4 Keys to Wise Living
May 17, 2017
All of us want to make a difference.
We want to make an impact while we can because no one lives forever. Life is so short. We are here today and gone tomorrow.
We want to know our life counted for something.
We want to be sure we didn’t waste it on things that don’t matter.
You can’t get your soul back!
Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). That’s a frightening thought because it means you can be rich and famous and popular by the world’s standards, you can be at the top of the career ladder, and come to the end of your life only to hear God say, “It didn’t amount to anything.” If the soul is lost, the whole person is lost. You can’t make a deal with God to get your soul back after it is gone.
We need God’s wisdom because so much is at stake. The little book of James brings us back to this point over and over again because wisdom matters more than money or education or good looks. So let me begin with a question. Imagine that you are in a vast congregation of people. Pastor James, the half-brother of our Lord, stands and silently surveys the crowd. Suddenly he asks a very pointed question:
Will all the wise people stand up?
Are you a wise person?
That’s all he says. A murmur goes across the crowd because it feels like a trick question. Are you being presumptuous if you stand up? Who can be sure about something like that? It’s uncomfortable to think about. It would be better if James had said, “Pick out the wise people and have them stand up.” That would be easier. Here is what he actually said:
“Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness” (James 3:13).
In other words, “Will the wise people please stand up?”
It’s like Kevin O’Leary says on the TV show Shark Tank, “You’ve got an offer. What are you going to do?”
Wisdom cannot be hidden
Wisdom cannot be hidden. The fool may keep silent, and for a while others will think him wise. But eventually the fool must speak and act, and the truth will come out.
Are you a wise person?
Before you answer, let’s take a little pop quiz from Pastor James. In just one verse, he gives us four keys to wise living. So what does wisdom look like in real life? Here is the truth of this verse in one sentence: A seeking heart makes smart choices that produce a beautiful life marked by a gentle spirit.
Let’s go through those keys one by one.
Key # 1: A Seeking Heart
“Who is wise . . . among you?”
Where does wisdom begin? Remember that wisdom is much more than the accumulation of knowledge. It’s more than reading books and attending classes. We all have known very smart people who wasted their life with foolish choices. Wisdom is not about the letters after your name. Jeremiah 29:13 (NKJV) says, “You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.“ God isn’t hiding. The Creator has put himself in plain view. But we are like the man who goes to the Grand Canyon and never gets out of his car because he is checking Facebook. He brags to his friends, “I went to the Grand Canyon,” but he might as well have stayed home because he didn’t see a thing.
God isn’t hiding
The first step in acquiring wisdom is simply to desire it more than anything else. Wisdom is free, but it will cost you all you have. Because it is supreme among the virtues, it cannot be had at a bargain basement price. You cannot become wise by accident. You must search after wisdom as if you were searching for silver or gold.
I received a letter from a man in prison in Virginia. I do not know the man, have never met him, and know nothing about him other than what he writes.
I have been incarcerated for the past 23 years, 12 months, and 21 days. I have been in prison for a total of four times of about 29 years.
Here is the reason for his letter:
I am writing you to let you know I have received a rich blessing from reading your book What a Christian Believes. I have since accepted Christ Jesus into my life and now have freedom from sin, fear, and slavery.
Until a person is willing to say, “I am a sinner in need of salvation,” he cannot experience such freedom from guilt and condemnation as I have. I was hopelessly enslaved by sin before I read your book and accepted Jesus into my life.
One sentence stuck in my mind: “Until a person is willing to say, ‘I am a sinner in need of salvation,’ he cannot experience such freedom from guilt and condemnation as I have.”
Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you look up
That man in prison is wiser in the eyes of the Lord than many of us who walk around in freedom. I am sorry it took prison to reveal that truth to him, but at least he is on the right path.
It all starts with a seeking heart.
Let me go out on a limb and make a bold statement. Whatever righteous thing you desire in the spiritual realm, you can have if you want it badly enough. I don’t think we appreciate the importance of that truth.
You can walk closer with God if you want to!
If you want to . . .
You can walk closer to God.
You can do God’s will.
You can witness for Christ.
You can learn to pray.
You can grow spiritually.
You can become a man of God or a woman of God.
You can break destructive patterns of behavior.
What you seek, you find. This is true in every area of life. Many centuries ago, Augustine explained both the problem and the solution: “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” We will never be happy until we put God first. And we can never do that until we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ. In the kingdom of God, everything begins with a seeking heart.
After his retirement, someone asked Charlie Riggs the secret of his success in overseeing follow-up and new believer discipleship for the Billy Graham organization. “Every day I always prayed, ‘Lord, put me in over my head.’ That way I knew if the Lord didn’t help me, I was sunk,” he replied.
What you seek, you find
James would heartily approve.
If you want wisdom, you can have it. It’s free, but it will cost you all you have. That leads us to the second key to wise living.
Key # 2: Smart Choices
“Who . . . has understanding among you?”
The word “understanding” is used only here in the New Testament. It has the idea of being a specialist. We all understand this in the medical field. If you get cancer, you need to see an oncologist. When your children get sick, you may take them to a pediatrician. If you injure your face, you probably will need to see a plastic surgeon. We see this type of specialization in every area of life. A gifted trumpeter devotes years to mastering his instrument. A gifted opera singer works for years to develop her voice to the highest level.
“Lord, put me in over my head”
No one becomes a specialist by accident.
You may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, who calls 10,000 hours the “magic rule for greatness.” It doesn’t mean you will be great at something merely by spending 10,000 hours working at it, but you’ll never achieve greatness without those 10,000 hours. As someone has said, it takes 20 years to be an overnight success.
I know of only two ways to become a “specialist” in the Christian life: people and pain. We learn a great deal simply by hanging around with people who are wiser than we are. That’s why the Bible instructs older men and older women to mentor younger men and younger women. Young folks need good examples to show them how to make wise choices about dating, marriage, starting a career, raising children, and serving the Lord. New believers need to know how to pray and how to read the Bible and how to share their faith. They need to know how to make tough decisions that honor the Lord.
The other way to grow is through pain. No one likes this, but no one is exempt from it either. James has already said our trials produce perseverance that leads to spiritual growth so we lack nothing we need (1:2-4). Job 23:10 reminds us that when we have passed through the furnace of affliction, we will come forth like gold. If we cooperate with God, hard times become an avenue for enormous spiritual growth.
Too many Christians settle for “fool’s gold”
There is gold, and then there is “fool’s gold.” It looks like gold to the naked eye, but it isn’t, and it’s not worth anything. Too many Christians settle for “fool’s gold” in the choices they make.
Let me give you a simple definition of the “understanding” James has in mind: It’s the ability to make wise choices under pressure. This is an important prayer request for parents to offer on behalf of their children. Pray that your children (and your grandchildren) learn to make wise choices under pressure. Most of us can make wise choices if we have two days to think about it. But life usually doesn’t work that way, especially for the young. They make split-second decisions every day about what they will wear, where they will go, who they will go with, what jokes they will tell, what music they will listen to, what movies they will watch, and whether or not they will stand up for their faith. Young people today are on the firing line all the time. Pray for your children that they will have wisdom from God to choose what is best when they don’t have much time to make up their minds.
“If you do right, it doesn’t matter what people think”
There are two parts to making wise choices: First, you must know what is right. We live in a world where many people have lost all sense of right and wrong. Everything appears to them as shades of gray. Second, you must have the courage to choose what you know to be right. I happened to catch a few minutes of a televised speech by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. During the question time someone asked how he managed to deal with all the criticism that comes to anyone in a high-profile position. He replied that the most important thing in life is to discover what you believe to be true and then to stand up for those beliefs no matter what. “If you do what you know is right,” he added, “it doesn’t matter what people think.”
So here we have the first two keys. The life God blesses starts by seeking God’s wisdom more than silver and gold. That gives you understanding so you can make wise choices under pressure.
That leads us to the third key to wise living.
Key # 3: A Beautiful Life
“He should show his works by good conduct.”
James chose a very important word to describe the third mark of a God-blessed life. Some translations talk about “good behavior,” which is fine but doesn’t quite get to the point. One translation calls it “noble conduct,” which gets closer. James used an adjective that means “beautiful.” It describes something pleasing to the eye. Applied to people it means “beautiful by reason of purity of heart and life.”
Unbelievers watch us all the time
Here is the principle: Live so that even unbelievers are impressed by your behavior.
Whether we know it or not, unbelievers watch us all the time. They study us from a distance, and they pay attention to how we do things. People who don’t know Jesus are watching how you handle problems at work. They watch to see
How you dress,
How you spend your money,
How you speak to your co-workers,
How you treat your spouse,
How you raise your children,
How you deal with difficult people, and
How you respond when tragedy strikes.
Usually you aren’t aware you’re being watched until much later. Years may pass and then you receive a letter telling you someone knew you way back when, and your Christian example played a big part in their coming to Christ.
A saint is a person who makes it easy to believe in Jesus
Every day you are either drawing people to Jesus or you are pushing them further away.
Have you heard Ruth Graham’s definition of a saint? A saint is a person who makes it easy to believe in Jesus. That’s a worthy goal for all of us.
There is one final key to wise living:
Key # 4: A Gentle Spirit
“He should show his works by . . . wisdom’s gentleness.”
Here is the final proof of a life filled with God’s wisdom. Such a person lives with gentleness. The Greek word used here is the same one Jesus used in the Third Beatitude:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
To the ancient Greeks, meekness meant power under control. They used the word to describe mild words, soothing medicine, refreshing wind, and a horse that has been tamed. What do those four things have in common? They all represent different forms of power that can be harnessed for good or evil. A meek horse is not a weak horse, but rather a powerful beast brought under its master’s control.
Meekness is my power under God’s control
Used in this context, meekness means “my power under God’s control.” It’s a character trait most often seen when dealing with disagreeable people. What does meekness look like in daily life? Here are three practical answers:
1. Gentleness when provoked.
2. Boldness in the face of evil.
3. Openness to correction by others.
Meekness is best demonstrated when you are dealing with unreasonable people. It’s not hard to be gentle when your life is good and you feel no pressure. That’s not meekness; that’s niceness.
Meekness is seen when you are under the gun, up against a deadline, surrounded by problems, hip deep in alligators and no way to drain the swamp, and you feel yourself getting frustrated. If you don’t have it then, you don’t have it at all.
Boldness without brokenness makes a bully
I heard David Benham say, “Boldness without brokenness makes a bully.” We need strong men and women who will speak up for God without fear or favor. And yet, sometimes when we hear a Christian speaking out, the warning bells start ringing. It’s too loud, too pugnacious, too angry, too quick. What is said may be true and may even need to be said, but it comes across dripping with arrogance and condescension. If we are going to be bold (and we should be), let us ask God for the meekness that makes our message worth listening to. Otherwise, we end up sounding like bullies.
Meekness doesn’t call attention to itself. Sometimes we talk about ourselves too much. We brag about who we know, what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and how much we own because we want to make sure others give us the respect we think we deserve. But Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let someone else praise you, not your own mouth–a stranger, not your own lips.” If you have to tell me how great you are, how great could you possibly be? Michael Jordan didn’t have to brag about being “the greatest that ever was.” His play on the court spoke for itself.
If you have to tell me how great you are, how great could you possibly be?
How do we develop this quality of meekness?
First, it must come from the Lord because this is not a natural trait.
Second, we only develop gentleness by being around difficult people.
When Henry Drummond wrote his famous speech called The Greatest Thing in the World, he included these lines:
“The world is not a playground; it is a schoolroom. Life is not a holiday, but an education.”
We are all enrolled in the School of Life, and no one graduates this side of heaven. Every man and every woman is our teacher. We have something to learn from every person we meet.
Every person is my teacher!
Do not complain about circumstances. That changes nothing.
Do not resent difficult people. That changes nothing.
Do not moan about hard challenges. That changes nothing.
Ask the Lord, “What do you want me to learn from this?” That changes you.
“Lord, what do you want me to learn from this?”
So let me end where we started, with a simple question: “Are you a wise person?” As we have seen, the question may be simple but the answer isn’t. We all like to think of ourselves as wise, but then we make so many dumb mistakes. We’ll never walk in wisdom without God’s help. Here’s a reminder of the sentence that sums up this verse: A seeking heart makes smart choices that produce a beautiful life marked by a gentle spirit.
Perhaps we could turn that into a prayer:
Lord, I know I can do nothing without you because you are the source of all wisdom. Give me a seeking heart so that I might make smart choices under pressure. I pray for a beautiful life marked by a gentle spirit. Grant, O Lord, that others might see Jesus in me. Amen.