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Seekers of Wisdom: True and False

January 28, 2007

James 3:14-18

We have looked closely at the book of Proverbs in our series entitled Seekers of Wisdom. With that in mind, I want you to turn to the New Testament book of James, Chapter 3. You might ask, “Pastor, why are we jumping from Proverbs to James if we are still considering the issue of wisdom?” We sometimes call the little book of James “the proverbs of the New Testament.” A classic passage here defines the difference between worldly wisdom and heavenly wisdom. After reading the selection several times during this series, I have concluded that James manages to summarize the entire teaching of wisdom found in the book of Proverbs in just a few verses. As a kind of summary, we are going to read James 3, beginning at Verse 13 and continuing through Verse 18. Hear now the Word of the Lord.

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,” (Notice the NIV uses quotation marks.) 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.

The writer of this epistle, James, was the brother of Jesus. Sometimes called James the Great, this second son in a large family came to be the leader of the early church in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus. James patterns his letter very much on the teachings of Jesus. You can see as you read his letter that James not only believed that his brother Jesus was the Messiah, but James also believed that he must emphasize and preserve the teachings of Jesus. Here in this little section, James summarizes the book of Proverbs. You remember that we talked about the antithetical approach of the book of Proverbs, contrasting the difference between being wise and foolish, the difference between being righteous and unrighteous, the difference between being a person of faith and a person of doubt. We see that same antithetical approach here in these verses in James. We see a contrast between the wisdom of this world and the wisdom from above, heavenly wisdom. I want to lead us in an exposition of this passage, taking a verse at the time.

I am very indebted to William Barkley and his commentary on the book of James in a series he calls The Daily Study Bible. If you need a good commentary on any book of the New Testament, I would recommend Barkley to you. A master of helping us understand the Greek language, Barkley clarifies some of the quite complicated wording used here.

We find the theme of the book of James in Verse 13: “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.” We are not only to be “hearers of the word.” We are also to be “doers of the word.” We are not only to declare that we have faith, but we are also to activate a life of works based on that faith. I suppose you could say that a subtitle for the book of James would be Believe and Behave. It is not just a matter of the heart and the head; it is also a matter of the hands and feet. We must put into action the faith we profess. It is not enough to confess Christ with our words. We must also confess Christ with our very lives. We must show wisdom by a good life, by deeds done in humility. Doing so is “proof in the pudding” or “where the rubber hits the road,” as a tire company claims. We find good evidence that a person has wisdom by their lives.

James then draws a contrast in Verse 14: “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” Bitter envy and selfish ambition are two great temptations. Every leader – including teachers, pastors, and political figures – face these temptations. For some leaders, the temptation is arrogance. The leader has the idea that he or she really possesses all the answers, needs no input from anyone else, has nothing left to learn, and knows everything. The attitude of arrogance is quite offensive. It demeans others, minimizing their contribution, their insight. The truth is that a good leader is a student, and every student is a teacher. A good leader can learn from anyone, but an arrogant person has fallen into a temptation that minimizes his or her effectiveness as a leader.

A second great temptation of a leader is jealousy, “bitter envy” James calls it. A jealous person has a sense of competition, even with colleagues. You can sometimes see this trait among pastors and business leaders. You certainly see it among politicians. Combining arrogance with bitter envy results in selfish ambition. The person possessing this trait has the mindset that he or she can go to the top by any means, climbing over others as necessary. The person does not worry about what that behavior does to other people; the individual is interested only in himself or herself. Pride, the sin of hubris, is the foundation of selfish ambition. Selfish pride is the foundation of false wisdom, earthly wisdom, which manifests itself in arrogance and jealously. Some things can absolutely knock us off our course as Christian people. That is especially true of Christian leaders. This appeal to pride, this appeal to selfish ambition, certainly is not from God.

You see immediately the contrast between these negative qualities and the virtue of wisdom. Heavenly wisdom issues in good deeds lived out in humility. What is the origin of this wisdom? Verse 15 states, “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” Notice the quotation marks in the NIV because this is not really wisdom. This is false wisdom. It is wisdom of the world, success at any price. Saying that this type of wisdom is “unspiritual” means that it is ungodly. It does not come from God. James goes a step further. He says it comes from the devil.

Do you remember the story about the Garden of Eden? God created a paradise and placed a man and a woman there to tend that garden. It was to be their home. God gave them one restriction, however; they could not eat the fruit from one tree. The serpent tempted Eve, saying, “If you will eat the fruit of this tree, you will know as much as God knows.” The serpent used their pride and jealousy as a means of tempting them. Eve succumbed, as did Adam. He is as much at fault as she is. What happened in the Garden of Eden has been a problem to all of us ever since. This example shows just how persuasive temptation can be.

When God cast Adam and Eve out of the garden, the Scripture says that they went into the land of Nod. The word Nod means land of wandering, confusion, disorientation. Nod has no center. The effect of this kind of false wisdom is strife, discord, disharmony, uncertainty, and absolute chaos. When leaders become arrogant or succumb to selfish ambition, they do not create peace, harmony, and unity. They create discord and division.

We are not seeking that kind of wisdom. We are seeking wisdom from above, which James defines for us in Verse 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 raise a harvest of righteousness.” We will take these eight characteristics in order.

Wisdom from above is pure. Hagiois, a Greek word used for saints, means holy. Soren Kierkegaard said that purity of heart wills just one thing, a desire to please God. It does not seek to gratify self, to elevate self. This purity is not just external; it is purity of the heart and mind. The psalmist words it this way: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3-4). This passage says that a person must have purity of heart and mind and have not done anything he was not supposed to do. The person has no ulterior motives, no pride. He does not swear or make promises he does not keep. He must fix his eyes on the direction God wants him to go. This kind of purity allows a person to see God. The beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

James says that this kind of wisdom is peace-loving. The Greek word is Eirene. We get the woman’s name Irene from this word. A person who is peace-loving has a right relationship with other people and with God. A person who is peace-loving does not make divisions, does not exclude people, does not draw boundaries to keep people out, does not become part of a clique. Instead, the person draws people together. Even though people may not always agree, a person who is peace-loving teaches others to be respectful of each other and demonstrates that in his or her own life. It is why the Apostle Paul could say to the church in Philippi, “Do everything without arguing or complaining” (Philippians 2:14).

Third, James says that this kind of wisdom is considerate. William Barkley says the word considerate in the Greek language is difficult to understand. At least one meaning is that it must be reasonable, not so much to the letter of the law but beyond the law. Wisdom does not place unreasonable demands on other people. It is not preoccupied with its own rights, but it considers the rights of others. Being considerate means that you analyze all factors before making a decision. Even though the law may be very clear and specific about something, a person of wisdom can look beyond that.

I can illustrate this concept of consideration with a story from the life of Judge Bruce Littlejohn, a retired Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court of South Carolina. Most people do not like to serve on jury duty. Many would like to get out of that responsibility. I am sure in his years on the bench, Judge Littlejohn had many occasions where people tried to avoid jury duty. One particular incident occurred when he was holding court in the lower part of the state during his circuit days. A fellow came to court and said, “I would like to be excused from jury duty.” When Judge Littlejohn asked him why, he said, “Because, this afternoon, my wife is going to conceive a baby.” The bailiff quickly stepped over to the judge’s seat and explained, “Judge Littlejohn, this man is not very well educated. He meant to say that his wife is going to deliver a baby this afternoon.” Judge Littlejohn thought for a minute and replied, “In either case, I think the man ought to be with his wife. We will excuse him from jury duty.”

Fourth, James says wisdom is submissive. This word also requires some definition. When we hear the word submissive, we think of a person who yields to authority. That certainly is one meaning of the word. William Law, in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, says that yielding to authority is the first guiding principle of the Christian life. We must always be obedient to God and submissive to His will. William Barkley points out that this word has a second meaning. It means the opposite of stubborn or obstinate. Being submissive means having some flexibility in life, being willing to listen to the opinions and advice of other people, and even changing one’s mind after hearing all evidence. Submissive people may change their attitude or opinion. It is not to say they are indecisive; they are open to understanding that comes from others.

A connection exists between the fifth and sixth characteristics. A person of wisdom grants mercy and bears good fruit. Think about this connection. A person of mercy is not just sympathetic. For example, in the story of the Good Samaritan, three people – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan – see a fellow lying in the ditch, beaten, bruised, and left for dead. All three probably had a heart of mercy, an attitude of mercy toward the man in the ditch; however, they did not act on that mercy. The first two probably said, “Poor fellow. I am so sorry that happened to him.” Mercy does not just mean having a sense of sympathy for someone who has experienced an injustice. It does not even limit itself to people who have experienced injustice at the hands of others. We are so tempted to blame the victim, saying, “It is his fault…If he had just managed his money better, he would not be in this pickle…If he had just done differently, life would have turned out better for him.” A person of mercy does not blame the victim or have a condemning attitude, even if the victim brought the misery on himself. A person of mercy responds by doing good deeds, by bearing good fruit, by offering practical help.

Mayor LaGuardia liked to be involved in the life of his people in New York City. Occasionally, he went to night court and actually sat on the bench as the judge. One night while the mayor was presiding in court, a man charged with petty larceny came before him. Mayor LaGuardia looked at him and asked, “What did you steal?” The man answered, “I stole a loaf of bread.” When questioned why he did so, he explained, “I live with my sister, and her children had nothing to eat. I stole bread to feed those children.” Mayor LaGuardia then asked, “Do you know that the law says stealing is wrong?” “Yes, sir, I know that.” The mayor said, “You are going to have to pay a fine of $50 for stealing a loaf of bread, but I am also going to fine everyone in this courtroom because we live in a city where a man has to steal bread to feed his family. Here is my hat. I am putting $5 in it. Everybody in the courtroom is fined $5.” The hat passed from one person to the next; and when it returned to Major LaGuardia, it contained over $200. He handed the money to the man and said, “This money is yours. You will have to pay your fine out of the money, but the rest of it is yours to keep. Buy your family some food.”

In that particular incident, we see justice. We see mercy. We see social action that responds in mercy. That incident illustrates the concept James is presenting when he says that wisdom is merciful and that it bears fruit. A balance exists between justice, mercy, and social action.

James lists two final characteristics of wisdom. First, wisdom is impartial, fair. It treats people with equality. No boundaries exist between race, creed, and color. More than that, wisdom must be flexible. A wise person must have an open mind. At some point, we have to be decisive. Wisdom does not vacillate. It is unwavering. It is effective. A person with true wisdom has the ability to consider all the evidence, make a decision, and stick to that choice. James also says that wisdom is sincere, genuine. It is not hypocritical. It demonstrates integrity. A person of wisdom is the same inside and out, the same in the daylight as in the dark. A person of wisdom does not playact.

How is wisdom cultivated in human life? How do we cultivate the wisdom from the teachings of the book of Proverbs that James summarizes with eight characteristics? Wisdom is not our own doing. It is a gift from God. An environment that nurtures right relationships cultivates a life of wisdom. The last verse means that peace, in the context of right relationships, nurtures wisdom and produces a harvest of righteousness in people.

I was talking with a mother this week about educating her children. She said, “We just tried to do everything we could to teach our children. We had an encyclopedia, a dictionary, and a globe. We taught them how to use the public library. Upon reflection though, probably the most important thing we did was to pray with our children and to read the Bible together as a family.”

The environment must cultivate wisdom. That is true of the family, as well as the Christian church. At Morningside, we want to cultivate relationships with each other that allow us all to grow in wisdom. Wisdom does not occur instantaneously. It takes a long, long pilgrimage of growth. We never really reach our destination until heaven. No matter how old we are or how young we are, we are all growing in wisdom.

Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a wonderful pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, went through several dark periods in his life. He experienced bouts of depression during a time before good medication was available to treat that illness. More often than not, the treatment was shock therapy. On three different occasions, Dr. Fosdick became so depressed that he required admittance to a psychiatric hospital. Imagine what would have happened if, when Dr. Fosdick was released from the hospital, the church had told him, “We just cannot have a pastor with depression. We have to ask you to leave so that we can get someone else.” No, Riverside Church welcomed him back after each hospitalization. Following every episode of depression, his preaching improved and grew increasingly powerful.

The day came when Riverside Church planned to dedicate a new building. Dr. Fosdick, having been through these bouts of depression, wrote a hymn for that occasion, one he dedicated to the church. You are familiar with this hymn. We sing this hymn, which speaks of wisdom:

God of grace and God of glory,

On Thy people pour Thy pow’r;

Crown Thine ancient church’s story,

Bring her bud to glorious flow’r.

Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage,

For the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us

Scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!

Fear and doubts too long have bound us,

Free our hearts to work and praise.

Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage,

For the living of these days.”

My prayer for Morningside is that God will grant to us the wisdom and the courage to face this hour, to face these days, to be the people that God has called us to be. As a church family, we need to provide the environment that nourishes so that people can live by the wisdom from above, not by worldly wisdom. That quest begins when you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, when you acknowledge him as the Lord of your life. If you have never done that, we invite you to make that decision today. Some of you have other decisions to make, a decision perhaps regarding church membership. If that is the case, I can assure you that this church will gladly receive you. We invite you to make the decision. Step out, come down the aisle, take my hand, and I will do the talking. We will make it as easy as we can for you. We want you to be a part of this fellowship. We are going to stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Take My Life and Let It Be.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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