Summary: These verses put our hearts in the dock. God wants to cast out earthly unspiritual wisdom. He wants us full of his heavenly, considerate, merciful wisdom.
(This illustration comes from Simon Coupland’s Book Spicing up your speaking):
Robert Greene wrote a self-help manual for people who want to be amongst life’s winners. He called it ‘The 48 laws of Power’. Here are some of his 48 laws:
Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies. Conceal your intentions. Always say less than necessary. Court attention at all cost. Get others to do the work for you & always take the credit. Avoid the unhappy and the unlucky. Learn to keep people dependant on you. Crush your enemy totally. Do not commit to anyone. Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following. Discover each man’s thumbscrew; everyone has a weakness. Be Royal in your own fashion; act like a King to be treated like one. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter! He adds: “I hate to tell you but the real fools are the ones who take the values of decency and morality too seriously. The need for power and control is the most elementary human need. There is something deep in the core of human beings …insecurity, vanity, the urge to dominate and survive – that will never change. Learn to get power and you will be a better happier human being!
It has been said that, ‘the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart’. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. In James 3:3-12 James the half-brother of Jesus has been writing to believers to remind them of the problem of the human tongue; ‘with the tongue we praise our Lord and father, and with it we curse men [and women] who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing’ and James simply says to us, ‘my brothers and sisters this should not be’ (3:9-10).In other words for us as believers there is a right way to conduct ourselves and there is also a wrong way to conduct ourselves. It is as if the Bible author – in this instance James – wants to look each of us in the eye, face to face, and challenge our speech, what we say and how we say it, and then to challenge our hearts.
Bible commentator William Macdonald says James puts our faith on trial. In verses 13-18 our faith is put on trial with regard to the type of wisdom we manifest in our daily lives – either heavenly godly wisdom (3:17) or the alternative which is earthly, unspiritual, devilish wisdom (3:14) like that of Robert Greene.
On Thursday evening I gave a short talk at Barking Deanery Synod about the Essex Clergy Charity Corporation for which I am a representative. After my short talk Stephen Cottrell the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke in very moving terms about his disappointment that the legislation to introduce Women Bishops has still not been passed, despite the fact that the vast majority of people in the Church are in favour of it. He then went on to give an inspirational talk about our four strategic priorities as a Church, and our call to be a Transforming Presence as a Church and as individual people. Priority number one is: ‘Inhabiting the world distinctively’.
What is it about Christians that marks us out as different, attractive, as people who follow Jesus? James highlights ‘the wisdom that comes from heaven’ (3:17). It is distinctive. People that are full of heaven’s wisdom are very different to people who are full of ‘earthly, unspiritual’ wisdom (3:15). Distinctive living is high on the agenda of James. It is a strategic priority for us as a Church to inhabit the world distinctively and this letter of James will help us.
I want to start by saying what heavenly wisdom is not! It is not to do with knowledge. It is highly likely that the letter of James was, in part, addressing churches where groups and individuals had fallen out with each other; and with the inability of Synod to approve Women Bishops this week we have a contemporary example. It’s been reported that some of the speeches on both sides at synod – a tiny minority – came across as rigid, unyielding and unloving towards people who disagreed with the speech-giver.
No wonder James writes (3:1), ‘Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.’ It seems that then as now some Bible teachers were being over-presumptuous and were claiming to have special wisdom and knowledge. James confronts this problem – and let’s be clear it was not a challenge it was a problem! He confronts it (verse 13) with a question: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” and ears would have pricked up; but this was not a naming and shaming. He has already said in his letter, ‘my dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (1:19) and later in the letter he will say, ‘Brothers, do not slander one another’ (4:11). This was no time for pointing fingers at one another, but it was a call for each and every believer to consider their own hearts.