The Meekness of Wisdom
by Rick Shrader
“Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13)
Who wants to violate the first characteristic of meekness and write about it? Who wants to appear to be like the one who brags about being humble? Yet meekness and humility are crucial Biblical subjects in which we all fall woefully short. We better at least be thinking about them.
Every time I read James, I stop at 3:13 and think about “the meekness of wisdom,” and wonder what that looks like. I think of certain men and women I have known who seemed to display this Christian characteristic but still wonder how they came to it. I could list their names but I know they wouldn’t care if I did or didn’t. Of course, the greatest example of meekness is the Savior Himself. “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Paul addressed the Corinthian church, “Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1).
Besides the perfect example of Christ, meekness is the subject of one of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5), a quotation from Psa. 37:11. Meekness is one of the fruits of the Spirit as well as an oft commanded Christian characteristic, “showing meekness unto all men” (Tit. 3:2); “a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Pet. 3:4).
James chapter three deals primarily with the tongue and the problem we all have with controlling it. “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (vs. 8). He shows our hypocrisy in using our tongue to bless God and then curse men who are made in His image. God isn’t so inconsistent, James says, in His created world. He doesn’t have one tree bear two kinds of fruit, nor a fountain produce both fresh water and bitter. But immediately after that comparison He asks who the wise man is who has the meekness of wisdom.
The human tongue today is anything but meek. We are far beyond an ethos of quietness and gentleness. Maybe there was a time when, following James’ advice, we thought we should be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” because “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (1:19-20). I’m not sure how parents today can raise a meek child. Everything they hear and imitate is forward and brash from the clothes they wear to the frown on their faces to the vulgarity that comes out of their mouths. Can we blame them? Every show they watch, every video game they play, every athlete they imitate, every singer they mimic, every star they idolize, even every commercial that appeals to their little sinful natures, all teach them anything but meekness.
Do we grow out of this youthful narcissism? Not hardly. This “post-everything” culture has left civility far behind. One cannot escape the crudeness, the brashness, the immodesty, the lawlessness, the forwardness that is this generation. The portrait of our culture really is the commercial. Whether on TV or online or on your smart phone, the commercial is designed by the brightest, most technologically advanced, most researched people on earth, to sell you something. I call the commercial “the obvious lie.” Nothing can be that good or that bad. The hamburger in the picture is nothing like the one they serve me at the counter. But the image is everything. “This is the car you’d like to be seen in” is the unspoken message. Just imagine a commercial designed around meekness of wisdom! “We know that everyone thinks this is cool but don’t be as stupid as they are.”
So what does the meekness of wisdom look like? Will we know it when we see it? We won’t see it in popular programs or successful sitcoms. Nor will it be found in popular music, televised sports, political campaigns, or in online advertising. Sadly, it may seldom appear in Christian programing and, if we would all be honest, neither in our own lives and attitudes. The lack of meekness is a direct attribute of our sinful nature, that selfish bent which still resides in us. We know in our heads that real meekness comes from the Spirit of God Who forms the life of Christ in us, but living the fruit of the Spirit is a constant war which goes on within our hearts.
What meekness is not
James calls real wisdom “the wisdom that is from above” (3:17) but says, “if you have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (3:14-16). “Devilish,” of course, means “demonic.” There is one devil and he has a host of demons who have complete “doctrines” (1 Tim. 3:1) on how to seduce believers. Fighting seems to be a big part of their game plan and Peter says that fleshly lusts “war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).
James, after describing that wisdom which is from above, continues his description of the wisdom from below. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not because he ask not” (4:1-2). This war is going on in our “members.” These are the parts of our unredeemed bodies that are susceptible to the lusts of the flesh. Paul describes this battle that rages within us of yielding our members to righteousness or unrighteousness (Rom. 6:12-17).
James says that we lose our power in prayer when we are losing this battle with the flesh (4:2-3). Peter described how the husband is supposed to dwell with his wife according to knowledge so that his prayers are not hindered with God (1 Pet. 3:7). James called those who succumb to this lower wisdom “adulterers and adulteresses” and says that if such a state makes us want to be friends of the world, it would also make us an “enemy of God” (4:4). Therefore, the lack of true meekness and wisdom is a serious condition that believers must avoid.
What meekness is
James did not leave us with theory only. He tells us how to live out the meekness found in true wisdom. John Newton, the former slave trader turned pastor, writer, hymnist, who also knew how to sail a vessel, not just to talk about it, said,
The tongue of the truly learned, that can speak a word in season to them that are weary, is not acquired like Greek and Latin by reading great books—but by self-knowledge and soul exercises. To learn navigation by the fireside will never make a man an expert mariner. He must do his business in great waters. And practice will bring him into many situations of which general theory could give him no conception.1
So James also gives us four ways to display the meekness of wisdom in our lives.
1. Purity. The description of the “wisdom from above” (3:17) begins where most lists of godliness begin, with purity and virtue (see 2 Pet. 1:5). This is because our great Example is Jesus Christ Himself Who was a lamb “without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19), “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22). This spotless lamb mentioned throughout the book of Revelation (though also having “wrath”) is contrasted with the “beast” who knows no meekness. Where would we be if Jesus had not been as “a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before his shearers” (Isa. 53:7)? His meekness secured our salvation through His submission to the cross.
In James’ list, “purity” precedes “peaceable” and peaceable precedes “gentle.” The reason for envy and strife, is a lack of gentleness, which comes from a lack of peaceableness, which comes from a lack of purity. This meekness of wisdom should look gentle and peaceable, but that look is deceiving if there is not purity underneath. I picture this as a river that flows gently along creating a peaceful atmosphere all around. The psalmist used the picture of the millennial city of God, “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God,” followed by the well-known verse, “be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 46:4, 10). The hymn writer used this image also,
Like a river glorious is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious in its bright increase; (vs 1)
Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,
Not a blast of hurry touch the spirit there. (vs 2)
The meekness of wisdom is first pure and then peaceable. The fighting and wars that often characterize the believer’s life do not come from this source. They come from the wars within our members and between our brothers and sisters that attack our very souls.
2. Humility. “But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. . . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (4:6, 10). Peter has a similar admonition, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6). The Psalmist wrote, “The LORD lifteth up the meek” (147:6). John the Baptist knew that in order for Jesus to increase, he himself must decrease (John 3:30).
The Bible records in a parenthesis, “(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth)” (Num. 12:3). Surely God had exalted and greatly used this humble man. The great missionary Hudson Taylor once said, “God chose me because I was weak enough. God does not do His great works by large committees. He trains somebody to be quiet enough and little enough and then He uses him.”2 The believer is wrong-headed who desires to be great in order to be important among men. History shows that great men only desired to be godly and humble, and then God used them in great ways. Meekness is not a tool but an end in itself.
3) Control of the tongue. This whole section in James began with his lecture about the tongue. A man should not even strive to be a teacher if he cannot control the tongue by which he would make his living (3:1). “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (3:2). An obvious example of a lack of meek wisdom is the double use of the tongue. “Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God” (3:9). Cursing is the sign of a person with limited vocabulary and no wisdom. Such a person cannot control the rest of his body either. A single woman should never marry such a man because this “double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (1:8). “There is no worse pride than that which claims humility when it does not possess it.”3
Peter was very conscious of our ability to defend our faith. The defense of our faith, however, does not come with an uncontrolled tongue. “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15). Paul admonished Timothy that, “The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient; in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
It seems evident that modern man has lost this sense of quiet strength manifested in meekness, especially the meekness of our tongue. Generations ago, Philip Doddridge, wrote, “Examine also, whether you advance in humility. This is a silent, but most excellent grace; and they who are most eminent in it, are dearest to God, and most fit for the communications of his presence to them.”4 Are our communications laced with the meekness of wisdom? Or are our words careless and selfish? Meekness controls the tongue.
4) Following God’s will. James ends this section on the meekness of wisdom with a unique soliloquy at the end of chapter four. “Go to now, ye who say, Today or tomorrow we will go to such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain” (4:13). But James interrupts the boast by saying, “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that” (4:15).
The will of God is squarely tied to the Word of God and the Word of God requires meekness to accept and follow. James has already said, “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21, NKJ). If something is obviously not Biblical then it is definitely not God’s will. The Holy Spirit Who wrote the Word will not, indeed could not, direct you contrary to what He has written. George Mueller once said,
I never remember a period that I ever sincerely and patiently sought to know the will of God by the teaching of the Holy Ghost, through the instrumentality of the Word of God, but I have been always directed rightly. But if honesty of heart and uprightness before God were lacking, or if I did not patiently wait upon God for instruction, or if I preferred the counsel of my fellow men to the declarations of the Word of the living God, I made great mistakes.5
It makes perfect sense that true wisdom, especially the meekness of wisdom, is essentially tied to God’s Word. The omniscient God cannot reveal anything that is not absolutely right and true. If we are thinking in accord with that Word, then our thoughts and words must be true, wise, and meek. This takes meekness because our thoughts may not initially be in accord to His Word and therefore we have to adjust and admit that wisdom is not ours but God’s.
How many of us have made a life-changing decision and then later realized that the decision was not wise? Someone said that we spend half our lives trying to make right decisions and the other half trying to make decisions right. However, admitting to God that we were wrong takes meekness coupled with the right wisdom from God. James calls this the meekness of wisdom because understanding God’s wisdom (and who can know it apart from His Word?) demands conformity to it on our part. It is not our nature to accept our error graciously and therefore it asks of us great meekness.
And so . . .
Some things take a life-time to accomplish and with many of those one life-time is not enough. Life in the New Jerusalem will be wonderful partly because, “there shall be no more curse” (Rev. 22:3). The joys of heaven can only be fully appreciated when our old nature is completely gone and corruption has put on incorruption and mortality has put on immortality. When that time comes, in some mysterious way, we will be like Him for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2) and our meekness and humility will be as natural as our new condition.
Until then the commandments of God are our stewardship and the meekness of wisdom our responsibility. The old nature which we possess is contrary to that kind of wisdom and it takes constant struggle on our part to be successful. A.W. Tozer had a good reminder:
If you are too big for a little place, you are too little for a big place. . . Humility pleases God wherever it is found, and the humble man will have God for his friend and helper always. Only the humble man is completely sane, for he is the only one who sees clearly his own size and limitations.6
“Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.”
- John Newton, 365 Days With John Newton, entry: September 16.
- Quoted by William Petersen (Ed.) C.S. Lewis had a Wife; Catherine Marshall had a Husband, (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985) 69.
- C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1978) Psa. 131, p. 87.
- Philip Doddridge, The Rise and Progress of the Soul Religion in the Soul (U. of MI reprint, nd) 272.
- Quoted by Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God (Nashville: Broadman & Homan, 1998) 111.
- A.W. Tozer, This World: Playground or Battleground? (Camp Hill: Wing Spread Publishers, 1989) p. 36.