Who’s really wise?

When I was a kid, there were no such things as personal computers, smartphones, or the Internet. We watched TV in black and white, and there were only a few channels available. If you wanted to know something, you read the newspaper, looked it up in the encyclopedia, or went to the library. Everybody had opinions about everything, but you generally didn’t know what people’s opinions were unless you actually spoke to them. Only a small percentage of people ever had their words published for others to see.

That’s all changed. In a world of social media, anyone’s thoughts and opinions, from the wise to the foolish, the rigorous to the random, can now be made available to everyone, everywhere. People strive for more views, likes, and follows, and hope to be the next new influencer. Youth follow each others social media feeds and engage in a depressing game of social comparison: Why do their lives look so full and mine so empty?

From the perspective of global history, all of this has happened with lightning speed: the first iPhone, for example, was released in January of 2007. Think about it: we’ve had all of 15 years to adapt to the social implications of these whirlwind technological advances, and tech moguls are always searching for the next frontier.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite, though I could fairly be described as a “late adopter” of new technologies (I was the last person in my building, for example, to adopt email). I have an iPhone and social media feeds. I don’t want to go back to my graduate school days of doing library research by pulling dusty volumes from shelves and taking them to the Xerox machine. And I am so grateful that during these long months of pandemic, it was still possible for people to learn and connect online.

And yet. We find ourselves trying to stay afloat in a choppy sea of information, misinformation, and disinformation, of brilliance and blather. To whom do we pay our precious attention?

This, I think, is a contemporary way of framing what the apostle James was getting at near the end of chapter 3 of his letter:

Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. (James 3:13, CEB)

James, of course, could not have imagined a world of Facebook and Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. But as we’ve seen, there were people in the church who wanted to be “teachers,” people who had influence and a following, who would be respected for their knowledge, wisdom, and rhetoric. The question “Are any of you wise and understanding?” is not a request for nominees for Teacher of the Year. It’s a rhetorical question: So, who among you thinks you’re wiser than the others around you? Yeah, you, the one who wants to grab the mic and stand in the spotlight. I’m looking at you.

And his response is similar to what he’s already said. Before, the argument was: You think you have genuine faith, though you have no corresponding works. Me? I’ll show you the genuineness of my faith by what I do. Here, he seems to say, All your supposedly wise words are nothing more than blah, blah, blah if they’re not backed up by a humble way of life that shows you know what real wisdom is.

That’s not to say, of course, that we can’t learn anything from people whose lives are imperfect — because all of our lives are imperfect. As James himself admits, “we all make mistakes often” (3:2). What troubles me, though, is how readily we follow people because of what they say publicly, in spite of how they live privately. We may pay more attention to scripted words than lifestyle; we are more easily impressed by image than character.

In the body of Christ, this cannot be. Because as we’ll see, the consequences for the church can be disastrous.