First Mennonite Church
“Two Kinds of Wisdom”
Text: James 3:13-18
Who does not want to be wise? Nobody wants to be a fool! Nobody wants to be perceived as a fool, or, as we say, “I do not want to make a fool of myself.” And so, when we speak we try to choose the words that best express our ideas. When we do something, we strive to do our best. We try to show our wisdom in the simple things we do. We show it through the way we dress, so we align the collar of our shirt, or do not show on our clothes what we had for breakfast. We show our wisdom by being discrete when we talk in public. “Discretion, discretion, discretion, in everything use discretion. That is common wisdom for many. Everybody wants to be wise, look wise, and act wisely.
However, when James speaks of wisdom, he is not speaking about personal hygiene, modesty, not even head-knowledge. James has a more serious issue in mind when he asks the question: Who is wise and understanding among you? He is thinking of wisdom as the underlying source for human attitudes and behaviors. James is talking about a deeper motivational force that makes us act the way do. James is talking about whether God or the devil has control over our motivations and actions. James considers wisdom, not as a product of the mind or the ability to articulate wise sayings, but as the principle for living. James views wisdom as having two sources. True wisdom comes “from above,” from where all good gifts come: the Father of lights. The other source is earthly, which is unspiritual and even “devilish” or demonic (v. 15). In this light, humans have no alternative but to show through conduct the source of their wisdom. Whatever our lifestyle is will tell whether it is influenced by God, the Father of light and from whom there is no shadows of change or from the devil.
Once again let us remember that James is addressing believers. And
therefore he asks: Who is wise and understanding among you? If anyone claims to have true wisdom, James says, “Let them show it by their good life.” Wisdom is visible. Wisdom is known, not by the talk but by the walk. True wisdom is reflected through godly character; true wisdom has God’s character of only giving out what is good. Therefore the believers’ actions will naturally reveal the source of their wisdom. According to James, everyone is confronted with a choice of spiritual allegiance and there are only two options: God or the devil. Our actions reveal to whom we have pledged our allegiance or at least who has the most influence on how we speak or do what we do.
Humility: a sign of godly wisdom
Humility is the first sign of true wisdom, according to James. In chapter 4, James says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Arrogance and self-aggrandizement go hand in hand. Self-aggrandizement is usually achieved by putting others down. When a proud or arrogant person does something good or something that is normally considered noble, such act often lacks grace because the intent is obviously to call attention to the protagonist. Solomon had a straight-forward way to put it: “When pride comes (walks in), then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). Humility is selfless. It does not call attention to self when it does something. The one who is humble never demands to be first, to be served, or to be acknowledged. Humility is a fruit of the Spirit of God.
Signs of Earthly, Unspiritual and Demonic Wisdom
James switches from his first sign of true wisdom to signs that are not of true wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
Contrary to humility is bitter envy and selfish ambition. The Greek word translated in most Bibles as “envy” is the word “zelos.” Zelos can mean “jealousy” or “envy.” Jealousy is the attitude of wanting what others have. Jealousy says, “I should have had that too.” Envy on the other hand is the desire to have something which, in our view, others are not supposed to have or deserve to have. Envy says, “I should have had that; not you.” These attitudes are precisely the way the world does it business. These attitudes are what James says cause conflicts and disputes among people. Such craving for more things or having and not sharing is what brings wars and murders, says James in chapter 4. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts (v 1-2). Every feeling of envy that arises in our heart finds its source in earthly wisdom. It is not of the spirit of Christ and in fact is from the devil.
The second evidence of earthly, unspiritual and demonic wisdom, according to James is selfish ambition. The Greek word eritheia literally means “electioneering, vying for office, self-promotion. Self-ambition is exactly what politicians do when appealing for votes. There are ample examples of that going on right now with the primary elections. Politicians promote themselves and most often they do this by belittling their opponents and through self-aggrandizement. Selfish ambition is the opposite of humility. A self-ambitious person thinks he or she is more important than others. He or she knows better. He or she deserves respect and admiration. The idea that members of the church were vying for prominence amongst themselves is James’ concern for writing this letter. Thus he tells them that it does not matter the reason why someone would self-promote himself; it goes contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Jesus came to serve and not to be served. Therefore, God’s people are supposed to look for what enhances the kingdom of God. We are supposed to do everything out of love for the Lord and each other. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:3-5).
If in the body of Christ, the church, someone is only concerned with what is good for him or her, the earthly wisdom is still at work in that person. This attitude of me first is found among siblings, between couples, and everywhere. Wisdom of the world always seeks self-preservation, self-promotion and importance.
The Evidence of True Wisdom
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
True Wisdom Is Thoroughly Pure
James proceeds to indicate the signs of true wisdom. First of all, wisdom from heaven is pure. Have you noticed that for some reason when someone makes a mistake accidentally there is more consideration and leniency when people realize the motives of the act were pure? Christian actions should always be done with pure motives. When we are under stress, we should pause for a second and ask ourselves, “Is what I am about to say or do out of a pure motive?
True wisdom Is Peace-loving
True wisdom does and says everything in a peaceable and gentle manner. When we give our opinion on something, are we also open to consider others’ opinion? When we have the wisdom from above, we listen to others. We are open to learn and have a teachable spirit. True wisdom gives us the ability to submit to others without feeling we have lost our sense of identity.
True Wisdom is Full of Mercy and Good Fruit
Mercy flows from the heart of God and we become channels of mercy when our heart is connected with God’s heart. Mercy is not selective about its recipients or its object. Just as the prophet reminds us that God’s mercy is new for us today, so should be our disposition to show mercy to others. It takes mercy to forgive. It takes mercy to help the needy. We might be a fool to the world when we give to the needy, but again, the wisdom that comes from heaven is merciful. Mercy is not a feeling. Mercy is also visible through good fruit—acts of kindness.
True Wisdom is Impartial and Sincere
Impartiality and sincerity are two characteristics that describe the unchangeable nature of the one who has godly wisdom. The New American Standard Bible translates these two words as, “unwavering and without hypocrisy.” The true wisdom of God in us is best reflected through our steadfastness in doing what is right before the eyes of God and with honest and genuine love towards our neighbor. Christ’s love revealed God’s love for the righteous and the unrighteous, for the just as well as for the unjust. Our love should also be that way. Our love should not be reserved for a few only. Our love should be sincere and our actions should be done in love. This is in contrast to the one who seeks only his or her own good. This is in contrast to the one who promotes his or her own interest even at the expense of others.
What kind of wisdom guides our life? Do our words and actions reveal the wisdom that is from above? Do you struggle with jealousy or do you feel envy when it goes well for others? At home or in the workplace, do you promote yourself at the expense of others? James reminds us today that the true wisdom that comes from above cannot be hidden. Our actions reveal it openly. The true wisdom of God is in the first place full of purity. True wisdom is peaceable, gentle, and full of mercy. Let us go and live out God’s wisdom for the world to see. Let us go out and glorify the Father from above, from whom all good gifts come. Amen!