Posted on May 27, 2015
James 3:13-18—Two Ways to be Wise
Last week’s study covered control of our tongues—an uncomfortable subject that steps on our toes. At some point we’ve all spoken words we regret, words that hurt someone, words that set off a sad chain reaction.
This two-line lyric from Christian musician Matt Theissen expresses the problem well:
“I’ve never broken bones with a stone or a stick
but I’ve conjured up a phrase that can cut to the quick.” *
One little phrase can do irreparable damage, wounding in ways no stone or stick ever could.
A tongue unleashed is deadly, especially when it’s the verbal gate for a heart full of bitterness or selfish ambition. A bad state of heart produces a bad set of words (Luke 6:45). So, right on the heels of his warning about the tongue, James discusses wisdom—and the difference between living “heaven-wise” (God’s wisdom) and “world-wise” (satan’s counterfeit).
I hope by now you’ve read through the entire book of James at least once (better yet, once per week!) to set each week’s study into the book’s big picture. Today, we’re going to focus on just six verses. Take a moment to read James 3:13-18, paying attention to two kinds of wisdom James describes.
James says there is false wisdom and true wisdom. Let’s take a quick look at each, remembering that when James is writing this letter, he’s addressing Christians. We can—and often do—settle for pseudo-wisdom, allowing ourselves to be duped into believing that the way we’re behaving is good, justified, wise. We can—and often do—infest our churches with earthly thinking, to satan’s delight. We must be careful, check our motives, open our eyes.
What ten terms does the Holy Spirit—through James’ pen—use to define false wisdom?
• earthly (v. 15)—bound to earth. I like what commentator Larry Richards writes about this word: “…unable to go beyond the limits of this world to gain the perspective on spiritual realities which guides the believer.” If we wonder what God thinks about a Christian whose “wisdom” doesn’t go beyond the limits of this world, who doesn’t live according to the Spirit, reading Romans 8:5-14 will quickly give us the picture.
• demonic (v. 15)—tied to satan and his three-fold strategy to make us see things through earthly eyes: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and his pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16, NIV).
• unspiritual (v. 15)—natural; animal-like. The brute beast doesn’t think spiritually; we wouldn’t expect it to! But humans are not beasts—we are spirit-ual beings, made in the image of God. We call it tragic when men respond to life’s circumstances like animals—for example, in the senseless, destructive behavior we recently saw in Ferguson, Missouri. The rioters’ “wisdom” said, “Make ’em pay for what they did to us”—without reasoning that the random people whose property they were harming had no connection to their perceived wrong. Some of the rioters were just part of the mob—no “cause” for which they were battling, just an excuse to loot. Many news reports called their actions “animalistic”—the same idea as the word James uses here.
• rooted in bitter envy (v. 14, 16)—sharp, vicious, ugly jealousy. Like a heat-seeking missile, it zeros in on any person who seems to be getting ahead.
• rooted in selfish ambition (v. 14, 16)—a strong desire or lust that leads to rivalry and manipulation. The Greek word comes from a word meaning “to spin wool”—doing something that has an agenda beyond that action. Jesus must be sickened by the number of churches that have been harmed by selfish ambition, a quest for power that is totally unChristlike.
• arrogant (v. 14)—boastful, proud. A few paragraphs further, James will quote from Proverbs 3:34, “God opposes the proud…” (4:6) Arrogance blocks our relationship with God. Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-14 gives important insight on His view of arrogance; two men prayed, but only one was justified. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It’s much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer than vanity.”
• lying against the truth (v. 14)—an interesting phrase, because every lie is against truth. The liar knows the truth but doesn’t consider it valuable, so covers it over with falsehood. When the truth in question is The Truth, and the lies are coming from a Christian who has professed loyalty to Him, He suffers and His people suffer.
• source of disorder (v. 16)—”standing down;” stepping aside and letting commotion run free. The Bible says God is not a God of disorder but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). Can you see satan lurking in the shadows smirking, when order disintegrates and anarchy reigns among God’s people?
• source of every evil practice (v. 16)—worthless, foul, vile practices that belong to a low order. Nothing here worthy of our high and holy God!
• not from above (v. 15). These qualities are not found in heaven’s halls.
What ten terms does the Holy Spirit use to define true wisdom?
• pure (v. 17)—unalloyed, uncontaminated. Wholly God’s, with only His interests in mind.
• peaceable (v. 17)—Romans 12:18 urges, “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” We may not be able to control what others do, but we can choose peace. We walk away from tense situations, we diffuse arguments, we forego having to be right—for the sake of our Prince of Peace.
• gentle (v. 17)—power under control—or, as one writer put it, “velvet steel.” A gentle person is sweet-tempered and fair, willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.
• reasonable (v. 17)—approachable, compliant, willing to discuss options and to hear other points of view.
• full of mercy (v. 17)—able and willing to meet needs, even when undeserved—and to waive punishments, even when deserved.
• full of good fruits (v. 17)—Fruit is “that which is produced by the inherent energy of a living organism”, with seed for more! When we are Spirit-controlled, the obvious result will be fullness of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) and all that comes with those qualities.
• unwavering (v. 17)—sureness, resolve, poise and confidence, even when all around us is quaking.
• without hypocrisy (v. 17)—sincerity, genuineness. No pretense, no masks, no lies.
• sown in peace (v. 18)—reaping what we’ve sown—peace which begets more peace!
• producing the fruit of righteousness (v. 18)—More fruit! More love, more joy, more peace. More patience, kindness, goodness. More gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
Have you noticed how green and growing and giving heaven’s true wisdom is? This is unselfish, gracious, generous living that purposely looks a lot like the life of Jesus. It is possible to claim the name of Christ and not live like this—but it is not possible to claim the name of Christ, not live like this, and please God. There are two kinds of wisdom, but only one reflects Christ.
Matt Theissen’s lyrics end on this conclusion:
“I’ve gotta keep quiet, quiet, and listen to Your voice
because the power of Your words can repair all I’ve destroyed.
And when I finally do let it come from You
the peace of understanding grips my soul.” *
The key is making sure all our words find their source in His wisdom. Which list of terms best describes you? Which kind of wisdom are you choosing to live by?
• Memorize James 3:17, keeping these characteristics in mind. Over the next few days, compare your actions and attitudes to this list. Are you living heaven-wise? (Don’t forget to review the verses from James that you’ve already learned!)
• Watch for a brewing argument, a complaint, or a tense relationship where you can practice your peacemaking skills. Can you diffuse tension and help find a solution? Read Romans 12:9-21; how does it apply to the situation?
• Read James, then read James 4:1-7 again to prepare for next Wednesday’s study. See you next week!
© Diane McLoud 2015
* From the song “Bite My Tongue”—performed by Reliant K on their album Five Score and Seven Years Ago. Written by Matthew Theissen, © Universal Publishing Group: Music Services, Inc.