Wisdom and Confidence

Wisdom and Confidence

Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Gordian Marshall preaches on the wisdom that comes from above.

In the letter of James the writer talks about wisdom. Just before today’s extract begins he says that wisdom is not about theoretical knowledge but about knowing how to live. Then he tells the people what he thinks is wrong with the way they are living. There is fighting and squabbling among them. James wants people to take a fresh look at what is causing this.

He thinks the problem is that people are too attached to possessions and power; that is what drives them to fight with one another. But that attachment is not the only reason for outbursts and arguments. In fact many upsets stem from the very opposite. Animals tend to bite and scratch if they feel they are being threatened. People at railway stations or airports often get anxious and angry if they have lost their luggage or fear they are going to be stranded. When they are tired after a long journey they are likely to walk through you without noticing you are there because they don’t have enough energy left to think of anyone but themselves.

So if we follow James’s lead we should be trying to think how to get free of the insecurities that push us into conflicts. That is not easy. In some ways it is easier to say that a thirst for power or an undue desire for possessions are things which are bad for us and that we should be prepared to wean ourselves away from them. But lack of security or lack of confidence are different. They certainly don’t do us any good but we don’t get rid of them by condemning ourselves. If anything that only makes things worse. If I keep telling myself all that is wrong with me it just undermines any little confidence I might have.

The sort of wisdom that James is talking about must involve recognising the good qualities that we have, the things we can and do achieve. We often hear criticisms directed against us. Sometimes they are intended and sometimes it is our own insecurity that leads us to see criticism when none may have been intended. And often we find it difficult to trust compliments when they come. Real wisdom involves trusting our own goodness and giving it a chance to flourish.

Again, we are likely to hit out wildly when we feel things are getting out of control, when we seem to be alone and in danger of drowning. Aggression comes more from a feeling of powerlessness and fear than from a feeling of strength. So, when we feel we are not able to do the things that need to be done for our good and for the good of the people we care about, we need to call on strength that we don’t believe we have.

Is that really wise, trusting a strength that we cannot see? I would say ‘yes’. We can often see that the panic that comes from insecurity can cloud our judgement and push us into doing things we later regret. If we have confidence in ourselves our actions are likely to be less the reactions of panic and less aggressive, and they will be more balanced and more likely to achieve a peaceful result.

But where can we get that confidence when it doesn’t seem to come naturally? Sometimes people look for it through therapy and analysis. These can be very helpful and supportive, but James talks about something else. If we believe that God made us then we must be good enough to cope with anything that we have to face. We hear a lot in consumer programmes about goods being made fit for purpose, they must be able to do what they are designed for. The Bible is full of stories of people who seem to be weak but turn out to be fit for purpose when they are prepared to rely on God’s support.

I think that is what James meant when he wrote about a wisdom that comes from above. It is a way of looking at life and at our strengths and weaknesses that sees possibilities beyond what we think we are capable of. That is what constitutes real wisdom.

Readings: Wisdom 2:12,17-20 |  James 3:16-4:3 | Mark 9:30-37

fr. Gordian Marshall was the superior of the Dominican community in Glasgow for many years, and a member of the Editorial Board of He died on 14th December 2007. May he rest in peace.