Wisdom Above Came Below

How Christmas Speaks to Our Confusion

O Come Thou Wisdom from on high,
     And order all things mightily.
To us the path of knowledge show,
     And cause us in her ways to go.

I love Advent hymns almost as much as I love Christmas hymns. My favorite is “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” The words and music perfectly capture the longing that marks this season of the church’s year. Advent is a season of waiting, of painful expectation and deep yearning for God to act to address the sin, sorrow, death, and evil that mar his world.

The second verse expresses our longing for wisdom, for God to order all things mightily for his glory and our good. The hymn testifies to our need for knowledge and wisdom and for the power to walk in God’s ways.

“Advent is a season of waiting, of painful expectation and deep yearning for God to act.”

But what do we mean by “wisdom from on high”? And how does Jesus answer this longing? The book of James offers a glimpse into the wisdom from above, the kind that pleases God and bears a harvest of righteousness. In drawing the connection between James’s “wisdom from above” and the hymn’s “wisdom from on high,” we can both see Jesus more clearly during Advent and strengthen our hearts to walk in the ways of God.

Two Kinds of Wisdom

James’s letter offers a sharp contrast between heavenly and earthly wisdom. The latter is marked by boastful betrayal of the truth, flowing from bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in the heart (James 3:14). Wisdom is not merely a matter of behavior, but involves the whole person, both inside and out.

Earthly wisdom is animated by envy and rivalry, by the itching resentment at other people’s gifts and success. Jealousy and ambition go hand in hand because they are two sides of the same coin. When our selfish ambition succeeds, we boast, looking down our noses at others from our high horse. When it fails, we stew in malice and bitterness as others surpass us.

In both cases, we are “false to the truth”; we fail to evaluate ourselves and other people rightly. Our vision is warped by “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” desires and passions, which result in “disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:14–16).

Such are the wisdom and ways of the world. These are the paths of ignorance, error, and falsehood. And the brokenness and confusion of the world is the result. Shattered families, sexual perversion, quarreling and dissension, slander and accusation — this is the world that we inhabit and mourn in our lonely exile here.

Wisdom from Above

James offers a fundamentally different picture of heavenly wisdom. Such wisdom likewise works from the inside out. “The meekness of wisdom” is reflected in our practice (James 3:13). Such meekness is the exact opposite of selfish ambition; meekness is not self-impressed or self-important. It looks at oneself with sober judgment and does not think more highly of oneself than it ought. In that way, the meekness of wisdom is “true to the truth,” rather than “false to the truth.”

What characterizes such wisdom? First, it is “pure” (James 3:17). Unlike the vile and wicked practices that mark worldly wisdom, heavenly wisdom is marked by undivided devotion to God. God’s wisdom is holy, unblemished, and whole. Heavenly wisdom brings order to chaos and confusion because it is wholeheartedly devoted to God’s purposes. James places the purity and holiness of heavenly wisdom in a position of prominence. It comes “first,” and in that way governs and guides the rest.

Next, heavenly wisdom is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason.” It leads us to avoid unnecessary conflict and refrain from violence and quarrelsomeness. Heavenly wisdom may lead us to fight and to defend what is good and true. But it does not love to fight for fighting’s sake. If given the choice, the wise and understanding are eager to live at peace with all men. The wise are willing to be friends with the one who is truly friendly.

Heavenly wisdom yields easily when moral issues are not at stake. It has a sense of proportion and courtesy, and bears with the foibles and stumbles of the weak. It is both open to reason and obedient, able to distinguish when it is good to bend and when it is time to stand.

Wisdom from above quickly overlooks faults and is therefore “full of mercy.” When forgiveness is sought, it is eagerly granted. Like the father in the parable, heavenly wisdom rejoices when prodigals come home.

Finally, heavenly wisdom abhors all hypocrisy and partiality. What you see is what you get. Wisdom’s character is consistent and persists through all manner of circumstances. The actions may be different, since different situations require different responses. But beneath every response lies sincerity, judiciousness, and refreshing honesty.

Longing for Wisdom

In the midst of a broken world and a depraved generation, we long for such wisdom. And while wisdom works from the inside out, from the heart to the hands and life, it is preeminently wisdom from above (James 3:17). It is wisdom that comes down from heaven, changes our hearts, and then issues forth in a “harvest of righteousness.” It is good and right for us to long to embody such wisdom in our own lives.

In Christ, we aspire to unimpeachable purity and abounding mercy. We endeavor for our steady reasonableness to be made known to all. We ask for God’s grace to demonstrate unwavering obedience to him in every area, and gracious courtesy to others as often as we can. And we eagerly seek peace when possible. The recurring mark of heavenly wisdom is its desire for peace, for wholeness, for fellowship and communion.

Wisdom from on High and Among Us

As we long for such wisdom to fall upon us, Advent reminds us that Wisdom dwelt among us. For Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate human embodiment of wisdom from on high.

Was anyone ever as pure and holy as he? Zeal for his Father’s house consumed him; it animated his entire life. He was perfectly obedient, even as he grew in wisdom and stature.

“Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate human embodiment of wisdom from on high.”

Was anyone ever as gentle and meek as he? He rightly stewarded almighty power and authority for the good of his people, remaining ever mindful of our frame. His gentleness with burdened sinners was legendary. The weary and heavy laden found rest in his meekness. For all of his zeal and purity, he did not despise the weak and lowly.

Was anyone ever as full of mercy? How often was he moved with compassion to care for his people and meet their needs? Like a father with his children, like a hen with her chicks, like a shepherd with straying sheep — his mercy not only filled him, but overflowed and watered the souls of the weak.

Was anyone ever as impartial and sincere? He abhorred every form of hypocrisy. There was no play-acting with him, but he moved among the poor and the rich, the powerful and the powerless with sincerity and truth. Widows and revolutionaries, prostitutes and Pharisees, tax collectors and priests — all were welcome, provided they stooped to come through the door of humble repentance.

Jesus is the Wisdom from Above, the Wisdom from on High, and he came as our Prince of Peace and Wonderful Counselor, sowing and reaping a harvest of righteousness in a land of deep darkness. Christ has come. Christ will come again.