Wisdom: Being Kind and Being Right (9/21/03)
Words of Life: James 3:13-17
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
We’re going to return to the Book of James this morning. I have become more and more intrigued by this book over the past few months. Honestly, I’ve never spent much time with this particular book of the Bible. I told you a few weeks back that Martin Luther had referred to the Book of James as “straw.” He found no value in it whatsoever. And it is probably one of the least read books in the New Testament.
I just never gave this book much attention. I read it. I decided long ago that to be a minister one should at least have read the entire Bible. Some books of the Bible, like Genesis, the four gospels, and the thirteen Epistles Paul, I have read more times than I can count. Most others I’ve read many times. Some books, such as 1st and 2nd Chronicles, Obadiah and Habbakuk (huh-BACK-uhk), received the one reading I felt they deserved, and I have no desire to return to them.
The Book of James almost fell through the cracks for me. I read it several times, but quickly, and without really opening myself to what it might be trying to say. I remember on the first day of seminary one of the professors asked each of us to name our favorite New Testament book. One of the students said “James,” and we all assumed he must be a little strange. Everybody knew that James was not supposed to be your favorite book of the Bible. The professor simply said, “Interesting,” and moved on to the next student, who gave a more appropriate answer—1st Corinthians, or Romans, or one of the gospels.
For whatever reason, I stumbled back onto the Book of James a few months back, and I’ve been caught up in its wisdom ever since. The author of this book is purported to be James, the brother of Jesus. And as I mentioned a few weeks back, James sounds a lot like Jesus—too much like Jesus. The teachings of Jesus are hard to take sometimes, and we may have to listen when it’s Jesus talking, but we shouldn’t have to take that sort of abuse from his brother.
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We talked about that great metaphor in the Book of James, where he compares a human life to a ship, and claims our tongues are our rudders. They are awfully small in comparison to the whole vessel, but they wield an outrageous amount of influence—they determine the direction we take through life. That strikes me as being a remarkably wise insight, so I decided to plumb the depths of the Book of James for more wisdom. I didn’t have to look far. Immediately following the metaphor of the ship and the rudder, James writes about what it means to be “wise,” claiming there are two types of wisdom.
You heard the passage read from the lectern this morning. What that passage says is that there are two types of wisdom in this world, and those two types of wisdom lead to two types of deeds. One type of wisdom is based on what’s appears to be best for the individual, and the deeds that result from that type of wisdom are anchored on selfish ambition. The other type of wisdom is based not on selfish ambition, but on goodness itself. The first type of wisdom, based on selfish ambition, leads to envy and disorder. The second type of wisdom, based on goodness itself, yields gentleness, peace, and good fruits.
All this talk of wisdom in the Book of James sent me scurrying through my library, intent on writing a sermon about wisdom. After all, wisdom is one idea—one trait—that everybody agrees is good. If you hear somebody say, “She lives her life with great wisdom,” there is no way you can construe that as anything other than a compliment. Wisdom is perhaps the most valued of all virtues. But what is it?
Wisdom is elusive. The modern philosopher George Santayana writes, “Most every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.” And we know this is true. For every wise person who says, “There is no such thing as a stupid question,” there is another who says, “It is better to be thought a fool than to open you mouth and remove all doubt.” Both of those sayings sound pretty wise, but the claims they are making are precisely opposite of one another.
How many times have you heard, “Look before you leap.”? How about this one: “He who hesitates is lost.”? Those sayings completely contradict each other, but they sure sound wise. I guess that’s the nice things about wise sayings. If you keep enough of them handy, you can sound wise in any situation.
Imagine you are looking for a job. Most of us have had that experience. There is the terrifying thought in the back of your mind that you will never find a job, that your family will disintegrate, and you’ll wind up begging for change somewhere downtown. Okay, hopefully that thought is way back in your mind, but you know what I mean.
And then a job offer comes along. It’s not exactly what you were hoping for, but it will put food on the table and pay the rent. Do you hold out for a better opportunity? Do you keep looking? Or do you take the job? Let’s say you take the job and it doesn’t work out. The company folds, or cheats you out of some of the money you’ve earned. You are sure to have some wise person put a sympathetic arm around your shoulder and say, “Well, you know what they say—look before you leap.”
Of course, had you not taken that job, and still found yourself looking for a job a week later, that same friend would say, with the same level of wisdom and sincerity, “You should have taken that job when you had the chance. You know what they say—he who hesitates is lost.”
We all know people who keep a cache of wisdom sayings handy. That way, with each and every situation they encounter, they can sound like they are filled with great wisdom. They sort of narrow their whole lives down to one big, wise, I told you so.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; don’t burn your bridges behind you; don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg; you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar; If you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas; don’t bite the hand that feeds you; you only have one chance to make a first impression; marry in haste and repent in leisure; you reap what you sew; two wrongs don’t make a right.
Of course, that’s the type of wisdom that can earn a person a black eye if offered at the wrong time and place. Perhaps the Bible can help us find some real wisdom. The biblical Book of Proverbs—probably the best known wisdom literature in the world—contains many great sayings, but plenty of them can be countered with their opposites. One proverb reads, “Whoever rebukes the wicked gets hurt.” Both Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi would take exception to that saying. Gandhi said, “In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who perpetuates it. He who accepts evil without protesting it is really cooperating with it.” So which is the wise approach—to turn away from evil, or to confront it?
How hard should a person work? Is it wiser to diligently dedicate oneself to one’s labors, or is it better to relax? One Proverb says, “One who is slack in work is close kin to a criminal.” But in the very next book of the Bible—Ecclesiastes—it is written, “All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil under the sun?… Better are quiet hands than hands filled with toil, chasing after the wind.”
Of course Ecclesiastes is a pretty cynical book. It does have lots of wisdom sayings that have made their way through the ages. There is the famous, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to mourn and a time to dance,” and so on. It contains such well-known sayings as, “A good name is better than precious ointment,” and, “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.”
But on the whole, the wisdom we find in Ecclesiastes is pretty depressing. In fact, at one point, the author of Ecclesiastes decides that wisdom itself has no value. After committing his life to acquiring wisdom, he writes, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. I now understand that this is also nothing but chasing after the wind, for in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.”
Wow. There’s nothing like a manically depressed and suicidal Bible author to get your day off to a great start. But even though every folk- saying seems to have an opposite, and even though the Bible itself offers differing views of wisdom, I’m not willing to give up on wisdom. Cicero was a Roman statesman and writer who lived in the century before Jesus. Cicero wrote, “The function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil.” And I think that gets to the root of things. The author of Ecclesiastes confused knowledge and wisdom. All the knowledge in the world can indeed lead to unhappiness if that knowledge is not used to discern good from evil.
Knowledge for the sake of knowledge has no inherent goodness. For example, the knowledge of how to split the atom—that knowledge is not necessarily good or bad. It is how we use that knowledge that makes all the difference. That’s where wisdom comes in. Remember the Book of James: are we using our knowledge for self-interest, or in the name of goodness itself. That is how we decide whether or not we are using our knowledge wisely.
I realize that you and I cannot change the way the whole human race uses its knowledge. No matter how sincerely we want to do so, we cannot make the human race suddenly wise. So there is probably little purpose in spending much time trying to apply wisdom to the big issues—war and peace; the environment; the size of the earth’s population in comparison to the resources the planet can produce to sustain us; and, for that matter, the criminal way the resources of our planet are distributed, with most of the human population living in unspeakable poverty.
So let’s concentrate on the type of wisdom that we have under our control—the way we live our lives on a day-to-day basis. I would never consider myself a wise person. I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes in the past, and if I were the possessor of great wisdom, I would at least have figured out how to eliminate most mistakes from my life. But I sail through my days like most people, trying to do my best, but frequently leaving a trail of mistakes in my wake.
So don’t think that what I am offering as wisdom is something that should be universally accepted. I certainly hope to be wiser tomorrow than I am today. But there are just a few things I have come to believe that I want to share with you.
First, it is better to be kind than to be right. It is better to be kind than to be right. Now, please don’t misinterpret that. I am not saying we should run away from evil, or that slaves, abused women and children, and any others who are oppressed unfairly, should accept their fate without question. I’m talking about our normal, healthy, everyday relationships with friends, family and co-workers. It is better to be kind than to be right.
Right and wrong are ideas that just aren’t that simple to figure out. From economics to politics to religion, I have great difficulty figuring out the difference between right and wrong. But I can say with all honesty that I love and respect people on both sides of almost every issue.
I think the place I learned this bit of wisdom is here at this church, in the Adult Group that meets every Sunday morning. They gather in Fellowship Hall at 9:00 o’clock, and for an hour, week after week, they discuss every subject under the sun. Because we are a Congregational Church, a wide variety of opinions emerge in those discussions. We have in that group people who think the EPA—the Environmental Protection Agency—does more harm than good, and is the worst agency in the federal government. We also have environmentalists who work diligently not only in support of the EPA, but for the Sierra Club and other environmental concerns. I ask you to envision the types of arguments you have heard on TV and radio between such opposing forces, and then I ask you to consider this: there has never been a raised voice, never anything that could be called an argument, as the Adult Group discusses this matter. The discussions are always courteous, and there is always respect for the views of other people.
Apply this same principle to liberal verses conservative on every conceivable subject, and you get a taste of what a civilized world could look like. And that microcosm of a civilized world emerges every single week in that Adult Group. And these are not wishy-washy people who hold their convictions only loosely. The stances these men and women take on all of these issues are heartfelt and sincere. They strongly believe they are right. But they know something—they taught me something: It’s better to be kind than to be right. That doesn’t mean you give up your convictions; it simply means you love and respect even those people who you think are wrong. Because it’s better to be kind than to be right.
There is one other bit of wisdom that being the minister of this church has taught me: We should never forget that we are dying. If that sounds depressing, believe me, it’s not! I spend almost every day around people who know they are approaching the end of their days. And friends, nobody sees life more clearly than the person who honesty understands that they will not be walking the earth forever. Everything becomes clear. It suddenly becomes easy to see what is important and what is not.
The fact is, we are all mortals. “Human” being is a way of being in the world. It is a wonderful way of being in the world. I would not want to have the being of a rock. I would not want to have the being of a cow. I like this form of being that we call human being. It’s a beautiful thing. Unlike every other form of being in this world, human being means we can ask questions about the meaning of the universe. Human being means we can love, and create, and communicate with language. It’s wonderful!
But unlike every other form of being, human being means we face some questions that we cannot answer. For one thing, we don’t know exactly where we came from, but we know that we are created. We can believe we are created by the random forces of nature, or we can believe we are created by our Loving God, but we can’t claim to have created ourselves. We do not hold ourselves in being. Something else does that. If we held ourselves in being, we’d just keep on doing it forever.
But with human being, we know that we will have this type of being only for a limited time. The rock doesn’t know it will eventually crumble into dust. The cow doesn’t know it will wind up covered with mustard between a couple of buns. And if we claim to know the precise nature of what happens when our bodies return to the dust from which they arose, we are lying to ourselves. To have that answer would mean that we were no longer human beings. We would be some other sort of being, because part of human being means we don’t have that answer, and unlike every other form of being on this planet, we know we don’t have that answer.
And that is why we have faith. That is part of the grand design. It can be no other way. It’s perfect. And I honestly believe that it is only when we surrender to that fact—surrender to the fact that we do not control what lies beyond the grave—that we find our love, and realize how important the things we do on this side of the grave really are. The happiest people I know are people who have come to terms with their own mortality.
Decision making becomes much easier. If I’m faced with a truly difficult decision, I approach it this way: I imagine that I am lying on my deathbed at some point in the future, and thinking back on this decision. From there—from my deathbed—what decision will I wish I had made?
It’s a different way of looking at the world. But it is not morbid, or depressing. We are never more fully alive than when we accept that we will not always be fully alive; at least not in the sense we are alive now. It is then that God arrives in our hearts. It is then that the Jesus we see upon that cross takes on a meaning we did not understand before. And it is then that we realize, in the confusing twists and turns we make as we go through life, it really is better to be kind than to be right. Amen.