In his introduction to the book of James in The Message Bible, Eugene Peterson states, “Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is skill in living. For what good is a truth if we don’t know how to live it? What good is an intention if we can’t sustain it?” This book (James) is a the letter James wrote to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations (hence, to all the followers of Jesus Christ in his day), and it packs a lot of instruction on dealing with trials and temptations, listening and doing, favoritism forbidden, faith and deeds, taming the tongue, two kinds of wisdom, submitting yourselves to God, boasting about tomorrow, a warning to rich oppressors, having patience in suffering, and the prayer of faith in five chapters. The focus for this post in on the two kinds of wisdom found in James 3:13-18. Let’s look at those verses:
“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.”
The Message Bible states these verses like this: “13-16Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.
“17-18Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”
The first kind of wisdom we find is “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil” (James 3:15)– harboring bitter envy; selfish and mean-spirited ambition; boasting and twisting the truth to make ourselves look better than others–which causes disorder and “every evil practice” where everyone ends up at each others’ throats. Essentially, it’s all about looking out for ourselves above and beyond anyone else including God, and we are all very capable of doing this. And it comes in all kinds of disguises–like gossip, passive-aggressive behavior, pride and arrogance, and any type of behavior that is “me first.”
And yes, it’s pretty ugly. And we all do it from time to time in it’s various forms because it is a focus on self, and not on others and on God. And we all know people who have turned some of these behaviors into an art form. ‘Nough said. We all do it. Ugly, ugly, ugly . . .
Now let’s look at the second form of wisdom–wisdom that comes from God (James 3:17-18). This form of wisdom is:
–Full of mercy and good fruit
–Produces a harvest of righteousness
It is “gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced” and it “treats each other with dignity and honor” (James 3:17-18 MSG). It is not totally absorbed in self!
This second form of wisdom, God’s wisdom, is far superior then any wisdom we think we have, but how do we get there and stay there without our “self” taking over and causing all kinds of trouble in our relationships with others? The key is found 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.”
“Humility that comes from wisdom . . . .” I’m currently reading one of the best books on the subject of humility by William Farley titled “Gospel-Powered Humility” (P&R Publishing, 2011). Humility is not something that we hear about very much in Christian circles today nor has it been for the past few decades. But it is at the core of our problem–the problem of pride and self. Here’s a quote from the back cover of the book:
“Humility is not a popular concept in our world today. It is seen as weakness in a culture that prizes self-esteem and validation. Unfortunately, these worldly attitudes about humility have leaked into and influenced the church as well.
“Far from being a weakness, humility is the crucial virtue. Not only is it integral to the processes of conversion and sanctification, but from it’s soil sprout the fruit of the Spirit. Yet many Christians are unaware of this crucial connection and do not see the implications of humility in witnessing, counseling, and preaching.”
Most people do not understand the connection between humility and truly living this life as God intended for us to live it. Pride blinds us and keeps us from God and truly serving others. While the author states that the primary target audience for this book is for “everyone doing Christian ministry,” it is an excellent resource for all of us in the moment-by-moment living out of our lives as “living witnesses” in everything we think, do, and say every single day. And, this book gets to the core of the issue of humility that is at the core of our relationship with Jesus Christ that is so vitally needed in the Church today.
For decades now the Church has focused on issues of “self-esteem” and forgotten about the subject of humility. The author states that “faith that does not provoke humility, causing it to sprout and grow, is unlikely to be a saving faith” (Ibid, p. 12) and that ought to cause us great concern in our “me” centered church environments where the focus has shifted to us and what we can get or expect from God.
In the past few decades the Church at large in America has been so focused on the culture that we have become friends with the world and all that it offers. No wonder the subject of humility has lost favor in the Church. James has some very hard-hitting words for us about this very topic in James 4:4-10:
“4You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? 6But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
‘God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.’
“7Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
Ouch!!! When was the last time we heard a sermon on that topic, yet it is absolutely vital to our relationship with God and others and ourselves. As William Farley notes, “Spiritual pride is the great temptation of religious people.” He continues, “Here’s the bottom line. Since God’s activity always humbles, and since spiritual pride hates to be humbled, it resists God’s work” (Ibid, p. 34). The Pharisees were a prime example of this.
“Biblical faith always initiates a humbling process” (Ibid, p. 29). So let us remember:
“For the LORD takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4).
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