The passage under consideration today addresses a single topic: wisdom. However, James identified two kinds of wisdom. One, he described as being “from above” — that is, from God. The other as not “from above,” it is rooted in personal preferences, worldly values, and demonic interests. James contrasted these two kinds of wisdom, so we’ll take his lead and take the same approach. To begin, however, we’ll go to the text.
James 3:13-18 “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Once again, James drew his audience into his subject matter with a question. Keep in mind, that in the 1st Century, copies of the letter would have been circulated and read publicly. Thus when the reader read a question like “who is wise and understanding among you?” in public, there is a good chance that people would have looked around and actually thought of people in their congregation that they considered to be wise. The act of listening together in a group changes how we receive and respond to information. That’s one of the reasons being part of an active local church is important for Christians.
At any rate, after James introduced his topic with a question about who in his audience could consider to be wise, he declared how wisdom should be demonstrated. A wise person should show his or her wisdom by good conduct, expressed in the particular spirit of meekness that accompanies wisdom. We’d better stop to think about this a little.
Keep in mind that wisdom is not the same as just being really, really smart, though it is associated with a high level of intelligence. Many intellectually keen people are unwise. Some criminals are clever. The behaviour of some highly intelligent people is so foolish that they destroy their own lives, and sometimes the lives of others as well. So when the Bible talks about wisdom, it’s not doing so in some vague, undefined way. Biblical wisdom includes a moral component, a clear sense of reality, and a practical aspect which goes beyond merely being in possession of unusual intellectual capacity.
The Bible declares that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10). This makes it clear that without an appropriate appreciation of God, it is impossible to be truly wise. This is so because the moral component and sense of reality I just mentioned will be missing without God. There are people we might describe as “wise in the ways of the world,” but the breadth of their wisdom is limited because it doesn’t take God and His purposes into account.
Naturalism and materialism, exclude the spiritual dimension in any and all aspects. People committed to these philosophies may be able to function in society by adopting the culturally prevailing values and behaviours, but they miss key factors that affect the lifestyle of those who have been filled with the Spirit of God. That Christians can slide into the habit of living more according to the flesh than according to the Spirit is the reason why New Testament writers frequently remind us of our identity in Christ and urge us to submit to the Holy Spirit in our everyday decisions and actions. The very passage we’re looking at is a case in point.
James 3:14-16 “But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”
The people James was writing to were Jews who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah. They had a strong knowledge about God from their Jewish roots. They had a personal relationship with Him, through the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, James recognized their need for a reminder that these things, by themselves, would not overcome demonic influences, worldly temptations, and sinful personal tendencies.
Anything that might claim to be, or appear to be, wisdom which was not from above would spring from one of three main factors. James listed them here saying they would be earthly, that is of the world system, sensual, things that appeal to us because the allow us to gratify our senses, or demonic — thoughts, words, or actions of outright defiance against God.
Twice in these three verses, he pointed to envy and self-seeking as the result of succumbing to the influences of the world, the flesh, or the devil. Along with these he mentioned boasting, lying and confusion specifically and then, in case someone wanted to try to argue with him, he added “and every evil thing.” This makes me think of the way children’s minds work as they try to stay out of trouble. The parents say something like, “We’re going outside to do some gardening. You kids stay calm and don’t wreck the house.” An hour later, the parents return to find the house in disarray. A lamp is tipped over and the fruit bowl is broken. When the children are confronted with their disobedience, they say things like, “You said, ‘don’t wreck the house.’ You didn’t say anything about the lamp or the fruit bowl.” Sadly, as God confronts us with our sin, we find that we have not out-grown this technique of playing with words to avoid the clear intentions of the One to whom we must give account. “Every evil thing” means exactly that and doesn’t leave room for the spiritual equivalents of tipped over lamps or broken fruit bowls.
Negatives are helpful, even necessary, in helping us to know what to avoid, but they need to be amplified with some positives if we are to understand what God expects of us. So James immediately followed up his description of wisdom which is not heavenly, with some comments about wisdom he identified as being “from above.”
James 3:17-18 “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
In these verses, James contrasted the wisdom from above with that which is not from above. The first characteristic of godly wisdom is purity. Here the end never justifies the means. The end places limits on the means — they must always be pure. So what is pure? We need to know that if we’re going to use it as a criterion for identifying godly wisdom. Something that is pure is not contaminated by anything else. It is not a mixture, solution, or alloy. It is 100% one thing, whatever it might be.
Of course, often when we speak of purity, we have morality in mind. What James has in mind, includes that, but goes further. For James, pure wisdom is not only uncontaminated by moral sin, it is not mixed with foolishness, human desire or benefit, ignorance, or anything else that we might conceive of.
Next James claims that godly wisdom is peaceable. It is not aggressive, belligerent, volatile, violent or out of control. A peaceable person will do anything necessary to keep the peace, except compromise his or her purity. Being peaceable may call on us to humble ourselves to be wise, for only ungodly wisdom would prompt us to put ourselves first, to overwhelm the will of another with our own, to control, manipulate, or coerce someone else so that we can realize our vision of reality.
The next characteristic of godly wisdom we find is gentleness. Secular society values power, control, influence, bluster, bravado and saving face. But “wisdom” which includes such things is not of the godly variety. God has all the time He needs to accomplish his purposes. He never has to “ram things through” to get His will done. His ways, and His people are gentle.
Then we come to a really big challenge. Being “right” is important to all Christians, so when we read that godly wisdom is characterized by willingness to yield, we stop to take a closer look. The wise path may sometimes call us to submit to what we believe is an inferior course of action. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we give up our purity, its just that godly wisdom has room for the process of growth in others as we share the life of Christ together. We should be known for being approachable, conciliatory, reasonable, and willing to listen to other points of view. Even, as James wrote here, for being willing to yield to those perspectives.
Godly wisdom is full of mercy. It is not vengeful or vindictive. It offers others the benefit of the doubt, and does not press for punishment even when it is deserved. This is a characteristic of God, Himself, so we should expect it to be quality of the wisdom that comes from above. Keep in mind that God’s mercy does not compromise His justice. God can be merciful to humanity because Jesus’ received our sentence and fulfilled the law’s demands. Through Jesus’ death on our behalf and his subsequent resurrection, God is both just and the One who justifies those who have faith in Jesus, according to Romans 3:26.
Some of us would like to withdraw from the world into some safe haven and quietly live out our days in private spiritual exercise. However, that’s not what God intends for us. While there is a place in godly wisdom for that kind of thing, James reminded his readers that the godly life is also “full of good fruits.” This calls for some action which leads us to be involved with other people and bears good fruit in our relationships with them by encouraging them, instructing them, helping them, forgiving and restoring them when necessary and, in general, being a positive influence on all those around us.
You probably remember that one of James’ big concerns earlier in his letter was partiality. So, we are not surprised to see “without partiality” included in his list of characteristics of wisdom that is from above. God would not act impartially and then expect anything less from us. If something that seems to be a wise course of action involves exploiting, harming, ignoring, or taking advantage of someone we consider to be of lower status than ourselves, we can be sure it is not wisdom from above. Godly wisdom lifts all of us up as it is set in action.
Wisdom from above must truly be that — wisdom from above — not worldly wisdom dressed up to look like it. James addressed this with his comment about the quality of godly wisdom being without hypocrisy. It will never be fake, phoney, insincere, or anything less than pure, as he mentioned at the very beginning.
Lastly, James talked about the fruit of righteousness being sown in peace by those who make peace. I believe that as James looked over his list of characteristics of wisdom that comes from above — godly wisdom — he noted that anything that would grow out of would be righteous. When we act out of godly wisdom, we can be sure that righteousness will be the result.
Today, we’ve looked at two kinds of wisdom. They are polar opposites, as different as they can be. It shouldn’t be hard to tell which kind of wisdom is behind your decisions and actions. If it is not the wisdom from above, may I encourage you to read the passage again, James 3:13-18, and, as you do, pray that God will open your mind and heart to His wisdom, for your blessings, the benefit of those around you and for His glory.