“Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Our littlest graduated from preschool last year and is all geared up for big school this fall. One of the things he always looked forward to most in his preschool program was show and tell. He loved picking out just the right toy to show all his buddies. He would even occasionally stress over it like a teenager choosing his outfit for a first date. Telling about what we have is okay, but there’s just something extra special about showing it. James agrees.
Here in v. 13, James turns his attention from our words back to the subject of wisdom. He starts with a question: Who among you is wise and understanding? What an interesting question to ask. It’s really not one we can politely answer personally. The moment we speak up and declare, “Yes, that’s me, I’m wise!” we are being boastful, and someone boastful isn’t really very wise, is she?
Of course, that’s just our culture. In James’ day, self-promotion was a much more culturally acceptable thing. Wise men (just men because of the terrible view of women they had…the church was working on changing that) would travel the countryside boasting of their wisdom and making eloquent speeches to prove it. They would use many fancy words in one town to convince the next town over to pay them big bucks to come make a speech for them. The ultimate goal would have been to get hired by a rich person to teach his sons.
James had a word of wisdom for them: It’s better to show your wisdom than merely tell about it. That’s the thing about wisdom: If you have it, it should be obvious to anyone who cares to look long enough to see it. Wisdom should result in a lifestyle that is patently different from the lifestyle of someone who is not wise. More specifically, it should lead to good conduct in public and in private. It should lead to an unimpeachable character. Wisdom doesn’t leave life dirt for someone else to find.
At the end of this verse, though, James says something interesting. He says that the wise person’s good conduct should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom. What is gentleness, and how does it come from wisdom?
Gentleness is one of those words we use without really understanding well what it means. We tend to think it means soft or easy. The gentle person is exceedingly careful in how she does things. Usually we apply it when talking about things that are fragile like glass and babies. But that’s not quite what it means.
Gentleness is the ability to respond to a situation or circumstance with appropriate strength. Gentleness is about controlling ourselves more than it is about being soft. Using the wrong amount of strength in a given situation can be a disaster. Too much with a baby, for instance, and we will hurt him. Too little with our car’s brake pedal and we’ll crash into the one in front of us. Whereas a strong person is like a hammer, a gentle one is like the carpenter, knowing perfectly well in each situation which tools to bring and exactly how to use them.
In light of this, it makes sense that gentleness comes from wisdom. The wiser we are—the more and better we understand the world and how it works—the more precisely we’ll know how much strength to bring to a given situation. Thus, James is right, gentleness is a perfect indicator of wisdom. If you are a wise person, it’s okay to be honest about it. Tell all the people you want, but make sure you show them by your good works that come from the gentleness of that wisdom.