January 10, 2021

Wisdom from Above

What is the wisdom from above? How do we attain it?

Wisdom from Above

Not too long ago I was studying and came across the familiar words of St. James with regards to wisdom, and they struck me. I wanted to share. (Isn’t it a blessing how you can hear and read particular scriptures so many times and still be struck with new insights?)

"Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." (Jas 3:13,17 ESV)

I wonder if St. James, when he was writing this, just quickly rattled all those descriptors off, or if he thoughtfully prayed about each one as he wrote them slowly. In either case, we know he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The descriptor that jumped out at me this time was “open to reason.” I think it speaks very well to the Dominican spirit, though in truth it should resonate with us all. It speaks to humility and meekness when we are engaging with others, which are essential enablers to help us to listen.

I found this tool for Biblical analysis online.  It reminds me of my younger days when I had big reference books, like a Strong’s Concordance, on my desk next to my various translations of the Bible. How blessed we are to have these tools freely available and so easily accessible!

Of course, we have to have caution to not go off in weird directions parsing individual words of scripture, but I think when we are trying to more deeply understand it, these tools can be a great aid. Especially in cases like this when we have a list of phrases/words, and keeping in mind we are reading a translation, it can help to dig into the source languages and to cross reference with how they are used elsewhere in Scripture (and in the time period in which they were written).

The word translated “open to reason” in the ESV above (eupeithēs) has variously been translated “reasonable," “easy/ready to be entreated/convinced/persuaded,” “compliant,” “yielding,” etc. If you click on the Greek word, you can see some of these. Then also click (over on the right on “Strong’s Greek”) to get more insight into the word and how it is used elsewhere.

The wonderful thing about studying like this is we can often get a broader and more correct feel for the meaning (and check and refine our initial take on it). It’s less about pinning it down to one specific English word than getting a fuller sense of the meaning to hold in our minds. Often it can be bits and pieces of meaning from the various words we are familiar with that come together to give the complete meaning.

In this case, the words like openness and readiness and a willingness to be persuaded and to reason with help to round it out. These pertain of course to humility, that is, always keeping in mind that our own understanding may be wrong and that we might need to be persuaded differently in order to adhere to the truth. They speak to patience—a willingness to listen and hear each other out and not just biding our time to speak our views, but in a sense, wanting to be persuaded otherwise, or rather, wanting to at least be persuaded to see things as the other sees them, to see how they are reasonable. If nothing else, doing this provides insight into where a person’s reasoning may have gone off track.

I actually really like the ESV’s “open to reason” because, for me at least, it encompasses all these things. That openness to each other is key. It speaks to a lack of fear, a fear that closes us off to others because their points of view diverge from our own. Very often we are afraid to truly listen (to be “ready to be persuaded”) because we are afraid that we might be wrong. We wrongly can attach way too much importance to particular opinions and ways of thinking about things, to the point where we think “if I no longer think like this, I may lose my faith.” That fear and anxiety can cause us to lash out in anger.

My brothers and sisters! Such anxiety and fear is from the Devil! When we have such thoughts, we must realize that the underlying fear comes from our relying on ourselves for our faith rather than God. We must remember, the faith we have is not our own working. It is a gift from God! Therefore we should never fear to truly listen to others’ points of view, to be ready and open to be persuaded. We should never be afraid to see how their points of views can be reasonable. We must reject the anxiety and the anger that comes from that discomfort. We have to offer such anxiety to God, and ask him for peace in our hearts. (1 Pet 5:7)

We must keep our hope rooted in God, not in our own reasoning and the many particular opinions we have formed—even from great intellectual labor! Even opinions we may have held for many years. God has not given us the spirit of fear! (2 Tim 1:7) We must never fear being wrong. We must never fear or be reluctant to be corrected. On the contrary! Our correction ought to be an occasion of great joy for us, for through it we will have come to a better understanding of the truth.

Yes, it is true that we can be led astray, but we need not fear that. It is absolutely certain that I (and you and every human living) do not perfectly understand the Faith. I will say that again. Neither you, nor I, nor any believer who has ever lived has a perfect understanding of the Faith. It is 100% sure that each of us is in error in some ways today, right this very moment. It is certain that this will be our condition until we see God face to face (1 Cor 13:12). My brothers and sisters, we are, then, already in error in some ways, so a fear of discovering we are in error is misplaced. What a relief!

God is ever so much greater than our imperfect understandings. His power is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9). God does not require perfect knowledge of us. He requires faith. He requires our hope and our trust in him. He requires a life lived in concrete love. And he will infuse us with his grace, making up for our many imperfections.

We must never rely on our own intelligence for our faith. I think this is a real danger for we who greatly value study and the intellect and prioritize seeking the truth. We can come to rely on our own knowledge for faith, rather than God, and we can be led to implicitly believe that perfection of knowledge in this life is requisite for living a life of faith.

Sadly, this can tend to lead us further from God and cause us to fall into the bad habit of acting as though it is we who are the arbiters of truth. We can end up becoming consumed with how well we think others adhere to our understanding of the truth. We can even go so far as to fall into judging others' relationship with God based on our perception of their orthodoxy--even our pastors, our bishops, and the pope himself! This is not spiritually healthy for us, and not only us, but it can cause us to become a scandal for others by leading them into doubt and similar wrongheaded judgmentalism. This is not hypothetical, either. It's all over the internet nowadays. We need to wake up to this very real danger!

So it is very important to learn the habit and virtue of humility in being open to reason. This is why the wisdom of God, as St. James explained, is open to reason, ready to be persuaded, that is to say, ready (perhaps even eager) to be corrected, ready to see that I was wrong, and ready to amend my opinions. Because it is guaranteed that no matter how intellectually gifted we are, no matter how many books we read, we will still get things wrong. Each of us is always in need of correction in this life.

And when you think about it, what is learning (from study) if not a gradual dispelling of errors in our minds, a replacement of imprecise or even incorrect notions with correct ones? We do not fear that, so why should we fear finding the need to do so when speaking with others?

It is a funny accident of our nature that we are often more ready to be convinced when alone with a book than when speaking in person to another. If we analyze our motivations behind that tendency, I think we will find the root cause is fear of losing face, that is, of pride. It is one thing for only I to know that I was wrong about something, to amend my opinion, and so to appear as always having been correct in the sight of others. It is quite another for others to know I was wrong!

This is a fear of having our faults known, and it is pride. We must root out pride wherever we find it.

And that pride based in knowledge can lead us to disdain for others whom we believe hold wrong opinions, which is another danger. The more we prize our knowledge, the more we are tempted hold on to it, to refuse to be corrected, and to treat those who disagree with us poorly. This, too, is a great evil and a danger not only to our souls but that of others. This is the path of every heretic—the obstinate refusal to be corrected, of being wise in our own eyes, of valuing too much all the time and effort we put into forming our understandings.

But as St. James said, the wisdom from God shows meekness. It has an attitude of always being open to reason, of being ready to be persuaded, of being the one who is brought back from error (Jas 5:19). Far too often, we are consumed with being ready to dole out fraternal correction. Far, far too rarely do we entertain that it is we who may be in need of correction, and when it comes, we kick and fight it with all our might!

Let us ask God to open our hearts and our minds to be more ready to be persuaded, to cultivate that habit of humility and faith, perfecting our love and so driving out fear, trusting that God will always draw us closer to him when we seek him above all else (Jas 4:8; Mat 6:33).  It is then that we can be confident that we are living in that wisdom from above.

Peace in Christ and St. Dominic!