What is Wisdom? Part 2

By Mark D. Roberts

April 22, 2024

The Gift of Wisdom

Scripture — James 3:13-18 (NRSV)

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.


We might define wisdom simply as “the capacity or ability to discern what’s right in life.” Such wisdom doesn’t exist “out there” in some disembodied form. Rather, it is found in persons (especially God!). The wisdom from above is deeply personal. When it is active in our lives, it not only helps us to live rightly but also forms us to be more like Christ.

Today’s devotion is part of the series The Gift of Wisdom.


In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I tried to come up with a definition of “wisdom,” something that continues to challenge philosophers, psychologists, and others who devote their lives to understanding wisdom. In the end, I offered a simple definition of wisdom as the capacity or ability to discern what’s right in life. It isn’t the same as knowledge. Rather, wisdom uses knowledge to discern what ought to be done or said in a given context. Wisdom points to what’s best in any situation.

That definition is merely a starting point. It does, I believe, reflect the perspective of James 3:13-18. This passage begins by showing that wisdom will lead to a “good life” (3:13). Wisdom is not mainly about thinking, but rather about living. In fact, if we exercise “the wisdom from above,” James promises that we’ll produce a “harvest of righteousness” in our lives (3:18).

Yet if you read James 3:13-18 carefully, you’ll notice something curious. It doesn’t offer a definition of “wisdom” so much as a description. (Merriam Webster supplies a definition of “apple” as “fleshy, usually rounded red, yellow, or green edible pome fruit of a usually cultivated tree.” A description of an apple might include words such as tasty, tangy, nutritious, juicy, festive, healthy, etc.) Moreover, when you reflect on how James 3 describes wisdom, you realize that the words used are more appropriate for a person than a concept, ability, or idea. According to verse 17, wisdom is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Thus, if we think of wisdom as “the capacity or ability to discern what’s right,” we must remember that this is the capacity or ability of a person. Wisdom isn’t a technical ability. Nor is it a list of best practices that could be separated from the best practitioners. Rather, wisdom is something deeply connected to the human being who has it, uses it, and is formed by it. I was reminded of this connection while reading an advance copy of The Wise Leader by Uli Chi (available May 7, 2024). Commenting on James 3:3-18, Uli writes, “What I find remarkable about what James describes is its focus. For James, ‘the wisdom from above’ produces a certain kind of person. It’s not first and foremost a body of knowledge but is instead, as I noted in the last chapter, embodied in a person.” Wisdom is not just something we possess but something that possesses and shapes us. Therefore, as Uli observes, “Wisdom is about formation, not just about information.”

The wisdom from above is deeply personal in another way as well. It is embodied most of all in one particular person, Jesus of Nazareth. I’ll have more to say about this later in this series on The Gift of Wisdom.

For now, I’d like to encourage you to think about wisdom, not so much as a philosophical idea, but as something deeply connected to persons. You may want to remember times in your life when you were the recipient of wisdom and who it was that shared such wisdom with you. You might also think about people you know whom you consider to be wise and why you think of them in this way. In tomorrow’s devotion, I’ll share with you one story in my life in which wisdom connected to a person made a big difference.


Who is one of the wisest people you have known personally? (You can have more than one of these wise people if you wish.) Why do you think of them as wise? How did they become wise? How did they exercise and communicate their wisdom? How did they live their wisdom?

What things in your life help you to be wise? (These “things” might include people, experiences, readings, spiritual disciplines, poetry, art, etc.)


If you are able, talk with someone you consider wise. Ask that person about their wisdom, where it came from, etc.


Gracious God, thank you for the gift of wisdom. And thank you for giving us, not just the capacity to be wise, but also people who embody wisdom. Thank you to those whose wisdom has made such a difference in my life.

Lord, help me to be wise, not just in my ability, but in my heart and soul, in my behavior and relationships. Let your wisdom form me for your purposes and glory. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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