How to be Wise

On Thursday I attended a lunch in the House of Commons to honour the work of Elam Ministries. During the meal, Magda, a young Christian lady from Iran also gave her testimony. She shared how she had been lured into a marriage with a man pretending to be a Christian. When he divorced her and took their 2 year old daughter, Magda went to the court to gain custody. According to the Iranian constitution a little girl can stay with her mother up to the age of 9. But the judge told Magda that the law did not apply in her case.

“The judge told me: ‘There’s only one way you can take custody of your daughter: If you come back to Islam and recant your Christian faith, we will give you your daughter.’ My lawyer was very happy. He urged me to accept the court offer and pretend I was not a Christian. It was a nightmare moment. On the one hand I really loved my daughter and wanted to get her back at all costs, but on the other hand I loved Jesus and had felt His living presence with me throughout my life. There was no way I could bring myself to deny Jesus. Deep in my heart, I felt peace that God was in charge. During those tense moments, I felt as if Jesus was waiting for my answer. Would I choose Him over my daughter? I told the judge that I would never deny Jesus. So the court ruled in favour of my husband and took my daughter away from me. This was the darkest chapter of my life. I missed my daughter terribly. I spent my days smelling her clothes, thinking of what she might be doing, and weeping. I became more isolated and was easily offended. I felt wronged and became depressed. I spent hours alone in my room crying.”

What would you have done? What will you do if you are faced with that choice in the future? Deny Jesus or lose your children? Deny Jesus or lose your job? Deny Jesus or go to prison? Deny Jesus or lose your life? What is the wise thing to do? The Bible was given to make us wise. The Book of Proverbs gives us the key that unlocks wisdom:

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1:7)

The Bible divides the world in two: Those who fear the Lord, and fools who do not. A fool is not just someone who is a couple bricks short of a load, whose elevator does not go to the top floor, or is a few fries short of a Happy Meal. The Bible defines a fool as someone who doesn’t follow God’s ways. Someone who knows the right thing to do but instead does the opposite, or simply does nothing. Proverbs says that the “complacency of fools will destroy them.” (Proverbs 1:32).

In the New Testament, the contrast is made between the believer and unbeliever, between those walking in the light and those walking in darkness, between those following Jesus and those ignoring Jesus.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Wisdom doesn’t come with age either. As the saying goes, “We can only be young once, but we can be immature indefinitely.” What will you pay to get wisdom?

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

What sacrifice will you make to become wise?

“For wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.” (Proverbs 8:11)

Do you feel Magda paid too high a price? Was she wise or foolish? We make decisions every day, many trivial, some significant and a few life-changing. But do we choose wisely? How can we choose wisely?

Let’s turn to James 3 and look for answers. Observe:

The Demand for Godly Wisdom
The Demonic Nature of Earthly Wisdom
The Demonstration of Heavenly Wisdom

1. The Demand for Godly Wisdom

“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.” (James 3:13)

1.1 Godly Wisdom is Badly Needed
Consider the problems James has already addressed:

  • The Testing of Suffering (1:2-12)
  • Victory over Temptation (1:13-18)
  • The Importance of Listening (1:19-27)
  • The Danger of Favouritism (2:1-13)
  • Gossip and Slander (3:1-12)

That is why James writes at the beginning of his letter,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5).

It is my most frequent prayer request because I need wisdom. If you doubt that ask the other staff. Godly wisdom is badly needed because,

1.2 Godly Wisdom is Sadly Neglected

James asks, ”Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13). What is wisdom? Wisdom is the godly application of knowledge. The word, “understanding”, speaks of a specialist or professional who can skilfully apply their expertise to practical situations. That’s the kind of professional I want to be. Don’t you? James is saying, “If you have this wisdom, then show it!” In other words we show our wisdom through our attitude (humility) and though our actions (the example we give).

Humility is strength under control – having nothing to prove. True wisdom shows itself through a selfless, disciplined and deliberate application of God’s truths in difficult situations. A couple of weeks ago I defined faith as obeying God irrespective of the consequences. That requires wisdom. That is what Magda did. The demand for godly wisdom. Badly needed and sadly neglected.

2. The Demonic Nature of Earthly Wisdom

“But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:14-16)

Here is the same passage in the Message.

“Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom – it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.” (James 3:14-16)

Notice the “if you…” – James is writing about the behaviour of Christians not unbelievers.  Much of what claims to be wisdom, is actually the product of envy and selfish ambition. You know what other clergy sometimes ask when we meet for the first time? What’s the size of your congregation? Why do we do that? The Greek word for envy and selfish ambition was apparently used of politicians. They often entered politics for selfish reasons, to gain power at any price, even if that meant trampling on other people. Things haven’t changed have they? At the Parliamentary briefing on Iran this week, I asked Sam Yeghnazar, the CEO of Elam, why the Iranian authorities were antagonistic toward Christians. Why, when Christians are among the most loyal, hardworking, law abiding citizens? He suggested the church is a threat to their hold on power, so they use religious uniformity to suppress independent thinking and punish dissidents who do not accept their authority.

I got a taste of that myself this week. Sheikh Abdul from Bangladesh sent me an email or more precisely a fatwa.

“It calls on all parliamentarians, clergy, womens organizations, Anglican agencies, media, universities, human rights NGOs, educated Muslims and governments to have [me] incarcerated as a violator of international humanitarian law and a traitor to the British people.”

He went on to say,

“A copy of this letter has been handed to the British Home Office in London and the Commission of the European Union in Brussels to have you inscribed on the international no-fly lists and to confiscate your passport.”

You can relax. Muslim friends have assured me he is discredited within Islamic circles. I had to smile at his final curse:

“O Allah! let this man’s ugly face be forever covered in dung for the stench he has emitted by trampling on Your Holy People of the Book.”

Not particularly edifying? I sent Sheikh Abdul a reply blessing him, citing the Lord Jesus and Apostle Paul,

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14, 17-21)

For me, that was the wisest thing to do. James not only speaks of the demand for godly wisdom and highlights the demonic nature of earthly wisdom.

3. The Demonstration of Heavenly Wisdom

“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. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:17-18)

The wisdom from above is first of all pure. Purity means there is no contamination, no false motives. It is unadulterated, without hidden agendas or ulterior motives. Second it is peace-loving. Indeed those who demonstrate heavenly wisdom are called peacemakers because they literally sow peace and reap a harvest of right living.

Eugene Peterson’s Message translation puts it like this,

“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.” (James 3:16-18)

What kind of fruit is your wisdom bearing? Is it pure? Does it promote peace? The fruit of your life indicates the source of your wisdom. James goes on to list six qualities of a peace-maker.

Considerate: Are you gentle and reasonable with others or would people say that you’re harsh?

Submissive: Are you approachable and willing to yield to others, or do you always need to be right and have things your way?

Full of mercy: Are you compassionate with those who are hurting. Do you look for practical ways to help?

Good fruit: Do you see spiritual fruit in your life?

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Impartial: Do you treat people the same or do you show favouritism?

Sincere: Would people say that you’re transparent or that you wear a mask?

Six questions to help you make wise decisions this week.

So how did Magda respond to the Court taking her daughter way from her? In her own words:

“I was forced out of my isolation by one of the worst tragedies in our history: the earthquake in the city of Bam in southern Iran. I saw horrible scenes of devastation on TV: people wailing and mourning the loss of their loved ones. I could easily identify with them, as I was also mourning the loss of my beloved daughter. One day, a friend of mine who is now in prison for his Christian faith, called me and asked me to work with him and others helping the people of Bam.

I told my Christian friend that I couldn’t be of any help, thinking that if I had been a good mother God would have let me take care of my own child. After his telephone call, my mother came to my room. She said: ‘I want to tell you something: When you trusted God in the court and did not deny Jesus, God was with you. He is also with you now and has not abandoned you. Put your trust in Him, and like Moses’ mother, commit your daughter to the caring hands of God. He will take care of your daughter and will guide her in the river of life, and one day He will bring her back to you.’

My mother’s words greatly encouraged me, and I decided to call my friend and let him know I would be coming to help. I stayed in the city of Bam for one year, and while helping the orphaned children, God taught me many valuable lessons. He did wonderful miracles in my life, the most important of which was that He brought me to believe I am a valuable instrument in the hands of God.

He allowed me to shower my motherly love on children who had not only lost their mothers, but their whole families. We had the opportunity to sing Christian songs for them and tell them about God’s love for them. And despite the potential dangers, we also had the opportunity to pray with the people of Bam and tell them about Jesus. I was mother to many children, and God was abundantly making up for the dark days of my life. God gave me a chance to re-discover myself and my talents, and realize that I can use my talents for His glory. Most important of all, He put songs of joy and gratitude on my lips, things that had been absent from my lips for a long time.”

The Demand for Godly Wisdom.
The Demonic Nature of Earthly Wisdom.
The Demonstration of Heavenly Wisdom.
Read more of Magda’s story, here or visit Elam Ministries

With thanks to Tim George and Brian Bill for their sermons on this passage over on, together with the commentaries of Warren Wersbie “Be Mature”, Alec Motyer “The Message of James” and Douglas Moo.