(Appeared first in March 2010, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
In this column last month, I reflected on insights growing out of biblical passages using the word “first.” One of those passages—James 3:17—provided the inspiration for this month.
The epistle of James is eminently practical as well as prophetic, addressing issues that plagued the church of his day and plague ours as well. The letter sounds almost like a New Testament version of Proverbs, offering wisdom to seekers of God’s way in the world.
Early in his letter, James urges that anyone who lacks wisdom “should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault” (1:5). Certainly we need God’s wisdom today as desperately as those who first received his letter. Like those believers, we must look to God for direction in the midst of temptation, disagreements among believers and assaults on our faith.
James makes it clear that not all people who claim wisdom are truly wise. In the controversies that divide believers, some harbor bitter envy or selfish ambition in their hearts. This produces “disorder and every evil practice” (3:14). But James asserts that God’s wisdom stands in stark contrast to this earthly, unspiritual and demonic wisdom. “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17).
It is my hope that these seven characteristics of true wisdom will shape the priorities and practices of Mennonite Church USA. Two situations come to mind as I ponder the need for God’s wisdom in our church:
First, the events at our 2009 church convention in Columbus, Ohio, reminded us that we are deeply divided regarding our beliefs and practice regarding human sexuality, particularly homosexuality. In response, the delegates adopted a resolution entitled “Following Christ and Growing Together as Communities Even in Conflict.” Not long after, the Executive Board elicited feedback from every conference and associate group, seeking to respond to their needs for resources on this topic. Having read their responses, I sense that our church desperately needs God’s wisdom.
Second, we are in the midst of discussions about churchwide structure. Two years ago, the Executive Board made some fairly radical proposals to reshape our church organization on the denominational level in order to better pursue our vision and mission. This action generated significant controversy. In response, the board invited LaVern Yutzy as a consultant to listen to constituents and then make recommendations for actions that would help us better achieve “alignment” in our structure. In late January, Yutzy submitted a 22-page report that is now available to anyone who wishes to see it. Again, I sense that our church needs wisdom from heaven as we consider this report.
In the upcoming forums for discussion of Yutzy’s varied recommendations, let us to seek God’s wisdom, which is “first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”
I take it from James that the first priority when dealing with strong differences is to examine our motives (see 4:1-3). Here I detect an echo of Jesus’ familiar words, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.” Mixed or impure motives lead to malicious fights and quarrels.
It is difficult to discern the purity of our own motives (or someone else’s). Yet we can at least attempt to be “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”
The simple awareness of these virtues can alert us to the need for God’s grace and wisdom. Even when we pursue opposing outcomes and voice strong disagreements with each other, I pray that God’s Spirit will enable us to demonstrate the virtues of true wisdom. That must be our first priority.