I am fool. You are a fool. We are all fools. It’s hard to admit, but true none the less: sin reduces all of us to fools. There is loads of knowledge to be found in the world… especially as college students. However, wisdom is a rare commodity. Wisdom is one of sin’s first casualties.
John Owen insightfully warns us: “There is no duty we perform for God that sin does not oppose. And the more spirituality or holiness there is in what we do, the greater is its enmity to it. Thus, those who seek the most for God experience the strongest opposition.”As we grow in our desire for God we’ll see not a lessening of sin’s opposition but, if anything, and intensification of that opposition. Being here at Multnomah, studying the Word of God and being trained up in how to lead others in Jesus name… do you expect that increased opposition? Are you aware of it? This is why we are commanded to watch ourselves closely. We watch our hearts and study our hearts in the shadow of the cross as a means of protecting our hearts from the daily presence and opposition of sin. If you don’t watch, you’ll inevitably weaken. As this next generation’s leaders, we must be aware that there’s no ministry exemption from the opposition of the flesh. There’s only a heightened responsibility to oppose sin and weaken the flesh, as an example to those in our circle of influence. However, this begs the question: “How do we oppose sin and weaken the flesh?” We must begin by identifying our opponent… sin. Sin is identified by examining ours lives.
In the third chapter of his epistle, James; the brother of Jesus, challenges the Jewish Christians to do this very thing.
James letter is about the role that faith plays in the life of the believer. Here, in verse thirteen through eighteen, James addresses the role wisdom should play in the life of a believer. In this letter, James is addressing twelve scattered Jewish tribes who were in exile outside of Palestine. As a result of their exile, hostility was stemming from Jews who were unhappy with their commitment to Jesus as Messiah. This hostility grew, and the church even began to experience conflict from within. Similar to us, as the Jewish Christians grew in their desire for God, tensions escalated and sin’s opposition intensified. They needed to be painted a picture of what the role faith looked like in their lives. And more specifically they needed to be shown how to determine true wisdom from false wisdom, so they would be encouraged to walk in true wisdom.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the text:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their 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, demonic. 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 reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18/NIV)
What is wisdom? Well, I will tell you this, wisdom is more than knowledge. Wisdom is more than data. We all know this to be true. We all know people who could easily be classified as “genius,’” but we would never trust them with children or small pets because their decision making is not quite right. Perhaps you even know a few here on campus, who by the definition of a genius have the intellect and “book smarts” to “ace” their way through school… but practically have no clue in how to apply that knowledge in ministering to people. Wisdom is also more than just being a “moral person.” Although, morality is an aspect of wisdom… it’s definitely more than that.
It’s interesting if you look at the wisdom literature in Scripture there are a number of words used to describe wisdom. There is the word “insight,” which means “to see things for what they really are. To see reality for what it really is.” In other words, insight means “to see the relationships of things, or how it all fits.” There is also the word “prudence,” which means “to understand subtle distinctions, and how everything goes together.” Lastly Proverbs eight says that “by wisdom a king rules.” Wisdom is the basis for action. Putting all of this together, perhaps a short definition of wisdom would be: “To know what things are, how things work, and then to know what to do about it.” Simply put, “wisdom is to be in touch with reality and then to respond to it accordingly.”
How many of you have read Pilgrim’s Progress? It is a wonderful book that is written as an allegory about the Christian. It’s actually about a man named “Christian” who is traveling along the narrow road that leads to life. As Christian is traveling he comes across these three sisters. These are women that he must learn from in order to navigate life successfully as a Christian. The names of these three women are “Piety”, “Charity” and “Prudence.” In using these Old English terms for names, what John Bunyan, the author, was trying to communicate was that to be successful as a Christian you need understand what it is to be holy before God (Piety), you need to understand love (Charity) and you need to know what it is to walk in wisdom (Prudence).
Wisdom is something we all want. Think about the questions we ask ourselves and others: “How do I know when I am ready to get married?” “How do I know what I am supposed to do after I graduate?” “How do I know where to spend and invest my time and resources?” These are all questions related to wisdom.
Like the scattered Jewish tribes and our traveling friend Christian, essentially what we are asking is: “How do I look at reality for what it is and navigate through it successfully?” What James is going to do here in our passage today is he is going to challenge us to look at our lives to see how we are growing in the area of wisdom. He will do this by revealing the character, origin and fruit of both types of wisdom.
In verse thirteen James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” It’s almost as if James knows what the response of his audience will be. I can just see it now… all of the Jewish leaders beginning to nod their heads or raise their hands affirmatively. Saying to themselves, “Yes, that’s me. I am wise. I am wise because da ta da ta da…” Typically, when asked a question like this we tend to come up with reasons why we are wise. I bet these Jewish leaders were tempted to show James why they considered themselves wise by articulating it; by showing off in a sense. As we read this we are forced to ask ourselves: Am I wise? Am I not? On what basis am I? Do I think I am wise?
Knowing what our natural response would be, it is interesting the way James poses the question and then challenges us by saying, “Do you think you’re wise? Show me.” He says, “Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Here James begins to give us our first glimpse of the character that marks true wisdom. The word “good” in this passage can also be translated from the original language to mean “lovely” or “attractive.” Therefore, what James is saying is show me your wisdom by your beautiful, lovely, attractive, good life.
Next, James supplies us with one more character of true wisdom. He tells us that if we are wise our life is marked by humility. Humility comes when we understand who we are in light of who God is. Wisdom takes into account God. Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom begins by recognizing that “there is something bigger than me out there… and He made all of this. He crafted the world in wisdom for His purposes. I am a part of it.” Then wisdom looks at itself and says, “I have abilities, I have gifts, I have resources I can use… but this whole show is not about me. My knowledge is limited, I make mistakes. True wisdom is marked by humility.” Humility doesn’t see itself as the centerpiece. Humility has a true estimation of itself. In other words, if you think you are wise you are probably a fool. If you think you are a fool you are inching closer to walking in wisdom.
I like how Peter Davids expounds on verse thirteen in his commentary on James. He writes, “No matter how extensive one’s scriptural knowledge, or how amazing one’s memory, it is self-deception that this is all there is. True knowledge is the prelude to action, and it is the obedience to the Word that counts in the end.” What Davids is saying is that mere knowledge of Scripture is not the pinnacle; it’s only the prelude to active obedience, and that’s all that ultimately counts. This truth is present in our Savior’s words in John 13:17. Jesus says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” Only our grace-motivated obedience and application of holy Scripture can produce growth in godliness.
Now in last part of verse fourteen James is going to begin to tell us some character traits false wisdom is marked by. He commands us not to “be proud about bitter envy” or “selfish ambition.” He says that if we are proud about it we are denying the truth.
A little further down in verse fifteen, while identifying the origin of false wisdom, James even goes as far to say that this kind of wisdom is “earthly, unspiritual and demonic.”
As I mentioned before, we have been created to live for something, someone bigger than ourselves. We were designed to live with, for, and through the Lord. God is meant to be the motivation and hope of everything we do. His pleasure, His honor, and His will are the things for which we are meant to live. But the foolishness of sin really does cause us to reduce our lives to the size and shape of our lives. The foolishness of sin takes heaven out of the equation and separates us from God. That is why James is so direct in identifying this form of wisdom as “demonic.”
Often our living has no greater purpose than self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment. Does this sound harsh? Well, ask yourself, “Why do I ever get impatient with others?” “Why do I ever say things I shouldn’t say?” “Why do I get discouraged with my circumstances?” “Why do I give way to anger or give in to self-pity?” The answer is that, like me, you want your own way, and when things don’t go your way or people are in your way, you lash out in anger or you turn inward in discouragement.
These gross attitudes are the rotten fruit James identifies in this passage when he speaks of the “disorder and every evil practice” that stems from the envy and selfish ambition that comes from false wisdom.
Have you ever been jealous or envious of someone? I know I have. Perhaps you are that person who has always been known for their beauty, charm, athleticism or humor, and then the new kid arrives who is just as beautiful, charming, athletic and witty as you are. The attention is taken from you and placed on them. You find yourself vainly comparing your beauty, charm, athleticism and wit with theirs as jealousy bubbles inside of your heart. Or perhaps you are that person who walks into a church and sees the man or woman placed in authority and you can’t help but say to yourself, “I could lead this ministry better than they do. I could teach, counsel and organize far better than they.” Well I have news for you folks, this jealous attitude is dangerous. It tears apart churches, organizations, teams, schools and homes.
How about selfish ambition? Do you see this attitude rearing its ugly head in your life? Think about any sports team. What happens when there is a player on the team who is only in it for himself? When all they care about is getting more playing time, better personal stats, more money and more glory? Well, I may not know a whole lot about sports… but I can tell you a team cannot continue win with a single player. It takes many players working together and supporting one another. Or how about your favorite band from back in the day, who were about “take off” when suddenly one of the members decided he’s going “solo.” There is disorder, and the band dies.
Beware of this jealous, self-seeking attitude in your lives friends. If you go into a community of people and you don’t want others to thrive you put instability into the system. You steal the joy from all of us when you make it all about yourself.
On the flip side, when all works together it produces peace… Shalom… everyone flourishes.
This is the kind of wisdom God provides us. This wisdom is true wisdom, and James tells us in verse seventeen this is the kind of wisdom that comes from heaven. True wisdom comes from heaven and is marked by holy character. True wisdom is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit. True wisdom is impartial and sincere. This is the kind of wisdom we have been created to walk in as Christians.
The last verse here in this passage, verse eighteen says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” We are all here at Multnomah to learn about God and how God has created us to serve others. We won’t get freed from our foolishness by education or experience. We won’t gain wisdom by research and analysis. In fact, the radical claim of the Bible is that wisdom isn’t first a book, or a system, or a set of commands or principles. No, wisdom is a person, and his name is Jesus Christ. When you and I are graced into acceptance with him, we’re drawn into a personal relationship with Wisdom, and Wisdom begins a lifelong process of freeing us from the stronghold that the foolishness of sin has on us. Paul Tripp puts it this way, “Wisdom is the product of grace; there is simply nowhere else it can be found.” We aren’t yet completely free, but there will be a day when our every thought, desire, choice, action, and word will be fundamentally wise!
The only way we can receive wisdom is by means of a relationship with the One who is wisdom. When we walk in true, humble wisdom; when we walk with Jesus, we will begin to see our gifts as “gifts” given by God. Ask God to give you wisdom in how to use what He’s given you. Using your gifts in a way that promotes peace will harvest this righteousness James speaks of.
True wisdom is humble, a gift from God and will manifest itself in peace. Are you bringing peace to the community? You need to be humble. You want to be humble? Walk with wisdom. Walk with Jesus.