In his essay “The Trouble with ‘X,’” C.S. Lewis describes that person who makes our lives difficult. Who is it that gives you regular grief? Maybe it’s a spouse or a coworker or a fellow church member. Sometimes a friend, seeing us look “glum,” will probe us until we reluctantly open up.
On such occasions the . . . friend usually says, “But why don’t you tell them? Why don’t you go to [them] . . . and have it all out? People are usually reasonable. All you’ve got to do is to make them see things in the right light. Explain it to them in a reasonable, quiet, friendly way.” And we, whatever we say outwardly, think sadly to ourselves, “He doesn’t know ‘X.’” We do. We know how utterly hopeless it is to make “X” see reason. Either we’ve tried it over and over again — tried it till we are sick of trying it — or else we’ve never tried it because we saw from the beginning how useless it would be. (God in the Dock, 161–62)
But in contrast to those like “X,” whom Jane Austen describes as “beyond the reach of reason” (Pride and Prejudice, 57), God calls us to be “open to reason” (James 3:17). Are you open to reason? As we consider this description, seeking to be transformed into reasonable people ourselves, we can keep from becoming someone else’s “X.”
The object described as “open to reason” in James 3:17 is not people, but wisdom. Wisdom is the issue here in the surrounding context (James 3:13–18). And not just any wisdom, but “the wisdom that comes down from above” (vv. 15, 17). In typical James fashion, it’s a wisdom that shows itself by its works, not simply by its claims (v. 13).
Notice how James speaks not of the “brilliance” but of “the meekness of [this] wisdom” (v. 13). This kind of wisdom is moral, not merely intellectual. It’s about how you learn, not simply what you know. It affects how you get along with others, not just what you can teach them. To be without this wisdom is not simply to be ignorant, but to be “earthly, unspiritual, [and] demonic” (v. 15). Its absence (and counterfeit) is marked by “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” (vv. 14, 16).
If you can spot fool’s wisdom by its rivalry, drama, and disorder, then how do you know when you’re looking at the real thing? In answer, James gives us a sevenfold description of “the wisdom from above” (v. 17):
- open to reason
- full of mercy and good fruits
This is the context for our phrase. Other translations render it “easy to be entreated” (KJV) or “willing to yield” (NKJV). Hopefully a mental picture is beginning to emerge.
Life with Closed Ears
As soon as you begin to grasp what “open to reason” means, you also begin to see why it matters. It matters because the alternative is a kind of closed-minded stubbornness that not only makes us dumber but also destroys our relationships.
The trouble with “X” is that you can’t teach him anything. Like Nabal, “he is such a worthless man that one cannot speak to him” (1 Samuel 25:17). He often has to be bailed out by others around him (like his wife, Abigail), though he often won’t even realize it, and he certainly won’t thank you for it. He can’t have real friends, because friendship requires some give and take, and he can’t take. He can only give out of his imaginary reservoir of wisdom. When this person has power, he tends to be an ogre, and people rejoice when he is removed (1 Samuel 25:39–42).
When he doesn’t have power, he tends to be a nuisance. He’s the foolish son who brings “sorrow to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). She’s the rebellious wife who pulls down her house with her own hands (Proverbs 14:1). He’s the young employee who can’t obey simple orders or show up to work on time yet thinks he could run the company better than the boss.
Being ignorant and inexperienced is not the problem. We all start out this way — both as children and as adults beginning new seasons (like getting married, having our first child, or starting a new career). The problem is being unwilling to yield, hard to be entreated, and not open to reason. It’s a stagnating, suicidal state of mind, like a dry garden shielding itself from the rain.
None of us is self-sufficient. By God’s design, we need other people’s input in order to grow into wise, fruitful people. Being open to reason allows us to receive the life-giving, character-shaping counsel that we require. More than that, by God’s design we also need companionship. And being unreasonable is a good way to end up alone (Proverbs 25:24).
“Because we’re not God, our way is not always best, and we are probably wrong about a lot.”
This virtue is vital in our current climate of polarization. Rarely have humans been bombarded by so much information. Algorithms have made it easy to live in echo chambers, where our opinions are constantly reinforced, and our opponents seem less and less worth yielding to or even listening to. But more information doesn’t mean more wisdom, and greater confidence doesn’t guarantee greater accuracy.
If we’re going to grow in this trait of wisdom, if we’re going to seek it like silver and long for it like a thirsty man longs for water, then we’re going to have to not just accept but love this very simple reality: we are not God. And because we’re not God, our way is not always best, and we are probably wrong about a lot. We need to be okay with that. Only God has perfect wisdom; the rest of us have room to grow. So, we can begin by asking God for the kind of humility that can say, “I’m sorry,” or, “Let’s try it your way this time.”
This means cultivating a willingness to hear both sides of an issue before forming an opinion. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). In my own case, I was a firm Arminian until I listened to John Piper’s sermons on Romans 8–9. I was a King James Only-ist until I heard James White cross-examine the men I was reading. And I was convinced that “essentially literal” was the only right way to do Bible translation until I read Mark Strauss and Dave Brunn.
Most of us should talk less and read more — or to quote James, “be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). Some claims are self-evident (“I just know that kidnapping is wrong!”). Other claims are not (“I just know this vaccine works/doesn’t work”). So, ask yourself, “Do I have a right to be this dogmatic on this issue, given my level of knowledge?”
This doesn’t mean we should be doctrinally unstable. Some teachings in Scripture are foundational enough (and clear enough) that we ought not to budge on them. God wants us to be open to reason, but not “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14; also 1 John 2:24). It does, however, require us to distinguish primary, secondary, and tertiary issues, and to be more willing to yield on matters of less importance.
Open to Suggestions
Finally, while wisdom means yielding to solid arguments, it may also mean yielding to innocent requests, especially from friends and family. As Douglas Moo puts it, being open to reason can look like “a willing deference to others when unalterable theological or moral principles are not involved” (The Letter of James, 176). Like love, wisdom doesn’t always “insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
So yes, ask yourself intellectual questions, like “When’s the last time I received criticism without getting defensive?” “Do I solicit constructive feedback in hopes of finding ways to improve?” “Can I articulate my opponent’s position fairly?” But also ask yourself relational questions, like “How big of a deal is it to pick the family movie in my house?” “How easily do I yield to my wife’s persuasions on trivial matters even when I have a different preference?” “How often do I say yes when my toddler asks for a ride on my back when I would rather sit and read?”
As a final suggestion, try reading that opening Lewis quote to some honest friends and family, and ask them, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do I remind you of ‘X’?” That should tell you where you’re starting from. And that is where Christ will meet you.