We are living in an increasingly polarized society. Our country is deeply divided on a number of issues from abortion, the definition of marriage, the economy, and the ultimate standard of right and wrong. This division is not new. James addresses this division in our text this morning.
James asks an important question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” It’s a key question: How do you know who to believe or who to follow? James contends that wisdom is not about educational credentials, position, or charisma. Wisdom is about how we live.
Wisdom is not simply knowledge, it is knowledge applied. Think about a person who is a good driver. They are a good driver not because they can drive fast or because they have a nice car. The good driver is the one who knows how to keep his vehicle under control. They know how to adjust their speed based on conditions. They see other drivers approaching and they respond to those drivers (such as those stopping or turning). Wisdom is like that: it sees life clearly and responds to life appropriately.
In our text James draws a distinction between two different kinds of wisdom. In doing so he shows us two different ways of looking at the world.
Worldly Wisdom (14-16)
James writes first about the wisdom of the world,
But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.
It’s Foundation (v. 14) Worldly wisdom is characterized by envy and selfish ambition. Worldly wisdom is centered on one question: “What’s in it for me?” The person with earthly wisdom is preoccupied with getting their own way. This person sees their own desires, standards, and ideas as the measure for everything else. If you disagree with these people or stand in the way of their desired end, you become their enemy.
James says that these people not only are self-absorbed, they boast about this fact. They are quite proud of the fact that they are not governed by any “higher law”. They have a pronounced sense of superiority toward those who do not see things as they do. They are determined to submit to nothing other than their own desires. They have no room for God.
The story is told of two men who lived in a certain city. One was envious and the other covetous. The ruler of the city sent for them and said he wanted to grant them one wish each—with this proviso, that the one who chose first would get exactly what he asked for, while the other man would get exactly twice what the first had asked for himself. The envious man was ordered to choose first, but immediately found himself in a quandary. He wanted to choose something great for himself, but realized that if he did so the other would get twice as much. He thought for a while, and then asked that one of his eyes be put out. In the church this type of person could honestly pray, “Lord, I would sooner your work was not done at all than done by someone better than I can do it.
It’s Characteristics (v. 15) James says: “Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” The term “earthly” means it is a wisdom that is drawn from this world (rather than from God). This way of viewing the world is short-sighted; it does not look beyond the immediate moment.
James emphasize this by saying such wisdom is unspiritual. Those who embrace worldly wisdom do not always recognize that their wisdom is unspiritual. Being “spiritual” is a popular thing today. However, if you listen to these folks you discover they have a god who has no power or authority, does not hold us accountable and has only one rule, “Enjoy Yourself.” Their god exists to make them feel better about themselves.
Ultimately, says James, false wisdom is demonic. Such a delusion comes from the Devil himself. The Devil’s goal has always been to get us to turn from God and trust only ourselves. He seduces us with notions of spirituality while moving us further and further from the true God.
The results of worldly wisdom (16) James says, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Imagine being a schoolteacher. You have a class full of Jr. High students and you have to leave the room. You say to the class, “Be good and keep busy until I return.” Suppose you are gone for say, 30 minutes. What might you find when you return? You will find kids wandering around the room, wrestling on the floor, climbing on tables, paper would be flying everywhere. You would have chaos. Our sinful nature when freed from any standard to truth leads to unimagined depravity.
Paul warned his colleague Timothy about the days to come,
in the last days there will be very difficult times. 2 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. 3 They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. 5 They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. [2 Timothy 3:1-5 NLT]
Paul sounds like he is describing our day! This list has a common thread: all these things are the result of self-absorption. The effects of this thinking are quite predictable
- When we tell students they can determine truth for themselves we should not be surprised when they cheat and plagiarize and feel no remorse about it.
- When business leaders are told that “truth is relative” it should not surprise us when they manipulate their financial records to gain a bigger profit for themselves even if it results in financial ruin for the company. Ethics are non-existent.
- When we teach that life is simply the result of natural selection (we are mere accidents of nature) it should be no surprise that some people have no remorse at killing another person.
- When we proclaim that this life is all there is it should not surprise us when consumer debt skyrockets. If now is all that matters, why worry about paying the bill?
- When we proclaim “You have to do what makes you happy” it should not surprise us that divorce, immorality, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and all forms of perversion sharply increase.
- When the Bible is dismissed as God’s revelation of truth it should not surprise us at all the wacky counterfeits that take the place of the Bible.
- When right is defined as “whatever works for you” it should not surprise us that people lie in court and businesses make promises they have no intention of keeping. People say whatever they need to say to get what they want.
Most of the societal ills we experience today are the direct result of “faulty thinking”. It is the consequence of worldly wisdom.
Godly Wisdom (17-18)
James contrasts worldly wisdom (which he says is not really wisdom) with godly wisdom. He gives us a starkly different description of this wisdom.
The Foundation of True Wisdom. James says this wisdom “comes from Heaven.” This is not something that we “create” or even “discover” through our own introspection. This wisdom is revealed by God. Godly wisdom comes from God’s disclosure of the meaning and purpose of life. This revelation affirms,
- The Sovereignty or Rule of God rather than the god-ness of man
- Objective Truth as revealed in Scripture rather than truth being determined by public opinion
- Man as created in the image of God for an eternal purpose rather than as just another being in the evolutionary cycle
- Earthly life is the precursor to Judgment and life beyond the grave.
The Characteristics of True Wisdom James gives us a list of seven characteristics of Godly wisdom. The over-arching characteristic is purity. The word for purity refers to being innocent, pure, or blameless before God.
Proverbs tells us that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. The person with Godly wisdom recognizes God’s rule in their life. They do not live for themselves but for the Lord. Godly wisdom comes to those who have been made right with God. Let me state it clearly, you will never find this wisdom until you turn to Jesus for forgiveness and new life.
Second, Godly wisdom is characterized by being peace-loving. The person who is living by God’s wisdom desires to reconcile people rather than alienate them.
Third, God’s wisdom is considerate or gentle. This Greek word describes the kind of person who even though they are wronged and posses the “right” to get retribution choose not to do so. Such a person understands the frailty of man and seeks to extend the same mercy, grace, and forgiveness that they have received.
Fourth, the person pursuing God’s wisdom is “submissive”. The words do not indicate a person who is weak or without convictions, but rather one who gladly submits to true teaching. The wise person is open to instruction. They are willing to listen to reason. They are willing to be corrected. They desire truth more than they desire to be “right”.
On one occasion Abraham Lincoln, to please a certain politician, issued a command to transfer certain regiments. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton received the order, he refused to carry it out, saying the President was a fool. When Lincoln was told of this, he replied, “If Stanton said I’m a fool, then I must be, for he is nearly always right. I’ll see for myself.” As the two men talked, the President quickly realized that his decision was a serious mistake, and without hesitation he withdrew it. A teachable, open spirit is often a major key in defusing conflict.
Fifth, a person who lives by God’s wisdom will be “full of mercy and good fruit”. This person is gracious, kind, and characterized by the fruit of God’s Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).
Sixth, the person pursuing God’s wisdom is impartial. This person does not embrace prejudices and stereotypes.
Finally, the one who pursues God’s wisdom is the one who is sincere. They are without hypocrisy. They are genuine.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, used to tell how he sent a telegram to each of twelve friends, all men of great virtue and considerable position in society. The message was worded: “Fly at once, all is discovered.” Within twenty-four hours, the story goes, all twelve had left the country!
The point is that each of these men of great virtue and position was actually hiding something which they feared had been discovered. The person who has embraced godly wisdom does not live such a deceptive life.
The Result of True Wisdom James says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Whereas earthly wisdom produces conflict and animosity, Godly wisdom leads to godly living. Those who live by God’s righteousness stand out from the crowd. They are different from the rest of the world.
Pursuing Godly Wisdom
As we contrast these two ways of viewing the world we face two facts. First, the world does not understand Jesus. Because of their worldly viewpoint they see Jesus as merely a historical figure who showed us what one man can do. They do not recognize Him as God who has become man. They don’t understand why He died. They cannot accept His resurrection. It doesn’t make any sense. They are blinded by the Devil. Satan’s first goal is always to keep us confused about the nature of Christ.
Consequently, we must be patient with those outside of the faith. As we talk about salvation, the guidance of God’s Spirit, and the hope of eternity we need to remember that we are speaking a foreign language. We must present the truth faithfully, carefully and consistently. We must pray for God to open the eyes of those who do not see. People will not be changed by our arguments but by the enlightening work of God’s Spirit.
Second we need to realize that the world does not understand us. Earthly wisdom views believers as empty headed nit-wits who in their intellectual weakness cling to religious superstitions. We are ridiculed in media, in the workplace, in the classroom, and sometimes even at home. We must not take this personally even if the attacks are personal. The world does not “get it”.
I love this quote from Ray Pritchard,
I recall something that one of my seminary professors, Dr. Robert Lightner, said at the end of a class discussion on creation and evolution. “Men, don’t get angry at the evolutionists. It’s the best they can do.” He’s absolutely right. Apart from God, how else do you explain the universe? Where did it come from? Evolution at its heart isn’t about science; it’s all about religion. It’s a religious worldview dressed up as science and put forward as a way to explain everything in the universe without ever referring to God. Why get angry with people like that? Apart from God, what else would you expect people to believe?
Our job is to be compassionate to those who follow the wisdom of the world while we ourselves pursue God’s wisdom with single-mindedness. How do we do this?
In addition to fearing God, James told us in chapter one that those who want to be wise must ask God. When Solomon was being installed as King, God told him that He would grant one request. Let me stop and ask, What would you answer if you were given one wish? Health, riches, power, happiness? Many would answer this way but these are all requests that are according to earthly wisdom. They focus on the temporary rather than the eternal.
Solomon didn’t ask for those things. Instead he asked for wisdom so that he might rule wisely. God’s response was, “Good Answer!” In addition God gave him riches and power. Jesus told us that if we “seek first the kingdom of God and the other things (food and clothing) would be added to us.” If we diligently pursue Him, God will take care of our temporal needs.
The world says: get ahead, get rich, gain power and then you will be thought of as wise. You will be asked to lead seminars, write books, and sell resources over the Internet. God says, “Seek me. Seek my truth and the other things will take care of themselves.” I challenge you to begin to ask God to make you wise.
Second, be a student of God’s Word. If we are serious about finding God’s wisdom it only makes sense to listen to, and do what God has clearly instructed in His Word. A good place to start is with the words of Jesus. Read the gospels. Listen and do what Jesus teaches and you will be on your way toward wisdom. Next you can move to the Book of Proverbs or even the Book of James.
Third, understand what you believe. Peter tells us to always be ready to give an answer to those who ask us the reason for our hope. I encourage you to read books that logically explain why we believe the Bible is reliable; why we confess Jesus is God; and why we hope in life beyond the grave. There are good and logical reasons why we believe all of these things; We must know what those reasons are so we can explain them to our friends.
Fourth, defend yourself from worldly thinking. Be alert to the view of wisdom espoused by television shows, movies, news programs and more. Learn to ask, “What values are being espoused? Which “wisdom” is being dispensed? We must guard against the tendency to believe something is true just because we have heard it repeated many times or because someone says it forcefully. Truth is objective. We must evaluate all things by the objective standard of the Word of God.
Finally, we must live wisely. James reminds us that knowing the truth and even being able to recognize error does not what mean we are wise. Wisdom is when we live our lives by God’s wisdom. Ultimately the world will notice our behavior before it will hear our words. Our job is to translate knowledge into action. May God give us discernment to recognize truth from error, and the courage to live by that which is true.