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James 3:13-18: Wisdom and How We Relate Print E-mail
Sunday, 26 April 2009

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Sometimes report cards for schools include a section on conduct.  When I was a kid our report cards would open like our bulletins and on one side would be the grades and on the other side would be the conduct section, with room for commenting on the back.  One of the items that was considered read something like this: ‘Works well with others.’  You could get a ‘grade’ of satisfactory, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory, if I remember right.  Apparently, someone in the public school system thought it was important for us kids to get along with each other.

Yet, what about the community of faith?  Do we need to be concerned about how we get along with each other in the Church?  Does how we relate to one another say anything about our faith and our following of Christ?  The Bible makes it clear that it does.  In fact, we often see in the New Testament that our treatment of others reveals the truth about our relationship with God (see 1 John and the call to love our brothers).  Now, I am in no way suggesting that we pass out report cards and fall head-long into legalism, but we do need to make the connection between our relationship to others and our relationship to God.

We have already seen this connection in the book of James.  He has called us to show no partiality against the poor whom God has chosen to be rich in the world (2:1-5).  He asked if true faith in God will ignore a brother in need and his implied answer was ‘no’ (2:14-17).  And as we looked at last week, James tells us that we should not praise the Lord and curse our fellow man with the same mouth.  Thus, there is a connection between our relationship to one another and our relationship to God.  In our passage this morning, he focuses on the idea of wisdom, and more specifically, wisdom from above.  Look at verse 13.  James says that true wisdom will show itself by good deeds.  What good deeds does he have in mind here?  He will go on to speak of our treatment of others.  Thus, the connection he makes is this: true wisdom from above will evidence itself by how we relate to other people.  James says that wisdom is not just measured by how much we know, but how we act and specifically how we act towards others.  So then, what does this wisdom from above look like in our relationships?

First, wisdom from above is not jealous and selfish (v. 14-16).

Before James tells us what true wisdom is, he begins by telling us what it is not.  Look at verses 14-15.  James speaks against two attitudes that reveal our lack of wisdom: bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.  These two go together and are results of pride and arrogance.  We assume that we deserve what another person has, so we have bitter jealousy toward them.  We see another person succeed and we wonder why we have not experienced the same.  Or we value ourselves and our lives and our families so much that we simply ignore others and their needs.  We want what we want and we are not going to let anyone get in our way.  James tells us that such attitudes do not display wisdom from above, but are rather earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  This list moves from bad to worse and shows us just how bad jealousy and selfishness are. 

The interesting thing to note is that these attitudes are seen as wise by many in our culture.  We are told consistently to ‘look out for number one.’  ‘If you want anything in this life, then you have to take,’ goes the advice of the world.  Everything is about competition and besting our opponents, be they fellow students, co-workers, or neighbors.  We have to do whatever it takes to get ahead and leave the competition behind.  And when we do, the world congratulates us and calls us successful.

But James tells us the truth about this kind of ‘wisdom.’  He tells us where it leads.  Look at verse 16.  In the midst of these attitudes you will find only disorder and every vile practice.  Jealousy and selfish ambition will lead us to manipulate, cheat, lie, gossip, whatever it takes to win.  When getting ahead of others becomes the only virtue, then all the other true virtues are left to the wind.  The only thing left is disorder and all sorts of evil.

We need to recognize this morning that our relationships to one another will greatly impact this Church.  You simply cannot be ‘alright with God’ and at odds with your fellow believers.  When such an approach is taken in a Church setting, then disorder and evil will result.  It may not be as ugly on the surface as it is in the world, but it will be ugly nonetheless.  I have been thinking about this a lot here lately due to our work on our Covenant.  A Church covenant should specifically deal with our commitments to one another as Christians.  It should call us to avoid selfish pursuits and jealousy.  It should call us to exercise wisdom from above, which is what James goes on to describe in the rest of our passage.  He has told us what true wisdom is not characterized by, namely jealousy and selfishness, and now tells us what it does look like.

Second, wisdom from above is pure, peaceful, and humble (v. 17-18).

James corrects an unfortunate error in his first statement about wisdom from above in verse 17.  Look at that with me.  What does wisdom have to do with purity?  Purity refers to holiness and obedience to God and James wants us to see that wisdom flows from these.  The wisest man is the one who obeys his Creator.  The error that often comes when we are thinking about the connection between our relationship with God and our relationships with others sounds like this: ‘God wants me to love other people, so I am not about to speak to them about sin or judgment.  God wants me to have peace with my fellow man, so it will be wise for me to just live and let live.’  James corrects this error by telling us that wisdom from above is first of all pure.  It is not peace or unity at all costs.  Derek Webb says it this way in his song ‘I Repent’: “I repent, I repent of trading truth for false unity, I repent, I repent of confusing peace and idolatry.”  We must repent of such errors as well.  We must be committed as a Church and as individuals to never give up purity for the sake of peace or unity.  Such action might appear to be wise, but James makes it clear that it is not.

Going on in verse 17, James follows the charge to be pure with six more descriptive statements about wisdom from above.  Let’s consider them individually and then collectively.  First, wisdom is peaceable.  Again, this is not peace at all costs, but true wisdom will strive for peace while holding on to the truth of God’s Word.  Since James speaks of peace again in verse 18, I see this as central to the rest of his description of true wisdom.  Second, wisdom is gentle, or it could be translated ‘considerate.’  It considers others and does not beat them over the head with the truth.  Third, wisdom is open to reason.  I think this communicates the idea of being teachable.  Wisdom does not dig in its heels and refuse to listen to the arguments of others.  Maybe we could say that it is not stubborn or set in its ways.  Fourth, wisdom is full of mercy and good fruits.  I group these together because they are linked by the term translated full.  Wisdom does show mercy or good fruits on occasion.  No, wisdom is full of these.  Fifth, wisdom is impartial, or undivided.  Wisdom is not double-minded.  In this way it can also be said to be pure.  Finally, wisdom is sincere.  It is genuine in its relationships with others.  Wisdom does not put on an act or just say what it thinks people want to hear.

If we put all of these together, I think we can summarize by saying that wisdom is humble.  James says this in verse 13 when he first describes wisdom in this passage.  The good conduct and good deeds that wisdom causes us to do will be done in meekness.  Pride and arrogance drives out true wisdom, while humility and meekness reveal it and are results of it.  If we are going to have wisdom from above in our relationships with others, then we must be humble.

What does true wisdom from above lead to?  James tells us in verse 18.  Look at that with me.  Jealousy and selfish ambition leads to disorder and evil.  But wisdom from above, which is pure, peaceful, and humble, leads to a harvest of righteousness.  The results of practicing true wisdom  are glorious, while the results of practicing worldly wisdom are nothing short of evil.  In short, the results are opposite.  One leads to destruction and the other leads to life.  I pray that we would be a people who understand what is at stake in our relationships to each other and would thus labor for true wisdom from above which will lead to true peace.

I have often said that every passage of Scripture points us to Christ.  Yet, what is the connection between wisdom from above, which is evidenced through purity, peace, and humility in our relationships, and the person and work of Jesus Christ?  Let me mention two to close. 

First, Jesus is the ultimate example of wisdom from above.  We could point to Solomon as the Old Testament example of a person with great wisdom, but it is Christ who was indeed wisdom in the flesh.  In light of the present passage, we see that it is Christ who was pure, peaceful, and humble in His relationships with others.  He was not afraid to speak the truth to the Pharisees, calling them to faith and true righteousness.  And even though He was the Lord of all, He was not too proud to welcome the little children.  Thus, He is the greatest example that we have of practicing the wisdom that James describes here. 

Second, it is through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that we too can practice such wisdom.  How in the world are we ever going to stop living for ourselves and watching out for number one?  By repenting of our sins and trusting in Christ we can have victory over jealousy and selfishness.  By remembering His humility and His self-sacrifice, we can freely give ourselves to the service of others.  Paul describes it like this: He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).  Jesus is our wisdom.  He is our example for living and He, along with the Father, is the very source of our lives.  Just as Solomon was given the gift of wisdom from above, so we are given wisdom through the gift of Christ.  I encourage you to examine your heart and life for the wisdom that James describes here.  Ask the Lord to give you wisdom by giving you purity, peace, and humility in your relationships.  Look to Christ as your example and your power to live a life of true wisdom from above.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Saturday, 09 May 2009 )

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