In his letter, James mentions “the wisdom that is from above.” What is this wisdom, and why is it important to Christians? How can we have more of it?
The New Testament book of James is often compared to Proverbs and offers an abundance of practical advice for living a Christian life. Like the book of Proverbs, James is filled with short pithy statements of truth.
Halfway through his letter, James refers to a “wisdom that is from above” (James 3:17), contrasting it with an “earthly, sensual, demonic” wisdom (verse 15).
What is this wisdom from above, and what are its attributes? How does it differ from earthly wisdom? And why is any of this important?
Wisdom from above in the book of James
James sought to bolster the faith of his readers. His letter included not only practical tips for Christian living, but also a warning about the two types of wisdom mentioned above.
This distinction, though expressed using different terms, is the same as the contrast between the wisdom and folly described in the first third of the book of Proverbs, which is the biblical book most associated with wisdom. In Proverbs we learn that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
True wisdom, then, comes from God, and is therefore the “wisdom that is from above.” James calls human reasoning—whether on a practical level aimed at excusing “bitter envy and self-seeking” (James 3:14) or on a philosophical level—an “earthly, sensual, demonic” wisdom (verse 15).
The two contrasting ways of life have been with us since the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve chose to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong (Genesis 3:6) rather than accept and embrace the wisdom from above.
Characteristics of wisdom from above
Following his custom of explaining the practical application of faith, James listed eight characteristics of the wisdom from above. The final two traits are presented as negatives to avoid. In the New King James Version, the wisdom from above is:
- Willing to yield.
- Full of mercy.
- Full of good fruits.
- Without partiality.
- Without hypocrisy.
James emphasized the first characteristic above the others, setting it apart with the word “first.” He provided the remainder of the list only after the word “then.” That’s because this first word encompasses the frame of mind necessary for believers to receive the wisdom from above.
1. Pure (Greek hagnos, Strong’s G53)
The Greek word hagnos is not the same word James used to describe true religion in James 1:27. That word is katharos (Strong’s G2513). Hagnos refers to someone or something “pure from defilement, not contaminated,” whereas katharos describes someone or something “cleansed” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary).
James may have chosen hagnos in chapter 3 because nothing that comes from God needs cleansing, but is pure from the outset.
According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, the word hagnos refers “not to sexual purity but to the absence of any sinful attitude or motive” (Vol. 12, p. 191). It is the word John uses when writing about the character of God (1 John 3:3), and it directly counters the “envy and self-seeking” of James 3:14 and 16.
This purity that comes from God may well suggest that the entire list of character traits associated with the wisdom from above depicts our God first and foremost. From the context of the passage, of course, we see that Christians are to strive to emulate these attributes of God.
2. Peaceable (eirēnikos, Strong’s G1516)
The second word on the list, eirēnikos, appears in only one other New Testament passage (Hebrews 12:11), though variants appear in virtually every book of the New Testament. To be peaceable means to be inclined toward peace.
The trait is part of a New Testament title of God—the God of peace. This title appears in four books (Romans 15:33; 16:20; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20), so it is an important aspect of God’s character.
Peace is clearly important for Christians as well. We should strive to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), and we can be reassured by Christ’s promise that in the midst of tribulation, we can have peace through our relationship with Christ (John 16:33).
3. Gentle (epieikēs, Strong’s G1933)
The third aspect of wisdom from above is epieikēs. In the Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Old Testament, this word “is used mostly of God’s disposition as King. He is gentle and kind, although in reality he has every reason to be stern and punitive toward men in their sin” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12. p. 191).
We are gentle when we think as much about the desires, needs and rights of others as we think about our own.To be gentle in this sense is to live as Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount, especially as He distinguished between the letter and the spirit of the law. Rather than insist on “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38), Christ taught those who heard Him “not to resist an evil person” (verse 39).
We are gentle when we don’t always insist on what is our right. We are gentle when we let go of offenses, forgiving others. We are gentle when we think as much about the desires, needs and rights of others as we think about our own.
4. Willing to yield (eupeithēs, Strong’s G2138)
The word James uses for the fourth characteristic of the wisdom from above appears nowhere else in the New Testament. It has been translated from other ancient Greek writings in a variety of ways with a broad spectrum of meanings, generally divided between variations of “reasonable” and “obedient.”
These two concepts may seem miles apart, but the difference disappears when we look at this characteristic from two perspectives.
When under authority, someone with this trait will obey. When exercising authority, a person with this attribute will be reasonable rather than headstrong or bullheaded, listening to subordinates. In both cases, an individual will pay attention to other people, considering their opinions and perspectives.
Of course, this willingness to yield does not include yielding to sin or unrighteousness.
5. Full of mercy (eleos, Strong’s G1656)
The fifth characteristic of the wisdom from above is mercy, which describes the “readiness to help those in trouble” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). It “is the outward manifestation of pity; it assumes need on the part of him who receives it, and resources adequate to meet the need on the part of him who shows it” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary).
James used a variant of the word in the preceding chapter when he emphasized how critically important this attribute is for any of us. In fact, we should find these words sobering: “Judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13; see “Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment”).
In one of His last encounters with the religious leaders before His arrest, trial and crucifixion, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their wrong priorities. They gave scrupulous attention to minute details of tithing, while at the same time they had “neglected the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23; see “God’s Priorities: The Weightier Matters of the Law”). Mercy is one of the three “weightier matters.”
In an earlier encounter, Jesus had reminded a group of Pharisees that mercy is more important than sacrifice (Matthew 9:13). Clearly, this godly trait is one that will improve our relationships with others and, as a result, God’s assessment of us.
6. Full of good fruits (agathos, Strong’s G18, and karpos, Strong’s G2590)
The next attribute of the wisdom from above is good fruit. The Greek word karpos, for fruit, appears 66 times in the New Testament. It is often used as a metaphor for the behavior and character of people, whether good or bad.
Jesus Christ explained that who we are inside is made evident by how we speak and act: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).
It is not surprising that James, whose book is filled with practical tips for living a godly life, would adopt this metaphor. Good fruit is the practical result, the product, of living with the wisdom from above.
Of course, the source of good fruit is Christ, who describes Himself as the “true vine” (John 15:1). In this same passage He warns His disciples that “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (verse 2).
7. Without partiality (adiakritos, Strong’s G87)
The first negative trait to avoid comes from a Greek term that essentially means “not to be parted” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary). Most translations see the term in biblical usage as referring to partiality or prejudice.
The concept of prejudice or partiality consumes the first third of the preceding chapter in James, showing that this may have been an issue in the early Church. The words James used there are prosōpolēmpsia (“respect of persons,” 2:1, KJV), diakrinō (“partial,” verse 4, KJV) and prosōpolēmpteō (“you show partiality,” verse 9, KJV).
In these nine verses, James condemned treating a well-dressed, wealthy person more favorably than a poorly dressed, impoverished individual. That type of prejudice causes divisions among people and is therefore listed as a practice to be avoided by anyone graced with the wisdom from above.
8. Without hypocrisy (anypokritos, Strong’s G505)
The final characteristic of the wisdom from above, also expressed as a negative, means doing the opposite of a Greek term that came to refer to playacting. This word appears six times in the New Testament. In the NKJV it is translated as “without hypocrisy” twice, “sincere” three times, and “genuine” once.
On a number of occasions Jesus labeled the religious leaders of the day, particularly the scribes and Pharisees, as hypocrites. He used variations of the term four times in the Sermon on the Mount when discussing wrong motives for acts of charity, prayer, fasting and pointing out others’ sins.
Speaking directly to the scribes and Pharisees toward the end of His ministry, Christ exclaimed, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13). He condemned them not only for refusing to accept His teachings, but for standing in the way of others who wanted to understand.
This characteristic calls for an honest approach to others. If we are playacting, our motives are not pure. And that brings us back to the beginning of the attribute list.
Choosing wisdom from above
James presented a clear choice between the “earthly, sensual, demonic” wisdom (James 3:15) and the wisdom from above. The former is all about self, leading to bitter envy, self-seeking, boasting and lying (verse 14). The latter is about living in harmony with God and other people.
This wisdom from above is not something we seek from monks living at the tops of mountains or from schools of philosophy, but is something that comes from God. The wisdom from above is practical and will result in a godly and more successful life.
We must choose this wisdom, and earlier in his letter, James told his readers where to begin: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
You, too, can have this wisdom from above by asking for it, focusing on it and applying it!