Wisdom from Above

James 3:13-18

James has just finished telling us how important our words are – how they have the power to hurt and the power to heal.  Just before that, he wrote about how important it is that your faith finds its expression in action.  This morning, as we come to James 3:13, he turns to the wisdom that comes from God – not as a separate, unrelated topic, but in a continuing admonition that our religion is never just an intellectual, personal, passive occupation, but a life changing, life consuming overflow of our relationship with God.  Listen to what James tells us about wisdom:  James 3:13-18  Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from 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, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 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 raise a harvest of righteousness.

If we were to pick the wisest people we know where would we look? What would our criteria be?   We’d start with the seats of education – we’d go to the universities and find the men and women with multiple Ph.D.’s after their names.  We’d look in laboratories where important research is being done – in libraries for authors of learned books and articles.  We would assemble doctors and professors and scientists and authors who could discuss the intellectual questions of the day and give us the best answers to the most complex questions. 

But it’s fascinating that when James talks about wisdom, he doesn’t tell them to go to the Areopagus in Athens, the library in Alexandria, the University in Rome, not to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem – but “among you.”  And how do you know who is wise and understanding among you?  By their good life and humility.

Does it surprise you at all?  Wisdom is not a matter of what you know, but of what you do with what you know.  It’s not intellectual, but practical, not a matter of academic degrees, but a God-centered life.  A man can be wise with a 6th grade education – a man can be a tenured, published professor at Harvard and be a complete fool.

Don’t assume James is dismissing education and learning – he’s not promoting anti-intellectualism – but he’s putting it in perspective.  Wisdom is the ability to integrate what we learn with how we live.  And the outcome is a good life and a humble heart.

Back in the first chapter of this letter, James encouraged us to ask God for wisdom – and if you remember back to when we looked at that passage, we saw that wisdom is the ability to see things the way God sees them – how do we see trials and suffering, not doubting when we ask God for something. 

James comes back to what he said in that first chapter.  He points out  that there are two kinds of wisdom in this world – and he lays out those two kinds in a severe contrast of wisdom that comes from this world and the wisdom that comes from above.

The wisdom of the world:

Its source:  vs. 15 – “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil”

 Of the world – self-centered and self-contained, look out for #1, man is the pinnacle of his own achievement.   Its perspective is “this is it, this is all there is.”  It is the attitude that says, “I am my own God, I am the master of my destiny.

Of the flesh – externals are the standard of success – how much you make, where you live, what you wear, what you drive – those are the barometers of success.

Of the devil – Satan is the deceiver.  In his conversation with Eve he planted doubt in her mind:  “Did God really say you will die…”  and then told her “you will not die, you will become like God.”  His is the voice behind the fool who says, “There is no God.”

Its qualities: vs. 14 –  “envy and selfish ambition”

·         When you find envy / selfishness / pride – they are certain indicators that wisdom is absent.  And James hits these qualities over and over – by our lives, with our tongues, in our relationships.

·         If you are envious of other’s achievements, if you find yourself ambitiously promoting yourself over others to get ahead, if you think you’re smarter, better, more deserving than others – then you can be sure your wisdom is not from God.

Its fruit:  vs. 16 – “disorder and every evil practice”

·         We think that our self-anointed wisdom will get us what we want – success, recognition, security.  But instead, this worldly wisdom produces the very opposite – disorder and confusion. 

·         When envy and selfish ambition are a part of our lives we find ourselves working against each other instead with each other.

·         When worldly wisdom takes over – when we are focused on our self interests –  then there is ultimately no evil practice that is out of the realm of possibility.  Think of the things people have done and justified when their personal interests were their most important priority.

James sets that kind of wisdom aside as he turns our attention to a second kind of wisdom – vs. 17-18 – 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 raise a harvest of righteousness.

Did you hear the contrast?  The wisdom of this world focuses on me and my interests and my advancement. 

The wisdom that is from above focuses on others, on living in harmony, on a godly lifestyle.  Let’s set it in contrast as James does:

Its source:  from heaven – this is wisdom that comes from God.

It is not just knowing about God, but knowing God.  And I’ve known too many people who confused the two.  They prided themselves on their knowledge of the Bible – they could argue doctrine, they could teach a Bible class – but they were selfish and sanctimonious.  They mistook their knowledge of the Bible for a knowledge of God – exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of – John 5:39-40 “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

The purpose of the Scriptures is not to make us prideful over our knowledge and our doctrine, but to bring us to a relationship with God.

It’s qualities:  Not the qualities of a man who has all the answers and wields them as a weapon (even truth can be misused by a fool).  These are qualities that remind us of the fruits of the Spirit – and not surprisingly, they are the very qualities we see modeled in the life of Jesus.

Pure – single purpose, a focused direction – an innocence and simplicity to it.  Wisdom that has been made so complex that common people cannot comprehend it is not wisdom.

Peace-loving – It’s interesting that not only does James mention the passive appreciation of peace as a quality of this godly wisdom, but even more so, peacemakers – the active pursuit of peace.  It’s not just sitting back and enjoying peace, but working towards that harmony.

Submissive – not a sign of weakness, but an understanding of the true nature of strength.  We do not resent putting ourselves under the authority of another, because we have already put ourselves under the authority of God.  It is the outgrowth of the humility James spoke of in vs. 13.

Overflowing in mercy and good fruit – commentary on the “good life” in vs. 13 – and it’s not just that our lives are full, but they are overflowing – full and pouring over into other’s lives. Godly wisdom demonstrates itself in mercy and compassion.  Godly wisdom produces an abundance of Christlike qualities in our lives.

Impartial – Godly wisdom tears down walls of separation, it erases prejudice.  Godly wisdom gives us the ability to choose fairly and with justice – even when it costs us to do so.

Sincere – Godly wisdom eliminates the need for masks and deception.  We can be upfront, transparent  and genuine, because our heart is right with God.

Its fruit – vs. 18 – “a harvest of righteousness”

You plant cotton, you harvest cotton / plant wheat – wheat / wisdom – righteousness.  Righteousness in its simplest definition is a right relationship with God.  Godly wisdom puts us in a right relationship with God.  Godly wisdom puts us firmly in the center of God’s will.

Wisdom in Action

Now, why does James launch off into a discussion of something so seemingly intellectual and ethereal as wisdom after being so practical in the previous verses talking about putting your faith into action, and keeping a tight rein on your tongue?  I think we’ll get a pretty good sense of it in the next verse – 4:1 “What causes fights and quarrels among you?”  He’s really setting the stage for that discussion.  Because the bottom line for fights and quarrels is when I approach my relationships with worldly wisdom.  I’m more concerned with me and mine and getting more. 

And in the church when there are fights and quarrels it is because people approach each other with worldly wisdom instead of godly wisdom.  We will fight and have fought over nearly everything imaginable – and it comes back to envy and selfish ambition instead of humble, peace-loving, merciful, submissive, sincere righteousness.  And you know it’s true.  But the next time we get our nose bent out of shape, or someone says something we disagree with, we’ll put on the war paint and go looking for a fight – and James says, “make sure you understand – it’s not godly wisdom that guides you down that path – that is worldly, fleshly, devilish wisdom.”

Wisdom Revealed

How do you know, where do you look for this wisdom from God? 

James says “look above” – Paul says “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:1-2).  This wisdom is not a knowledge about this world – it won’t always feel comfortable, it won’t always make sense.  It will lead us to think and act in ways that run counter to this world.  Listen to the wisdom of Solomon – Prov. 2:1-5  My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.

Look to the Word – “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).

In the Word, God reveals his wisdom… God reveals himself.

Look to the Cross – “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24). 

The cross is where you find the heart of God.  The cross didn’t force some plan-b when Satan got the upper hand – it was God’s plan from the very beginning.  At the cross, God shows all his cards – his love, his mercy, his forgiveness – his willingness to do anything to have you home at his side.  Never mistake the cross for foolishness, for it reveals God’s wisdom in rejecting everything the world claims as power and success, and proclaims humility and brokenness and self-sacrifice as those qualities that will always bring us to the throne of God.  The cross displays God’s love.

Do you really want to find wisdom?  Do you really desire to live each day, acting, speaking, thinking with godly wisdom – plant your life firmly at the base of the cross.  It will always lead you there.

Song – “I have decided to follow Jesus” – who will you follow?