Summary: Many churches operate with demonic wisdom rather than with heavenly wisdom. James confronts us, calling us to recognise the evil that can destroy us.
“If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
One of the saddest events I ever witnessed in a church setting occurred because an elder rejected godly wisdom, instead, embracing wisdom from another source. The man had only been appointed to eldership when his wife began to repeatedly clash with congregational leaders. When confronted about her repeated conflicts, she became enraged and resigned from membership and withdrew from all positions within the congregation. Of course, this placed the elder in the untenable position of attempting to provide spiritual leadership for the church when he was unable to exercise a modicum of leadership within his own home.
Pressed to withdraw from eldership, he complained bitterly that he was forced out. Within any congregation that is pursuing God, there at any given time will be individuals who are dissatisfied and discontented. This former elder sought out such people and over a period of months conducted a corrosive campaign maligning the pastor and fomenting rebellion among such disgruntled individuals. Finally, the discontent broke out in open rebellion, eventually leading to the triumph of wickedness within the congregation and the withdrawal of the pastor. Witnessing the fury that this erstwhile elder had stirred up, an impartial observer would have questioned whether these individuals could have ever been Christians.
Suppose that congregation had called a meeting to ask James for advice. What do you suppose the brother of our Lord would have said to that church? They would have found James to be a tough realist, confronting the urge to destroy that lies within the heart of each individual. We like to imagine ourselves wise, and we are each quick to establish our position as the right one in any conflict. We are masters at justifying our own attitudes and statements, but James will not let any of us justify ourselves. Rather, James compels us to look to a perfect standard that is established by the Living God.
AN APPEAL FOR WISE PEOPLE — As he begins this section of the letter, James asks a rhetorical question that is at once designed to expose those possessing false wisdom and to challenge those possessing godly wisdom to step forward. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” This is the only time in the New Testament that the two concepts appear in concert, although they are commonly found together in the Old Testament.
The first wisdom James describes will ultimately be identified as demonic wisdom. Because he is contrasting wisdom that the world esteems with the wisdom that God provides, his instruction is of immense relevance among the churches today. Worldly “wisdom” tells us that positive thinking, self-promotion, and tapping into hidden internal resources will bring happiness, excellence, and success. Such thinking is not just “out there” in the world; it is taken for granted among the churches. Like the original readers of James, we have yet to exchange worldly views of power and importance for God’s viewpoint.
James then speaks of another type of wisdom, a heavenly common sense that is in direct opposition to the thinking of this age. This divine wisdom seeks peace, not success. It desires purity, not happiness. It shows itself in willingness to yield to others, a sharp contrast to ambitious self-promotion. We will consider this godly wisdom in a future message. For now, however, we need to focus attention on what passes as wisdom in this age.
When thinking about wisdom we need to establish that wisdom is demonstrated through what is done rather than through what is said. Wisdom, in James’ estimate, spoke of possessing moral insight; and understanding spoke of knowledge possessed by one who was expert in the use of that knowledge. Wisdom dealt with practical, moral insight based upon the knowledge of God and His Word. It had to do with practical advice on practical issues of conduct. James is using wisdom in its Jewish concept not in its Greek concept that spoke of the mere accumulation of abstract knowledge. In other words, James is saying that it will be obvious who is “wise and understanding” through what is done rather than through what is said.
Those who are “wise and understanding” within the congregation are enjoined to show their works through their good conduct, or good behaviour. Moreover, this good conduct must be exercised with meekness that reflects the wisdom possessed. Hold this thought in mind—works, not words, is the test of wisdom. Wisdom is not merely something I possess in my head; if I am wise at all, I will demonstrate wisdom through my conduct. Like the Word that is powerful to save which is implanted by God in the heart of the believer [JAMES 1:21], the wisdom from above [JAMES 1:17] gives birth to deeds and to a way of life that grows in understanding. A good life is one typified by “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”