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3:13Who 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.
In this section of his Epistle, James speaks concerning true wisdom, the wisdom that comes from heaven. He catches our attention by asking: "Who is wise and understanding among you?" James is asking about two characteristices: knowledge (or understanding) and the proper use of it (which is wisdom). Knowledge informs; wisdom directs. The two should go hand-in-hand. In fact, each by itself is ineffective. Knowledge by itself merely feeds one's ego, as Paul states: "Knowledge puffs up" (I Cor. 8:1); wisdom by itself is useless, having no substance to act upon. Unfortunately, the two are all too seldom found together.
Now, we would all naturally desire to answer James' question: "Me! I have wisdom and understanding!"; however, whether we are worthy to answer in this way can be determined by the way that we act. James states that the person who is truly wise, will "show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom". The proof of wisdom is the proper use of it, as demonstrated by a good life, lived in humility. This is contrary to the way that the worldly wise display their wisdom and knowledge. Most attempt to display these things through arguments and boasting. The worldly wise are eager to dispute and debate, displaying their wisdom by degrading another man's.
The truly wise man does not puff himself up or make express efforts to parade his knowledge. His goal in a discussion is not to display his understanding and wisdom, but to shed light on the situation through his understanding and wisdom. His goal is not to claim victory in a discussion, but that both parties would be edified by the dialogue. Many times it is not the one who claims victory that truly wins an argument in God's eyes. The true victor is the one who displays the "humility that comes from wisdom". To do this, it is necessary, at times, to walk away from a discussion that is beginning to turn bitter or to refrain from insisting on getting in the last word. Indeed, the truly wise and knowledgeable have a greater obligation to use their God-given gift of wisdom properly, in the way prescribed here in God's Word.
One can discern in his own heart whether his wisdom is ungodly or is from God by determining whether his wisdom is accompanied by "bitter envy and selfish ambition" or not. Is the goal of your display of wisdom to show someone else up? Is the goal to show others how smart you are, to raise their estimation of you? This is ungodly wisdom, full of "envy and selfish ambition". Again, the goal of wisdom that is from heaven, on the contrary, is to build others up, to increase their knowledge and bring them into a greater understanding of the things of God.
If we have ungodly wisdom, wisdom full of "envy and selfish ambition", James tells us: "Do not boast about it or deny the truth." Some are proud of their displays of knowledge; they are proud to show others up; they brag about how they were victorious in an argument, leaving the other party speechless. James warns us not to "boast about" such wisdom, for it is ungodly wisdom. Still others, while not boasting, relish in their hearts their displays of knowledge, their intellectual victories in arguments, all the while claiming to have true wisdom. James warns us not to "deny the truth", for such wisdom is, again, ungodly.
As James puts it: "Such `wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil." Here, James gives us the characteristics and origin of ungodly wisdom. In character, such wisdom is "earthly" and "unspiritual". It is concerned with this world and the things of this world, not spiritual matters. It is concerned with gaining worldly esteem, not growing in spiritual maturity. The wisdom of the world and the wisdom from heaven are at odds with each other. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?...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. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" (I Cor. 1:18, 22-25).
The origin of worldly wisdom is, as James states, "of the devil". Satan is the author of worldly wisdom, seeking to undermine the work of God through the wisdom of world. So many of the worldly wise enjoy scoffing at God's people and the things of the Lord. In fact, many academic disciplines, in developing theories about the workings of the creation, begin with the premise that there is no God. It is no wonder then that their conclusions leave so little room for Him.
Make no mistake, Satan is "full of wisdom" (see Ezek. 28:12) and so, we must be careful. Satan can even use God's people to do his work through worldly wisdom when we attempt to defend the things of God with a worldly attitude. The end result is actually to turn people away from God because of the manner in which our "defense" of God was presented.
The fruit of ungodly wisdom is not only "envy" and "selfish ambition", but also "disorder and every evil practice". As is so often the case, the key to discerning that which is true is by examining its fruit. Godly wisdom is edifying; ungodly wisdom results in confusion and evil. Ungodly wisdom so often leads to sin: pride, blasphemy, derision, slander, etc. This is in contrast to Godly wisdom, which is, as James points out, "first of all pure". The primary fruit of true wisdom is purity of heart and purity of life. And "how can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to Your Word." (Psalm 119:9). The best use of wisdom and the way to be pure is to study and obey the Word of God. To the extent that one ignores the teachings in the Word of God, he is lacking in true wisdom.
James goes on to enumerate additional fruits of wisdom that comes from heaven. Such wisdom is also "peace-loving". True wisdom avoids rather than stirs up strife. "True Christians will strive to keep peace, to make peace, to preserve where it is."[Footnote #6] To be "peace-loving" is to be like God. Christ said: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Matt. 5:9). Christ, though He was to be betrayed, instituted the sacrament of communion, making peace with man; and while He was being crucified, He prayed for His murderers. God, though wronged by man since the beginning of creation, answered that prayer of Christ and made peace with man through Jesus Christ.
One cannot claim to have Godly wisdom if he is not peaceloving. In order to keep the peace, at times one must allow the other party to be incorrect. "A man may err in logic that doth not err in faith."[Footnote #7] In most situations, it is better to walk away from a discussion rather than allow it to escalate into an argument.
Note the priority that James gives, though. True wisdom is "first of all pure, then peaceloving". Purity should not be sacrificed for peace. One must not, in the interest of peace, give the impression that he condones something that is not pure. If he does, he may make peace with man, but he violates peace with God.
True wisdom is also "considerate" and "submissive". It is "considerate" in that it is willing to listen to the other's point of view in a respectful manner. It is "submissive" in that it will consider that viewpoint and give up one's own view when it is clear that the opposite view is correct. Those who are truly wise are not afraid to admit that they were wrong; on the contrary, the goal being light, they willingly embrace a view that was not originally their own if it turns out that it is the correct view.
Wisdom from heaven is also "full of mercy". It will respectfully lead people into the truth, rather than intellectually "beating them into submission". Along the same lines, true wisdom will gracefully forgive those who are found to be wrong.
The truly wise do not merely know the truth, but they practice it. As James says, they are "full of ... good fruit". Head knowledge is not enough and is, indeed, worthless in and of itself. We must act upon the knowledge that we have, living a life that reflects our God-given wisdom.
Those who have wisdom from heaven are also "impartial". They will not rate a point of view based upon the fame or fortune of the one who expresses it, but solely upon the merits of the viewpoint itself. In general, we as Christians are not to show partiality based upon external circumstances. However, I believe that we can trust the counsel and advice of a fellow Christian, who is well-instructed in the things of God, over a non-Christian.
Finally, those who are truly wise are to be "sincere". Our behavior should reflect what we truly believe. As a seventeenth century commentator put it: "In true wisdom there is much light, but no guile...We should be as willing to do them good, as to proffer it; to reprove, as to flatter; to pray to God for them in secret, as to make professions of respect to themselves."[Footnote #8]
To conclude, James makes a final statement about being "peace-loving". He encourages such an attitude, by pointing out: "Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." I believe that James highlights the "peace-loving" trait of true wisdom for two reasons: first, peace-loving is a trait that is so often absent from those who are worldly wise; second, peacemaking is a thankless job. Those who try to make peace between warring parties are usually scorned by both sides. So, James gives an extra word of encouragement to those who are "peace-loving", reminding them that they will reap what they sow. Again, Christ specifically said: "Blessed are the peacemakers".
Now, James tells us much about the characteristics of wisdom that is from heaven, but he does not here tell us how we may receive such wisdom. However, in chapter one, he explicitly states: "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5). So, seek this wisdom through prayer.
So, Father, we humbly ask You for the wisdom that is from heaven. Give us such wisdom that would exemplify all the characteristics that You have specified through Your servant James. Help us to realize the danger of depending on our own worldly wisdom; guide us into listening only to the wisdom that is from You. We praise You and thank You that You make this wisdom available so generously, just for the asking. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
6. Manton, A Commentary on James, pg. 314.
7. Ibid., pg. 318.
8. Ibid., pg. 320-321.
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