What is wisdom?

Why wisdom may not be what you thought it was, and why that’s a good thing

James gives us a comforting promise:

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God — who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly — and it will be given to him (Jas 1:5).

The promise is simple and clear: If you need wisdom, ask God, and he will give it to you.

But what if we don’t truly know what it is we are asking for? What if we don’t truly know what wisdom is?

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

What I originally thought James 1:5 meant

I remember coming across James 1:5 while I was in the youth group at Hardin Baptist Church and being blown away by the audacity of the promise. While James makes the promise conditional upon our faith in James 1:6, he does not hedge the promise in terms of God’s will. He doesn’t say, for example, “It will be given to him, if God wills.”

Rather he makes clear that it is absolutely and unequivocally God’s will to give you exactly what you are asking for! God “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly.” God is eager to give wisdom, but he has made the giving conditional upon our asking. Of course, he requires us to ask so that we will recognize the source of the wisdom. If he gave without our asking, then we would assume that our wisdom was innate, but the act of asking enables us to see it as a gift from God. 

Yet, remarkably, the asking is all that is required to receive. As James will say later in his letter, “You do not have because you do not ask” (Jas 4:3). While addressing a different topic in James 4, the principle nevertheless applies to wisdom. If you don’t have it, it is because you have not asked for it.

As a young man, I put this verse immediately into practice. It became almost as thoughtless as breathing to pray, “Lord, give me wisdom for x,” and when you are young, there are numerous life-altering decisions that require wisdom. Where should I go to college? Who should I marry? What job opportunity should I take?

I desperately wanted the right answer for each of these and many more lesser questions. I thought that God’s promise of wisdom would give me that right answer. I knew the problem, but I needed the solution. Wisdom meant receiving the solution, the fix, the answer to whatever I was facing at the moment. 

Instead of giving me solutions to my problems, God was giving me the character to face every problem in a godly way.

Understanding James 1 in light of James 3

While God has been abundantly faithful to keep his promise in James 1:5, I began to understand that it wasn’t always in the way that I expected. God seemed to be much less interested in giving me the solutions to my problems than in changing me.

Wisdom isn’t what most people think it is. It isn’t knowing the right thing to do all the time. James makes this clear in chapter 3. Unfortunately, it seems like it took me about 15 years to make the connection between these two chapters, which are so close together.

In James 3:13–18, James finally defines what he means by wisdom. He begins by asking the question, “Who among you is wise and understanding” (Jas 3:13a)? He is inviting us to define wisdom. He’s asking us, “What does a truly wise person look like?”

Instead of telling us to look at whether or not a person is getting the solutions to his or her problems right, he says, “By his good conduct he should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom” (Jas 3:13b). Wisdom isn’t seen in right answers. It is seen in good conduct and gentleness.

James contrasts the wise person with someone who has “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in their heart (Jas 3:14). Of course, this is a type of “wisdom,” but it isn’t the wisdom that you get from God. James says, “Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Jas 3:15).

Godly wisdom, however, is “first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without pretense” (Jas 3:17). While earthly wisdom results in “disorder and every evil practice” (Jas 3:16), Godly wisdom brings about righteousness that produces peace (Jas 3:18).

When I examined James’ definition of wisdom, I learned that the wisdom God gives is rarely simply a correct answer. Instead of giving me solutions to my problems, God was giving me the character to face every problem in a godly way.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that the “big decisions” from my youth were the easy ones. The hard decisions in our relationships come when sin, misunderstanding, or anger is fired at us, and we have to decide, often in a millisecond, how we will respond. Being right in those moments is rarely the right thing, even if you are right. Being peace-loving, gentle, and full of mercy is always the right thing.

Remarkably, this kind of godly character, which seems much more impossible to produce than right answers, is exactly what God promises to give to us in James 1. And, amazingly, he gives it generously and ungrudgingly to anyone who asks in faith.

More Field Notes
Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a missionary to Malawi and president of Gospel Life. Before becoming president of Gospel Life, he served as a pastor in Kentucky. He is married to Stacy Leigh, and they have five children.

Do you believe in prayer?

We do. Join us as a prayer partner today!

Give life through the gospel | Plant. Teach. Serve.