Social media has opened the floodgates of news, information, ideas, and opinions. As Christians, we want to speak wisely and also listen to those who are wise. We want to fill our minds, hearts, and mouths with wisdom. But what is wisdom, really? What does it look like to be wise? Here is a Christian wisdom test to help you evaluate if something is truly wise according to the New Testament.
First, we need to recognize, there are two types of wisdom. The apostle Paul calls the first type, “wisdom of this age” (1 Corinthians 2:6) or “human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:13). James, the brother of Jesus, calls this type of wisdom, “earthly” and “unspiritual,” even “demonic” (James 3:16).
This type of wisdom is simply “natural” (1 Corinthians 2:14) wisdom. It might seem like “common sense” or even “pragmatism.” This type of wisdom seems wise, because people who operate by a natural, human, earthly wisdom often achieve the goals they are looking to achieve.
In fact, we have a tendency to call the people who operate by this sort of wisdom, “successful people.” We elevate them to positions of status, not only in the world but also in the church. These people often have qualities that make us assume they are wise. They are often:
These qualities can be good, but they are not indicators of wisdom. They are simply admirable qualities and traits. We shouldn’t assume someone is wise based solely on these types of characteristics.
James gives us some warning signs about earthly wisdom. He says there are two key characteristics of earthly wisdom: jealousy and selfish ambition (James 3:16). Paul adds “strife” or “rivalry” to that list (1 Corinthians 3:3). Sadly, we often put a positive spin on all these traits and call them “being driven” or “having a competitive spirit.” We applaud these traits in others and even fan the flames of selfish ambition in ourselves.
Perhaps this is why so many of our leaders and heroes have such spectacular falls, they were operating out of earthly and unspiritual wisdom. When we saw them climbing up the social ladder through “selfish ambition,” we failed to see that they were actually spiraling downward. The more attention and acclaim they received, the further down they were actually going. We incorrectly perceived their trajectory because we were looking at the situation through a lens of earthly wisdom.
The second type of wisdom is not naturally acquired, it is not “common sense.” It does not come from “below,” but from “above.” Paul calls this wisdom “spiritual,” because it comes from the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). James simply calls it “wisdom from above” (James 3:17).
Those who are wise with this sort of wisdom are rarely considered to be wise. In fact, this wisdom is very often thought of as “foolishness” (see 1 Corinthians 3:18-23). The goals, values, and desires of those who operate with spiritual wisdom are often polar opposite of those who operate with earthly wisdom. These wise men and women may lack some of the qualities we most look for in wise people; they may or may not be strategic, articulate, charismatic, profound, or enthusiastic.
But there are traits, qualities, and characteristics by which we can recognize spiritual wisdom in ourselves and others. We have to train ourselves to look for these qualities. There is a spiritual wisdom test in James 3:13-18. Spiritual wisdom, or wisdom from above, is…
- open to reason
- full of mercy
- full of good fruits
As you can see, this type of wisdom is not merely intellectual or academic, but is “shown” through “good conduct…in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). It isn’t as if we can pick one of these qualities and call it wisdom. James is saying wisdom from above is ALL of these things at once. Truly wise people fit this description.
Conclusion and Application
We often admire those who skillfully—and mercilessly—outargue their opponents. We admire the debater who “mops the floor” with someone. We don’t just want our heroes and leaders to engage in thoughtful conversation with opponents, but to publicly humiliate them.
We laugh, cheer, share, and retweet, believing that they (and we) are demonstrating wisdom. In reality, there is nothing wise about attempting to publicly humiliate someone. There is nothing wise about being merciless. There is nothing wise about verbally assaulting others. There is nothing wise about being so closed-minded you won’t even “reason” with others. There is nothing wise about jealousy, strife, and selfish ambition.
If our words and behavior don’t pass the spiritual wisdom test, then we are not demonstrating wisdom from above. And if the words and behavior of our leaders and our heroes don’t pass the spiritual wisdom test, they are not demonstrating wisdom from above. It doesn’t matter how articulate, strategic, and profound we are, if we are not being gentle and full of mercy, we are not being wise.
As James said, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).
I love you and God loves you,