How Christians can exercise wisdom in taming their tongue

5 characteristics of heavenly wisdom

December 28, 2021

The 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma traces the effects of the digital age on individuals and communities, highlighting how social media has led to a breakdown of trust and larger social instability.

In it, computer scientist and design ethicist Tristan Harris makes an important observation: technology itself is not necessarily the threat.

“We’re all looking out for the moment when technology would overwhelm human strengths and intelligence,” Harris says. He goes on:

When is it going to . . . replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there’s this much earlier moment when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification, the entire thing. . . . It’s technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society and the worst in society brings the existential threat.

In other words, while technology may create the conditions, the spark that sets the world on fire is . . . us.

Although he probably doesn’t realize it, Harris is echoing what the apostle James knew in the first century. In James 3:14, he writes that “bitter envy and selfish ambition” fuel “disorder and every vile practice” (v. 16). In the next chapter he says it this way: “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you?” (4:1). Bitterness. Envy. Vile practices. Wars and fights among us. Sounds a lot like the present moment, doesn’t it? But just a few verses prior, James also says this: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness . . . setting on fire the entire course of life” (3:5–6 ESV).

According to James, we are the ones who light the fires with our knee-jerk reactions and our constant need to be right. But James isn’t addressing simply what we say. He’s addressing the deeper realities of our heart, because what we say, write, and profess reveal what’s happening within us. We wage war on the outside because we have passions waging war on the inside. “The source” of all the fighting, of all the fires, isn’t “out there” with some person or group we disagree with. It is “in here.” The spark is the sinful passions and desires within the human heart, both yours and mine. Our mouths simply give them a voice. As Jesus put it in Luke 6:45, “[the] mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”

The danger isn’t simply that we struggle to know and say what’s true, but that too many of us don’t want the truth in the first place. The problem is that we’re interacting with other people from fleshly hearts that are full of “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” Technology has created a combustible environment, sure. It has made it easier for us to be terrible to each other. And that is something to mourn and resist (many tech experts will tell you that was done on purpose). But what James holds up in front of us is this: the desire to be terrible in these ways, regardless of environment, has always been smoldering within us. Our environment can only fan the flame of destruction because the flame is there in the first place.

Fire safety and heavenly wisdom

When I think of a raging fire, I think of my father-in-law who worked as a forester for four decades. Throughout his career, he managed hundreds of acres, partnered with landowners to steward and cultivate their properties, and battled the forest fires that would inevitably break out. In fact, my husband tells of a childhood punctuated by “fire season” — a period of several months in spring and fall when forest fires are common due to environmental factors like dryness, bare trees, and high winds. During fire season, my father-in-law couldn’t travel outside a prescribed radius, needing instead to stay close to his work truck, ever ready, ever vigilant, should a fire break out. Because all it took was one spark. One match, one flame could set the hills ablaze.

While my father-in-law’s work demanded vigilance during fire season, he spent the rest of the year reducing the risk of fire through things like reforestation, prescribed burns, and teaching fire safety to the larger public. (When the moment called for it, he wasn’t above donning a Smokey the Bear costume to remind folks that “Only you can prevent forest fires!”)

The idea behind fire safety is simple: you can’t control the elements. You can’t control how much rain will come and how dry the forest will be. But you can control your behavior. You can choose to make wise choices about when and where you start fires and whether you’re careless with matches. You can conduct yourself with wisdom instead of foolishness.

After warning us about how the tongue can set the world on fire, James asks this question: “Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom” (3:13, emphasis added). And with this, James sets up a contrast between those who pursue wisdom and those who indulge their sinful tendencies. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart,” he continues, “don’t boast and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3:14–15). Simply put, there are those who fight the fires and those who start them. There are those who seek heavenly wisdom and those who act out of earthly wisdom.

So what would this heavenly wisdom look like? How can we tell the difference between the wisdom that is from above and “wisdom” that is simply enabling, excusing, and encouraging our human weaknesses and fleshly desires?

First, heavenly wisdom is counterintuitive. Biblical wisdom has a way of confusing us at first because it challenges the assumptions that emerge from our sin nature. This is what Proverbs 14:12 means when it says that “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” Our instinct or gut feeling about how to respond to a situation or issue is not enough — neither is “feeling peace” or a “lack of peace.” 

Instead, we are pursuing the “renewing” of our minds (Rom. 12:2). We are inviting God’s Word and God’s Spirit to make us into the image of God’s Son, to conform our thoughts and words and deeds to his likeness. So, as we explore what wisdom looks like in these times, expect to be surprised. Welcome the experience of feeling challenged. Why? Because this is exactly what the Scripture tells us will happen when we’re being changed.

Second, heavenly wisdom is knowable to all who seek it. Wisdom is not the exclusive property of a select few who have discovered a secret memo, a secret meaning, or a secret cabal. In fact, in James 1:5, the Scripture invites “any of you” who lack wisdom to come to God, promising that he will give it to all truly seeking him. The challenge of wisdom is not that only a few can “know” what is true or real. The challenge is that wisdom requires hard things of us. It disrupts and confronts us, so many of us simply choose to look away from it. We don’t want to look at “the source” of the wars being waged among us, namely, our own sinful passions and desires. 

We resist the invitation because doing so would also mean admitting that we are part of the problem. To face our inner arsonist and drag it into the light would take an enormous amount of both courage and humility. This is why James warns us that coming to God for wisdom will require singleness of heart. Anyone can come to God for wisdom; but only those humble enough to believe that God’s ways are better than our own will find it.

Third, heavenly wisdom is countercultural. Those seeking heavenly wisdom are seeking the “narrow way” that leads to life and flourishing — a narrow way that many other people won’t necessarily understand (Matt. 7:14). Even other Christians. Even their fellow citizens. In fact, heavenly wisdom will likely disrupt the status quo because it seeks the kingdom of God rather than a kingdom on this earth. In this way, heavenly wisdom challenges both our personal assumptions and our cultural and social assumptions. So don’t be surprised if, in pursuing heavenly wisdom, you find yourself swimming against the current in unexpected ways. Don’t be surprised when what you once thought to be common wisdom turns out not to be wisdom at all.

Fourth, heavenly wisdom points to the gospel. Rather than reinforcing our sense of righteousness and self-reliance, heavenly wisdom challenges us while leading us to repentance and grace. After all, if Jesus is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), his ways, works, and words will align, teaching us how to live out the gospel in practical ways. Even more, lives based on heavenly wisdom will bolster our claims that Jesus himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Living in foolishness, on the other hand, will undermine our gospel witness because the disconnect between what we say and what we do will be glaringly obvious to anyone watching. 

Consider how Paul calls out the partiality and segregation that was occurring in the church at Galatia — when certain Christians separated themselves from their brothers and sisters. He says that “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14 ESV). The way they were mistreating those of a different background reflected earthly values and earthly wisdom. Heavenly wisdom, on the other hand, calls believers to behavior that embodies Christ and his cross.

And finally, heavenly wisdom seeks union and reconciliation. Listen again to the words of James: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:17–18 ESV). The goal of heavenly wisdom is not simply to separate those who are right from those who are wrong. The goal of heavenly wisdom is to identify and heal the brokenness in our midst. The goal of heavenly wisdom is reconciliation. And while it’s true that some may resist that reconciliation, those seeking heavenly wisdom will not. Those truly seeking to live like Christ understand that the goal of the gospel is reconciling us to God and each other.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from World on Fire. Copyright 2021, B&H Publishing. 

Hannah Anderson

Hannah Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with her husband, Nathan, and their three children, ages 12-17. They have been married for 20 years and have spent much of that time in local church ministry in rural communities. Hannah is the author of multiple books including Humble … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24