forks in the road. You can go this way, or you can that way. There are two ways.

Wisdom, the skill and cleverness with which we live, is like that, too. There are two kinds of wisdom, James says. One from above and one from below. A different kind of fruit that each kind of wisdom produces.

Jewish Christians would have been used to this kind of language. Listen to how the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah contrast what the people of God can be.

Isaiah 27:6:

The time is coming when Jacob will take root;
Israel will blossom and grow branches.
The produce will fill the surface of the world.

versus Jeremiah 2:21:

I planted you in the land
like a special vine of the very best stock.
Why in the world have you turned into something like a wild vine that produces rotten, foul-smelling grapes?

What you fill your heart and your head with, and how you live out who you are, has visible effects–“fruit.” Any character trait in you has accompanying actions. If you find that you struggle with being critical of others, you’ll also hear snide remarks coming out of your mouth. If you experience compassion for others often welling up in your heart, chances are good you’ll act on it and spend time giving and serving others.

What’s inside you will find its way out of you.


One Kind of Wisdom: Ungodly


James says there are two kinds of wisdom. Or, only one is really properly called wisdom. The other is in scare quotes–so-called wisdom.

This passage weaves a tale of two wisdoms… James describes godly wisdom: where it comes from, what it’s like, and what it results in. He talks about ungodly wisdom: where it comes from, what it is like, and what it results in.

First, there is the so-called “wisdom” of the world. The wisdom he calls “earthly, unspiritual,” even “demonic.”


Where does it come from?

NOT from heaven.

In other words, the ungodly man or woman has not asked God for wisdom, and is going it alone. That person has not sought to receive the good gift of wisdom from the “Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

It’s actually worse than just coming “not from heaven.” Note James’s progression in verse 15: “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” You sort of descend the depths word-by-word in that passage.


What is it like?

James says in verse 14, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” There’s nothing to be proud of if you cherish “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.” And if that does describe you, don’t deny it, James says. You’ll be better off admitting it and seeking God’s help before what’s inside you spills out onto others in a damaging way.

James talked about bitter water earlier in the chapter with regard to speech. Now he’s warning against a bitter spirit.


What are its results?

Envy and ambition, for James, lead to “disorder and every evil practice.”

As I was sketching and outlining this passage this week, with bitter envy and selfish ambition, you could end up with situations like this one…


Stick Figures


…where one stick figure knocks the other one down to the ground in a fit of disorderly rage.

I learned this week (source) about an art technique called pentimento. I am not a gifted drawer, that masterpiece above notwithstanding, so I can’t claim first-hand knowledge with this.

But pentimento is when the original base color on a canvas bleeds through. So if an artist started with a base of one color and then decided to switch that color and keep the same canvas, when that first color shows through, it’s called pentimento. What’s *really* there at bottom bleeds through whatever else is covering it.

It’s not that you can’t change the canvas. But sometimes, depending on your first color, you just can’t do anything to hide it in that same canvas. You can’t cover it up.

What’s underneath finds its way to the surface. What’s several layers inside, makes its way to the top.

That’s how James sees wisdom working. If you’re always envying others and trying to make a name for yourself, that’s going to bleed through. It leads to disorder and actually doing bad stuff.


The Other Kind of (Real) Wisdom: Godly


Then, James turns to real wisdom, the kind that God gives.


Where does true wisdom come from?

James says it’s “from heaven,” or from God. James has said this already earlier in the letter.

When he asks, “WHO IS WISE AND UNDERSTANDING AMONG YOU?”, it’s a rhetorical question, but there is an actual best answer to this question, I think, which I only came to when my eldest son was kind enough to write it down for me in my sermon notes. I had just left the question hanging there: Who is wise and understanding among you? Next to that, with a picture of a cross, he wrote, God! God is among us, is he not? And there simply is no one wiser and more understanding than God:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)

Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite (Psalms 147:5)

With Him are wisdom and might; To Him belong counsel and understanding. (Job 12:13)

This God, the Lord of infinite understanding, the God of unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways, this God is the source of all wisdom. He freely gives of himself, of his wisdom and understanding and ability to make good judgments–he gives this to us when we ask.

And that ask, remember from James 1, is not, “If it doesn’t trouble you too much, God,” and not, “I’ve been asking around, so I figured I’d try you, too,” kind of ask. It’s a wholehearted, intense, yearning-filled, urgent request, “God, would you please grant me wisdom?!”


C.S. Lewis Quote


C.S. Lewis says, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self–all your wishes and precautions–to Christ.”

In doing so, we come to God empty-handed, ready to receive the gifts he will give. One of those is wisdom… sound judgment… better understanding… the ability to make sense of and move forward in a world that is at times just downright perplexing.


What is wisdom like?

James almost sneaks this one in. Look at verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

Humility. True wisdom is humble. You don’t know wise people by their own claims… you know wise people by the smart and strategic and wise things they do… in humility.


What are its results?

The results of wisdom are many. Here they all are in verse 17: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace–loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

Pure seems like a funny word here. When many people hear the word “purity,” the mind goes to “sexual purity.” But James is using the word to refer to an undivided spirit. A heart that is fully trained on God. This is the antithesis to the double-minded person in James 1 who asks God for wisdom, doubting all the while that God even cares enough to give it. The wisdom that God gives is pure–it’s undivided in its loyalties. It’s focused in its motives.

And then–after humility and purity–there are seven more traits of wisdom James lists: “peace–loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

Each of these words is worthy of our measured consideration. In fact, you might take some time this week to read through this passage again, but spend a good minute or two prayerfully meditating on each of these words or phrases: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace–loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”


Inside-Out, Outside-In


Faith produces deeds, and wisdom bears fruit. The God-centered life is lived inside-out. What’s inside you will find its way out of you.

What’s in our hearts and minds flows out into our actions… just as is true with Okilly Dokilly, the world’s only Ned Flanders-themed metal band.


Okilly Dokilly


If you’re really into Ned Flanders, that’s going to manifest itself. They call themselves the world’s only “Nedal” band. At their shows, they’ve got a Simpsons-looking, giant inflatable donut they throw out into the crowd.

What’s inside you ought to and usually will find its way out of you in full expression.

But if our lives are lived inside out, change can only come from the outside in.

What’s inside you will find its way out of you… but perhaps the only way to change what’s inside of you is to look outside of you… to look up, to God, the source of all goodness, peace, and wisdom.

The recently deceased preacher Fred Craddock describes a trip to the eastern Kentucky mountains, where he taught classes in a poor community there. One woman, as a token of her thanks, gave him a poem:

There is the hint of quiet rain coming soon,
Not much, enough to soothe the greening needs
Of outstretched leafy arms and hidden moss,
Shy and quietly waiting for the damp.

There is the hint of quiet moments coming soon,
Not much, enough to soothe the thirsting needs
Of outstretched, anxious hearts and hidden selves,
Private and silently waiting for the peace.

Louise Davis (unpublished poem)

The poet describes the “outstretched leafy arms and hidden moss” that are “quietly waiting for the damp.”

So, too, we, with our “outstretched, anxious hearts and hidden selves” are “silently waiting for the peace” of God.

James is not the first biblical writer, you might have guessed, to connect wisdom and peace-making.

He closes out the chapter: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” The ones who do what their Father does… working (as God does) to bring peace into the world. Just a little bit more here… just a touch more there. Just a small bit of resolution over here.

That kind of work–the work of making peace, of showing mercy, of bearing good fruit, of exercising wisdom–that kind of good work can only happen when our arms are outstretched… when our eyes fixed heavenward, looking to the Giver of Peace and Wisdom to fill us with good gifts.

We long for these gifts that will enter into our hearts, transform us, and make their way out into the world.

7 thoughts on “Wisdom: Inside-Out, Outside-In

  1. Hi Abram,

    This is way outside your Dwite Schrute and Ned Flanders and C. S. Lewis references related to wisdom, and yet here’s a question. Do you think these are more “Jewish Christians” or “Christian Jews” in the original readership? Do you think it makes much of a difference?

    Here’s how you’ve written —

    … James will ask a diaspora group of Christians…. There are two kinds of wisdom, James says. One from above and one from below. A different kind of fruit that each kind of wisdom produces.

    Jewish Christians would have been used to this kind of language. Listen to how the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah contrast what the people of God can be.

    Isaiah 27:6:
    The time is coming when Jacob will take root;

    Well, here’s how Willis Barnstone might object. On paged 1397-98 of his Restored New Testament, he writes:

    Since all who first followed Yeshua, who formed the religion that was to be called Christianity, were Jews, some [English] word must account for them. Yes the term “Jewish Christians” is seriously misleading in its emphasis. I prefer “Christian Jews,” or the more accurate “Christianized Jews.” “Jewish Christian” suggests that the followers of Yeshua had been Jews and were now apostates who had renounced Judaism and converted to Christianity. This is all wrong, since the early “Christians” certainly thought themselves Jews, and when they addressed Yeshua as rabbi, which happens throughout the gospels, it was not as a rabbit of some religion other than Judaism. The followers of the messiah, the Messianic Jews, were Jews, vying among other sects of Jews for persuasion and dominance.

    There are also among the Christian Jews distinctions, and it gets complicated. We will stick to “Christian Jews” as the main appellation, but it should be understood that in the formation of early Christianity, there were both Jewish and gentile converts to Christianized Judaism…. Then there is the ambiguous term of “gentile Christians.” Initially it means simply those gentiles (pagans) who converted to the sect of the Christian Jews but laster, as Christianity drifts from its center in Judaism — or thinks it does — it will be known simply to mean the gentiles (the non-Jews), or Christians.

    Now, even if one doesn’t want to go along with Barnstone in making these distinctions, then what about his translation of “James” from the Hebraic Hellene into English? He starts in this way:

    Yaakov slave of God and of the lord
    Yeshua the Mashiah, to the twelve tribes
    In their diaspora, I send you greetings.

    And compare that to “The Jewish New Testament” by David H. Stern, self-identified as “Messianic Jewish”:

    From: Ya‘akov, a slave of God and of the Lord Yeshua the Messiah

    To: The Twelve Tribes in the Diaspora:


    And to the “Orthodox Jewish Bible” by the “Artists For Israel International Messianic Bible Society”:

    Ya’akov, eved (servant) of Hashem and of Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach Adoneinu Yehoshua; To the Shneym Asar HaShevatim (Twelve Tribes) in the Golus, Shalom!

    Especially since you reference “Isaiah 27:6: The time is coming when Jacob will take root” I thought I’d ask.

    — J. K. Gayle

    1. Ah, you and your piercing questions. 🙂 This is a really good one.

      At the moment my reply is not commensurate with the amount of time I would prefer to have to fully engage the questions. Another point you could make is the timing of the use of “Christians” in the first place. James was early, right? (maybe) And Christians were first so called at Antioch in Acts… not sure off the top of my head *when* that was, but “Christian” could even be an anachronism here.

      However, in another sense it’s a good word, I think, because James has so many echoes of Jesus. Whatever you call James’s recipients (yes, 12 tribes! that’s pretty Jewish), it seems James expects them to be as saturated with the teachings of Jesus as he is. Hence, “Jewish Christians,” i.e., folks whose primary religious allegiance is to Jesus, and that’s what sets them apart… though, of course, their Jewishness is still there. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the Jesus-y-ness might be the most distinctive and salient feature of their religious/spiritual identity.

      I suppose it’s a question of rhetoric, isn’t it? And you make a great point with the “Jacob” verse I quote…

      Does it make much difference? I’m not sure it does. Then again, I’m also not sure how one rates identity categories and what goes where in describing folks.

      What do you think? You deserve an answer with more research behind it than I’m able to give at the moment….

      1. Also, I think this is stronger than I can latch on to: “‘Jewish Christian’ suggests that the followers of Yeshua had been Jews and were now apostates who had renounced Judaism and converted to Christianity.”

        I would think “ex-Jewish Christian” would be the better appellation in that case.

  2. Thanks for asking what I think. Even more thank you for saying more of what you think.

    Don’t we think that the “Jesus-y-ness” as centered as Christians would have that loses its “Joshua-ish-ness” through translation, co-opting, and appropriation to a rather Jewish-less context? (Barnstone is not the only one who thinks so. Yes, I know there are the Daniel Boyarin and the Messianic-Jewish Christia perspectives, and yet there are others, such as Amy-Jill Levine and Julie Galambush and Marc Z. Brettler.)

    It’s not just respect to the opinions of those who can see “Jesus” through the lens of “Joshua” that we might think about. We might think for ourselves a little more about these possibilities, how Christians default to an incarnated God whose circumcision and mikvah really can be discounted. Why would the Romans strip the Jewish males naked before hanging on the crosses, do we think?

    So, how wise is this wisdom of reading this as Hebraic Hellene, gesturing as much to “Jesus” as it might to a Jewish septuagint? What if the context remains anti-colonial, anti-imperial, political?

    θεοῦ καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοῦλος
    ταῖς δώδεκα φυλαῖς ταῖς ἐν τῇ διασπορᾷ χαίρειν.

    [from] Jacob,
    of G-d and of Master, of Joshua-the-anointed, a slave
    to those twelve, the tribes, now scatters, Hail!

    What would that mean to non-Jews, in the empire of non-Jewish Greekish Romans, even if they were later called “Christians”? What to Christians today?

  3. An Eastern Orthodox scholar has sketched the history of Judaism’s broad stroke rejection of the LXX this way (and what we all might to well to pay attention to are the consequences of the rejection by religious Jews just as much as the consequences of the erasure of the Jews from the New Testament by Christians) —

    Here’s what happened. When Christianity first began to move, when the Jesus movement— We can’t even really call it Christianity, because it wasn’t a separate religion at the time. Sometimes in scholarship we call it the “Jesus movement.” Christianity was not separate from Judaism. It was a sect within Judaism. All the first followers of Jesus were Jews, and these were Jews who believed that the Messiah had come. There was nothing that was different about them from other Jews. They just believed the Messiah was Jesus. So they went out, spreading this message, and there were huge arguments in synagogues over whether Jesus was the Christ.

    Imagine you know the Book of Acts, how Paul went out, and other apostles the same way, would go first to the synagogue. There they would gain a few converts, a few people who were convinced. What were they using to preach that Jesus was the Messiah? The Septuagint, because that was the Bible of the people. The Jews in the diaspora did not know Hebrew. So they preached and they gained a few converts. They created a separate community of Jewish Christians, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.

    This, as I said, created huge conflicts within Judaism. The fact is that the arguments for Jesus being the Messiah who fulfilled—how do you prove that he’s the Messiah?—he fulfills the prophecies. The arguments are very strong; they’re very compelling, but some Jews could not get over the Cross, for example. They rejected Jesus as the Messiah. After a while, those two groups of Jews could not be reconciled, and the Jews who rejected Jesus began to identify the Septuagint with the Church.

    — Dr. Dr Jeannie Constantinou


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