James 3:13-18 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
There are several scenes in “The Chosen” that depict a kind of low-key power struggle among the disciples—especially Peter, James (not Jesus’ brother, author of this letter), and John. The show presents the struggle as a relatable mixture of genuinely benevolent desires to do ministry in the best possible way and sinful pride. One particular scene does this especially well. In it, Peter pulls Jesus aside to talk to Him about the need to establish a more efficient decision-making hierarchy among the disciples; one in which he (Peter), of course, would be at the top. The writers and directors did a great job of helping us see the irony, tragedy, and humor in all of this, and they did so in a way that is truly relatable.
I mention that not as a plug for the show necessarily, but because it captures very well what seems to be the case among James’s readers. The picture we’re given in chapter three especially is that of a group of people who were jockeying for positions of teaching-leadership for which they weren’t qualified, and who thought of themselves as possessing more wisdom than they actually had.
Again, James recognized this clamoring among his readers and sought to address it head on. Last week (in 3:1-12) we read of James’s attempt to sober-up wannabe teachers by helping them see how dangerous it is to be in that role without an unusual amount of control over their tongues. In our passage for this week (3:13-18), James meant to sober-up another group who believed themselves to possess God-given wisdom, but in reality, had demonic wisdom.
There are three main parts to this sermon, and all are intended to help you see James’s one main point. Wise wisdom comes from God and produces good fruit, while unwise wisdom comes from below and produces bad fruit. The three main parts to help us see that are: (1) Not all wisdom is wise, (2) The source and characteristics of unwise wisdom, and (3) The source and characteristics of wise wisdom. Let’s pray that God would make us wise and help us realize it when we aren’t.
NOT ALL WISDOM IS WISE
Proverbs 3:7 says, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.”
Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
Proverbs 26:12 says, “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Isaiah 5:21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”
And 1 Corinthians 3:18 says, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”
The thing to see is that there is a consistent theme in the Bible of looking out for unwise wisdom; people who wrongly and dangerously believe themselves to be wise even though they aren’t.
I think the most vivid picture I’ve ever seen of this came when I took a team of kids down South for a week of service projects. As we drove around, I noticed signs for Baptist churches in front of tiny buildings on nearly every block. When I asked our hosts about this, they explained that there were fifteen-person churches all over the place because each was started by someone who decided that their “gift of teaching” and “biblical wisdom” wasn’t being properly recognized in one church, so they broke off with a few loyalists and started another.
Well aware of this temptation and reality, James asked, “Who is wise and understanding among you?”
Again, evidently, there were some among James’s readers who believed themselves to be wise, and believed they should have a larger voice within the church because of it. In reality, however, their lives showed otherwise. In an attempt to slow them down (for their own good and for the good of the church), James wrote our passage for this morning.
But all of that leaves us with two important questions. (1) Am I wise or just wise in my own eyes and (2) how can I tell? How do we distinguish between genuine wisdom and false wisdom in ourselves and others? Knowing the difference, James taught, comes from recognizing the source and characteristics of each (which we’ll consider in a moment) and through the confirmation of the leaders and people of God. That is, it comes from having a firm grasp on where each kind of wisdom comes from and what it produces, along with the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Grace, each of those things are gifts from God, and the kind that must be cultivated even after we receive them. Let us earnestly pray for them and work hard to develop them when we get them.
And on a personal level, Grace, let this be a lesson and a warning to us, even as James meant it to be a lesson and a warning to his readers. Believing ourselves to be wise is not the same as possessing actual wisdom. Let us be slow to assume we’re right. Let us be slow to try to put our own counsel to the top of the decision-making pile. Let us be quick to listen to the ideas and reasoning of others (a separate, but clearly related command from James). Let us take everything to prayer. And, let us be clear on the source and characteristics of wise and unwise wisdom so we can better recognize each; even as we turn our attention to those things now.
Obviously, the term “unwise wisdom” is from me, not James, but I think it captures well a concept that is clearly James. Indeed, it is the main subject of this passage. He wrote this, once again, primarily to point out unwise wisdom among his readers and put a stop to those seeking to bring it into the church. James does so by explaining where unwise wisdom comes from and what it looks like.
Source of Unwise Wisdom (15)
The source of all the sin in our lives is the world, the flesh, and the devils. “The world” refers to all the people around us who act in ways that are dishonoring to God and who tempt us to join them. “The flesh” refers to the internal, sinful desires each of us have because we’re offspring of Adam. And “the devils” refers to the Satan and his demons who are continually working to entice us to sin, even as they did Jesus Himself (Matthew 4:1-11).
Ephesians 2:1-3 speaks directly to this, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world [world], following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience [the devils]— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh [the flesh]…”
James seems to have all three in mind here in v.15 as the source of unwise wisdom, “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly [the world], unspiritual [the flesh], demonic [the devils].” The simple fact is that one of the tactics of the world, flesh, and devils, is to fill us with unwise wisdom in order to tempt us to sin.
It’s hard to miss the fact that the world’s wisdom is increasing in its unwiseness, to the great delight of our flesh and the devils. This means that we need to capture every thought and test it carefully against God’s Word in order to determine its origin. Is the thought or impulse from God or from the world, our flesh, or the devils? We are right to be skeptical of the things we hear from a world that is as disordered as ours is and is becoming (more on that below). And it is right to be cautious of our own thoughts when they don’t flow directly from God’s Word.
In the simplest possible terms, Grace, when we hear of or think about something that sounds reasonable, but can’t be traced directly back to God’s Word, we need to be really careful of assuming it’s wise wisdom.
Characteristics of Unwise Wisdom (14-16)
If unwise wisdom comes from the world, our flesh, and the devils, the next logical question (and one James thoroughly answers), is what kind of outcome does it produce? Or, how do we recognize it when we find it? Look with me at vs.14-16 for the answer.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
James gives us six characteristics of unwise wisdom.
Bitter jealousy (14, 16). The word translated “jealousy” can be either good (zealous) or bad (envy/covetous). James adds the word “bitter” to make his meaning clear. There were some among his readers who wanted what others, like James, had (positions of authority and influence, as evidenced by their roles as teachers and advisors). Lacking the proper qualifications for those things, however, they internally harbored bitter (sharp, prickly, acute) envy while outwardly trying to assert themselves as qualified teachers and wise counselors. James described this as a clear characteristic of unwise or fake wisdom. Where you find bitter jealousy, you’ve found a definite lack of true wisdom.
Selfish ambition (14, 16). James lists selfish ambition as a second definitive characteristic of unwise wisdom. It is, in simplest terms, the desire to see things accomplished for nothing more than personal, worldly gain. It’s the desire not for the good of another, or even one’s self, but only to scratch an itch of the flesh.
When selfish ambition is paired with bitter jealousy, the result is an insidious and disastrous mixture for both the individual harboring them and the church they are seeking to have influence over.
On a practical level, whenever we find these two things in ourselves or others, we need to pump the brakes hard. And we need to do so because they never, ever flow from wise wisdom. Having done so, we must carefully look around, expecting to find the following four things as well, for the kind of unwise wisdom that produces bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, almost always also produces boasting, lies, disorder, and every vile practice.
Boasting (14). Boasting, as James uses the term, means highlighting your own accomplishments (real or imagined) for the purpose of self-glory. It’s not always wrong to talk about the things God has done through you. But it is always wrong to lie about them or do so to glorify anything other than the God who empowered them. Where we find unwise wisdom we will also find boasting as well.
False to the truth (14). “False to the truth” or “lie against the truth” is simply a way of saying that bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, and boasting, never come from believing the truth. Every ounce of bitter jealousy, every iota of selfish ambition, and every word of boasting come from a lie. And all of those things are significant characteristics of unwise wisdom.
Disorder (16). This is an exceedingly important term for our day for it increasingly characterizes the world we live in. I really should give an entire sermon on this at some point in the near future. Here, however, I only get to give you a few sentences. I encourage you to listen carefully, therefore.
Genesis tells us that God both created and ordered all that has been made. That is, God made the world and made it to function in a certain way. Wisdom, as we will soon see, recognizes this order and continually seeks to orient everything to it. Unwise wisdom, on the other hand, refuses to live in light of God’s order, and worse yet, denies the ordering of God altogether.
Consider this point carefully, Grace. It is not even a slight stretch to say that unwise wisdom is the prevailing kind of wisdom in our culture. All we need to do is turn on the news today to see it and its disordering effect. It is at the very heart of how many are seeking to establish our society, and even the Church. In relation to society at large, consider the order God clearly established for mankind and then consider the disordered way many view sexual ethics, gender identity, family structure, abortion, euthanasia, race, the role of government, the human body, and countless other things. And in relation to the Church, consider the order God clearly established and then consider the disordered way many view the Bible, the roles of men and women, sin, salvation, our mission, etc. Unwise wisdom always leads to ordering things contrary to God’s design or to rejecting God’s order entirely.
Every vile practice (16). This last phrase is sort of a catch all. James’s point is that every vile (evil, wicked) practice that has ever been practiced flows from unwise wisdom. It focuses on the other side of the coin of his earlier phrase “false to the truth”. When we examine any unwise wisdom coin, we will find lies on the one side and vile practices on the other. Unwise wisdom always comes from lies and produces vile practices.
Unwise wisdom comes from the world, the flesh, and the devils. And it is characterized by bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, falsehood, disorder, and every other kind of vile practice. James was kindly clear on all of that.
The main place I see this play itself out in our church and the Church is in the form of what I’ve come to call, semi-sanctified common sense. Many here have been around the church and their Bibles enough, and are personally thoughtful enough, to have a basic sense of genuine wisdom. Too often, however, we confuse this basic sense of wise wisdom with the true thing. We combine some true things about God with our own philosophy of life and personal desires and confuse that combination with the pure will of God. Often, like every syncretistic religion, this is the most dangerous kind of unwise wisdom—because it has some measure of truth, comes so close, and sounds so reasonable, it’s harder to spot the problem.
All of that, then, begs the question of what constitutes wise wisdom. Thankfully, James is clear on that as well.
Wise wisdom, or true wisdom, is understanding how to live in the world as it truly is. That is, wisdom is knowing how to function in a manner pleasing to God. And just as we need to know the source and characteristics of unwise wisdom to stop it from sprouting and kill it when it does, we need to know the source and characteristics of wise wisdom to find it and nurture it once we do. Again, James is a big help with both.
Source of Wise Wisdom (17)
Unwise wisdom comes from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But James says in v.17, wise wisdom comes “from above.” This same idea is captured negatively in v.15 as well, “This [unwise wisdom] is not the wisdom that comes down from above…” Since wisdom is the understanding of how to live in the world as it truly is, and since God created, ordered, and rules over all that is, it only makes sense that wisdom comes from, and only from, God.
But even there, we need to be careful. What does it mean that wisdom “comes from, and only from, God”? It’s pretty common to hear someone say something like “the LORD told me to…” or “I feel like God wants me to…” or “I prayed and asked God for guidance and now I have such peace about…”. There may be a place for some of that kind of thinking, but it always comes on the other side of a careful study of God’s Word. God’s Word is where God’s wisdom is ultimately found, not in some type of subjective impression, mystical experience, or peaceful feeling. God’s Word doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know, but it does tell us everything we need to know to live as God intends. That is, in the Bible is all the wisdom we need to honor God in any and every situation we might encounter. That is what it means that wisdom is “from above.”
In very practical terms, then, if we want to be truly wise, we need to be students of God’s Word. And when we seek advice, we should not ask, “What do you think I should do?,” but “What passages in Scripture are you aware of that speak to my situation and how do I faithfully apply them?”. Wise wisdom comes from God and God has shared His wisdom in His Word. May this increasingly mark Grace Church.
Characteristics of Wise Wisdom (13, 17-18)
Well, what does it look like when wise wisdom is found and applied by God’s people? James answers that question in vs.13, 17, and 18. There we find eleven characteristics of wise wisdom. Kids, see if you can count them as I read back through those verses.
13 By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
- Good conduct (13). Just as “every vile practice” is a catch-all for the evils that result from acting on unwise wisdom, “good conduct” is a catch-all phrase for all the good that comes from acting on wise wisdom. Good conduct is always the only result of true wisdom. If you believe yourself to be wise, it will show up in the goodness that flows out of you.
- Meekness (13). Again, James clearly has a contrast in mind in his second characteristic as well. Where the fruit of unwise wisdom is boasting, the fruit of wise wisdom is meekness (or humility). It’s impossible to understand the world as it really is (wisdom) and be proud. We cannot have even an inkling of the holiness or power of God, for instance, and feel superior. Nate had the idea that in every Olympic event there should be a “normal” person in it to provide proper appreciation for the skill and strength of the Olympians. No one could do that and leave anything but meek. Wise people are meek people because wisdom measures itself against God, not others.
- Purity (17). Wise wisdom is also marked by purity; moral innocence and uprightness. James says that the outworking of wisdom actually begins with purity. To live according to things as they truly are (wisdom) is to know that conformity to the character of God (purity) is the one and only way to be properly ordered (opposite of the disorder from unwise wisdom) and the one and only path to true joy.
- Peaceful and Peaceable (17, 19). To be truly wise is to also be peaceful and peaceable. To be pure is to be properly ordered and to be properly ordered is to be at peace. Even when the world is at its worst, true wisdom knows that the promises of God are sure for all who will receive them; and in that is peace that surpasses understanding. And because wisdom is peaceful, it is also peaceable—eager to be at peace with others.
- Gentle (17). To be gentle is to be courteous and considerate. It is to be patient and willing to endure mistreatment for the sake of the gospel. One who is gentle does not demand what they are owed, but turns the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and gives their cloak also (Matthew 5:40).
- Open to reason (17). Wisdom, once again, means seeing the world as it truly is. Wise people, therefore, recognize their own finitude and limitations, because we are all finite and limited. And when someone recognizes these things, they will listen closely to the reasoning of others to help them grow in understanding.
- Full of mercy (17). Wisdom leads us to care for others in their time of suffering, for God cares for us in ours.
- Full of good fruits (17). This is another summary statement, like “good conduct.” Some have even argued that wisdom for James is basically the Spirit for Paul. The similarities between James’s wise wisdom characteristics and Paul’s fruits of the Spirit are hard to miss.
- Impartial (17). Ninth, wisdom is characterized by impartiality. True wisdom is not divided. It does not waiver. It does not show favoritism (as James mentioned earlier in his letter). It understands the world as it is and acts in strict accordance.
- Sincere (17). Wisdom is not hypocritical. It does not say one thing and do another. A wise person does not hold two people to different standards or others to a different standard than themselves. Wise wisdom leads the man and woman of God to say what they mean and mean what they say. Maybe most impressively, those who possess wise wisdom are sincere in that they think, feel, and act with consistency.
- Harvest of righteousness (18). Finally, eleventh, wise wisdom is characterized by harvesting righteousness. That is, wisdom not only leads to righteousness in the wise person, but also through the wise person, it leads to righteousness in those around him or her.
James’s point is clear on this: when these characteristics are absent, so is wise wisdom, and where they are found, so is wise wisdom. Let’s commit to seeking wisdom from above and nurturing these fruits of it.
The main point is that wise wisdom comes from God and produces good fruit, while unwise wisdom comes from below and produces bad fruit.
For these reasons, let us be a people who earnestly seek wisdom. Let us close, then, with the words of Proverbs 2:1-5.
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you,2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding,4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures,5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
Then we will be truly wise, helpful to the people of God, and rightly able to be doers of the Word of God.