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“How Wisdom Lives”

James 3:13-18
Bob DeGray
February 25, 2001

Key Sentence

The foolish person lives selfishly and sows discord. The wise person lives humbly and sows peace.


I. The Humility that Comes from Wisdom. (James 3:13)
II. The Foolish Selfish Person. (James 4:14-16)
III. The Wise Humble Person. (James 4:17-18)


        What if? It’s a game we all like to play. What if I’d gone to a different school, or worked at a different job, or not met my wife? On a larger scale, what if Hitler had invaded England in 1940 instead of Russia in 1941? What if the Japanese hadn’t foolishly bombed Pearl Harbor? What if the Cuban missile crisis had turned nuclear? What if Kennedy had never been shot? And so on. It’s fun to speculate on these things.

        One of the turning points in Israel’s history occurred after the death of Solomon. His son Rehoboam should have become the king over all Israel, but instead his kingdom was divided. One can only imagine what Israel’s history would have been if that division hadn’t occurred. Maybe the time of the Messiah would have come much sooner.

        That moment turned on a lack of wisdom by Solomon’s son. Rehoboam went to Shecem to be crowned king, but some of his future subjects came to him with a request: “your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” Rehoboam agreed to consider their plea, and Solomon’s advisers urged him to answer favorably, to be a servant to those people. But Rehoboam, foolishly, rejected them and took the advice of his peers, telling the people he would make their yoke heavier: “my little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.” The result? Division, discord, war, strife and every kind of evil.

        From this example we learn the truth which will also see in James chapter 3 this morning. The foolish person lives selfishly and sows discord. The wise person lives humbly and sows peace. Rehoboam and his advisers wanted to selfishly reap the benefits of dictatorial rule. But the result was discord and war. If Rehoboam had chosen humility, to be a servant to his people, the result would have been peace.

I. The Humility that Comes from Wisdom. (James 3:13)

        James teaches the same thing in chapter 3, verses 13 to 18. As we study these verses we’ll be forced to ask ourselves whether we’re living selfishly and thus foolishly, or humbly and thus wisely. Let’s begin by reading this entire short section, and then focus on verse 13 which teaches us the relationship between humility and 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. 14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17But 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. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

        It’s Solomon’s fault that we falsely associate wisdom and knowledge. Solomon asked God for wisdom, and received it, but he also had knowledge. He was perhaps the most educated man of his generation, the most intellectual. So we falsely expect education and intellect to equal wisdom. But it isn’t so. The Bible as a whole and this passage in particular connect wisdom not with intellect but with right living. Wisdom is skill for right living. Just as somebody can be extremely skillful at skiing or tennis or operating machinery, but not be highly educated, so too someone can be extremely skillful at right living, without being highly intellectual.

        James says “Here’s the right test of wisdom: a good life, and deeds done in the humility that wisdom brings. True wisdom produces good works and is characterized by humility. The first idea reminds us strongly of James’ earlier demand that faith manifest itself in works. True wisdom, like real faith, has more to do with the way we live than what we know. More than that, though, the deeds wisdom does are done with a meekness or gentleness or humility that springs from the wisdom itself.

        This verse lays the groundwork for what is to come. True wisdom does not show itself in your intellectual achievement, education, or even worldly shrewdness. Instead true wisdom shows itself in your godly behavior, especially humility. Haven’t you noticed this? The people you think of as wise are also humble about their wisdom and about themselves. Robert Louis Stevenson said, as if in response to this verse, “No man is wise who is not good. No man is wise who is not humble.”

II. The Foolish Selfish Person. (James 4:14-16)

        Having stated that truth clearly, James now spends a few verses contrasting the wise and humble person to the foolish person, who is selfish, and who sows strife. Verses 14 to 16: But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

        According to James the opposite of wisdom is bitter envy and selfish ambition. ‘Bitter envy’ could also be translated ‘harsh zeal’. This is not the same zeal Jesus displayed in his righteous anger before the temple, but is the opposite: it is not a zeal for people and their needs, but for self and whatever will benefit self. We might think of those who climb the corporate ladder at all costs, no matter who they trample in the process. We might think of parents who, disregarding the true interests of their children, push and prod them to senseless achievements. We also know Christians whose ‘harsh zeal’ disregards the needs of people in campaigning for some cause. This harsh zeal is linked to ‘selfish ambition,’ a little used Greek word that implies strife and partisanship, resulting in power cliques and influence groups designed to push someone’s agenda. The same word is used by Paul in Philippians 1:17 in talking about those who “preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing they can stir up trouble.” Those who are foolish always stir up trouble.

        James commands those caught in these sins not to be proud of them. Jesus exposed the same attitude in his parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, Luke 18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” The Pharisee, boasting in his so-called righteousness, was in fact boasting about his blindness to his own sin. Mark Twain always poked fun at this kind of person: “The fellow who blows his horn the loudest is usually in the biggest fog. Nature never intended for us to pat ourselves on the back, otherwise our hinges would be different. Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.”

        But these are serious sins for believers because they put a lie to the truth about Jesus. Those who see such hypocrisy in the church think there is no truth to the church’s claims. Sometimes this is merely an excuse to avoid conviction. But often it is a legitimate concern brought about by our pride and selfish ambition. There are too many examples in our own generation. I have never agreed with Jesse Jackson in all that he said in and did, yet to many he has been a symbol of the church and of faith. So his recent admission of a selfish and stupid affair with a staff person which resulted in her pregnancy did damage the church and the true cause of Christ, because it said again to unbelievers that these people don’t live what they believe.

        What kind of wisdom is it that teaches someone to seek personal gain and benefit? James tells us in verse 16: “such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” Skill in self satisfaction is not heavenly skill, but earthly; it is not spiritual skill, but the skill of the fallen nature; it is not from God, but from Satan. It is wisdom of the world, the flesh and the devil. The word earthly means weak, transitory and imperfect. The word unspiritual means something originating in the human soul, where human feeling and human reason reign supreme. Such wisdom reflects Satan’s way of thinking, and is propagated through his servants.

        So foolishness or worldly wisdom is characterized by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. It comes not from God’s character but from the world, our fallen nature, and Satan. Finally, in verse 16 this wisdom results in “disorder and every evil practice.” The word translated disorder comes from the same root James uses to warn the double minded. It is a restless, confused, chaotic state. As Douglas Moo comments “confusion, disorder, and tumults will break out whenever Christians are more interested in pursuing their own ambitions or partisan causes than the edification of the body as a whole.” And this disorder leads in turn to evil of every kind. Bad wisdom leads to bad living. When leaders and key individuals fall into the trap of pursuing their selfish desires, then those around them also begin to minimize their sin. And the leaders no longer have a moral ground to call others to righteousness. Just a little of the corruption of selfishness can lead to a whole mess of stinking rot.

III. The Wise Humble Person. (James 4:17-18)

        In contrast, the last two verses show that the wise person lives humbly and sows peace. 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. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

        James has described what the wisdom from above is not, and now he tells us what it is, or more properly, he tells us what effects divine wisdom should produce. His seven adjectives give us a handle on our attitudes and actions, because James doesn’t see wisdom as principally intellectual, but as a quality that motivates certain kinds of behavior. In fact this description reminds us of the Fruit of the Spirit. These seven qualities which characterize wisdom living have the same impact on us as Paul’s list of spiritual fruit. They also remarkably characterize humble living. The wise person who has these qualities is humble. The humble person who lives this way is wise.

        The first attribute of wise living is purity. The word implies moral blamelessness, having no moral failure to stain your soul. Those who are pure have put aside sensuality, pride and covetousness which lie at the root of worldly wisdom. Those who are pure have unmixed devotion to God and his goals. They concentrate on serving him. As songwriter Rich Mullins wrote, the pure in heart say to God ‘You’re my one thing.”

        Purity, being the first item in James’ list, has been seen by many as a summary item for the other six. First you have to seek unmixed devotion, and then these other things will follow. James has ordered the rest of the list so that in Greek the first four begin with the ‘e’ sound, and form an alliteration. The last two begin with the ‘a’ sound and they rhyme. Apparently James structured this list for easy memorization.

        So then wisdom that is pure and humble is also peace loving or peaceable toward others. This is an appropriate place to start this list, a contrast to the foolishness that causes discord. The Fort Worth Star_Telegram once reported that firefighters in Genoa, Texas, had deliberately set many destructive fires. When caught, they said:“We had nothing to do. We just wanted to get the red lights flashing and the bells clanging.” Fools start fires of discord: Christians are to be peace loving. We are to be have the peace of Christ through our relationship with him, and we are to be peacemakers, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. St. Francis prayed: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hate, may I bring love; where offence, may I bring pardon; may I bring unison in place of discord.”

        Second, we are to be considerate or gentle. It means kind, willing to yield to others’ needs. This is also humility. The believer will follow in the footsteps of his Lord, who was characterized by ‘humility and gentleness’. He didn’t worry about himself or his own needs or his own position, but gave up himself to serve other - to serve us.

         A man spoke with the Lord about heaven and hell. The Lord said, "Come, I will show you hell." They entered a room where many people sat around a huge pot of stew. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving. Each held a spoon that reached the pot, but each spoon had a handle so much longer than their own arm that it could not be used to get the stew into their own mouths. The suffering was terrible.

        "Now I will show you heaven," the Lord said after a while. This room was identical to the first _ the pot of stew, the people, the same long_handled spoons. But here everyone was happy and well_nourished. "I don't understand," said the man. "Why are they happy when they were miserable in the other room and everything was the same?" The Lord smiled, "Ah, it is simple," he said. "Here they have learned to feed each other." Is our wisdom evident in our gentle kindness and consideration for others?

        The third adjective used by James is submissive or reasonable. This word asks whether we are open to reason, willing to submit to persuasion. Or do we have a self-centered attitude that we are always right, meaning that whoever disagrees with us must be wrong? This is a very dangerous attitude, and I’ve seen it especially harmful in in marriages, where one or even both partners assume that they are always right.

        As a counter example consider Abraham Lincoln who, to please a certain politician, issued a command to transfer certain regiments. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton received the order he refused to carry it out, saying the President was a fool. When Lincoln was told of this, he replied, "If Stanton said I'm a fool, then I may be, for he is nearly always right. I'll see for myself." As the two men talked, the President quickly realized that his decision was a serious mistake, and without hesitation he withdrew it. A teachable, open spirit is often a major key in defusing conflict.

        Fourth, wise living is full of mercy and good fruit. Acts of mercy are the fruits which genuine wisdom must produce. One night in 1935, Fiorello H. La Guardia, mayor of New York, showed up at a court in the poorest ward of the city. He dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench. One case involved an elderly woman who was caught stealing bread to feed her grandchildren. La Guardia said, "I've got to punish you. Ten dollars or ten days in jail." As he spoke, he threw $10 into his hat. He then fined everyone in the room 50 cents for living in a city "where a person has to steal bread so her grandchildren can eat." The woman left the courtroom with her fine paid and an additional $47.50.

        James, the unrelenting moral theologian, ties wisdom, which seems so academic, to action. We may teach the Bible and be viewed by everyone as fountains of wisdom, pithy sayings and sage advice. But if we’re not full of mercy and good works we are not wise. It is this very truth that made Mother Theresa far wiser than the cunning politicians who at times listened to her words and dismissed her with a smirk.

        Next, a wise life is impartial, steady, unwavering. It doesn’t vacillate, taking one position in one circumstance and another in a different situation. It operates on consistent principle. In a conversation between Groucho Marx and William Buckley, Groucho excused a contradiction by quoting Thoreau: "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." At this Buckley rolled his eyes and corrected Groucho with the exact quote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." True consistency is a sign of wisdom from heaven. As the situations of your life unfold, do you consciously step back to take an impartial look at the situation? Do you try to consistently apply biblical principles to the issues of your life, and of the lives of those around you?

        Finally, Christian wisdom is sincere, without hypocrisy. James wants transparent sincerity to fill the life of the believer. Jill Briscoe tells the true story of a British factory worker who was excited that after many years of marriage, he and his wife were going to have their first child. The man eagerly relayed the good news to his fellow workers. He told them God had answered his prayers. But they made fun of him for asking God for a child. When the baby was born, he was diagnosed with Down's syndrome. As the father returned to work he wondered how to face his co_workers. "God, please give me wisdom," As he feared, some said mockingly, "So, God gave you this child!" The new father stood for a long time, silently asking God for help. At last he said, "I'm glad the Lord gave this child to me and not to you."

        Having given the seven qualities of heavenly wisdom, James now reaches for a fitting summary, using what most believe to be a popular proverb: “peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” The sense is “peacemakers produce, in the atmosphere of peace they create, the harvest or fruit of righteousness.” Conduct pleasing to God cannot be produced in a climate of bitterness and selfish ambition. Righteousness can only grow in a climate of peace. Those who create such a climate are assured by Jesus of their reward: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’

        Like James, I want to close these thoughts with a true example of peacemaking. But I think it also shows a lot of what we have said today. The foolish person lives selfishly and sows discord. The wise person lives humbly and sows peace.

        As a new Christian, Ted was enthusiastic about his salvation and had tried to talk to his co_workers about Christ. But Ted and his supervisor, Joan, had never gotten along, especially since Ted continually tried to tell her how to run her department. As her frustration toward Ted increased, Joan gave him strenuous assignments, though she knew he had a back problem. Eventually he injured his back and had to leave work for several months. Though he received some disability, Ted lost several thousand dollars in wages and medical expenses. As a result, he filed a lawsuit against Joan and the agency.

         As the lawsuit moved slowly through the courts, Ted told a friend about his situation. The friend challenged him to take a hard look at his own contribution. By God's grace, Ted was able to see several things he had done to cause the conflict with Joan. After a short time, Ted decided to drop his lawsuit without accepting a settlement offer that had been made. He felt that laying down his right to restitution would be an effective way to model the mercy and forgiveness he had received from God.

        The next morning, Ted went to talk with Joan. He admitted that he had been disrespectful, arrogant, and rude, and he asked for her forgiveness. Joan seemed suspicious of his motives and didn’t say anything in response. Ted explained that he was dropping his lawsuit and that he hoped they could start over and learn to work together in the future. More suspicious than ever, Joan asked why he was doing this. He replied, "I became a Christian a year ago, and God is slowly helping me to face up to a lot of my faults, including those that contributed to the problems between you and me. God has also shown me that his love and forgiveness for me is absolutely free and that I can do nothing to earn or deserve it. Since he has done that for me, I decided I want to act the same toward you." Amazed by his answer, Joan mumbled something like, “Oh, I see. Well, let's let bygones be bygones.”

        Although Joan's response wasn't quite what Ted had hoped for, word of their meeting got around. The next day a union representative who had heartily supported the lawsuit confronted Ted and asked whether he had really dropped his case. When Ted said yes, the man asked, "Is it true you did it because you're a Christian?" Ted again said yes, and the man's scowl turned to puzzlement. He said to a bystander, "Well, that's the first time I've ever seen a Christian's faith cost him anything."

        Like ripples in a pond, the effect of Ted's decision moved slowly through the department. A few days after Ted dropped his lawsuit, two co_workers asked to meet with him weekly over lunch to discuss the Bible. Later other co_workers asked him about his faith. For the first time Ted felt he was helping people learn about God's love. Although Joan continued to treat Ted rudely at times, he learned to submit to her authority and to use her provocations as further opportunities to show God's work in his life. When she was replaced a few months later, there was no doubt in Ted's mind who had arranged for him to have a more pleasant and supportive boss.

        Do you see how this all fits? Ted, this person none of us know, but a real person, acted foolishly and selfishly and sowed discord and suspicion. But then, as he learned God wisdom and understanding, he humbled himself, acted on it, and sowed peace. My prayer is that you and I might do the same in the real situations of our lives.