“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.”
Noted theologian J. I. Packer shows how many go wrong when thinking about wisdom with an illustration provided by a British railway station. He says that if you stand at the end of a platform you will readily observe the constant movement of trains in and out, but you will only be able to form a general idea of the overall plan of what is going on, catching only glimmers of the subtle minute-by-minute alterations that are part and parcel of a smooth-running station.
However, if you are privileged to be taken into the signal box room, you will see on a long wall a detailed diagram of all the tracks for five miles around the station, with little “glow-worm lights” indicating the position of every engine on the track—some moving slowly or swiftly, some stationary. In a glance you will be able to survey the entire situation through the eyes of those in control. You will see why one engine is signalled to a halt, and why another has been diverted, and why another sits unmoving on a siding. The reasoning for all the movements will become perfectly plain once you see the great diagram and its glowing dots. Says Dr. Packer: “The mistake that is commonly made is to suppose that this is an illustration of what God does when He bestows wisdom: to suppose, in other words, that the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what He has done in a particular case, and what He is going to do next.”
People who think this is what wisdom is imagine that if they walk close enough to God, they will be in God’s signal box and will understand everything that happens. Such people are always analyzing the events of life: why this or that happened, whether specific happenings are signs to stop, park on a siding, or go ahead. When they are confused, they suppose themselves to have a spiritual problem. It is true that God sometimes uses unusual signs to confirm the way we should go, but this is very different from getting a message from every unusual thing that comes our way.
Dr. Packer explains that the experience of God’s wisdom is like learning to drive a car. When driving it is important to make appropriate responses to the constantly changing situation, to exercise soundness of judgment regarding speed, distance and braking. If you are going to drive well, you must not fret over the highway engineer’s reasoning for an S curve, the philosophy which produced red, green, and yellow traffic lights, or why the lady in front of you is accelerating while her foot is on the brake. Rather, “You simply try to see and do the right thing in the actual situation that presents itself. The effect of divine wisdom is to enable you and me to do just that in the actual situations of life.” In order to drive well, you need to keep your eyes wide open to what is before you and use your head. In a similar manner, if you will live wisely, you must be clear-eyed about people and life, seeing life as it is, and then responding with a mind that is dependent on the wisdom of God.
Being wise does not mean we understand everything that is going on because of our superior knowledge; rather it means that we do the right thing as life comes along. Some drivers may have immense knowledge about everything, but they cannot drive well at all. Other drivers who are less knowledgeable consistently do the right thing as they wisely drive through life.
James does not merely call for good conduct, but he informs us that humility is the character trait underlying the behaviour anticipated in the wise. The Bible I am using translates the Greek as “meekness,” which is unfortunate. Meek, in contemporary English thought, conveys the concept of weakness or passivity. However, the term spoke of humility; it presented a concept of strength under control. A horse is so much more powerful than a man; but many of those strong horses are said to be well trained and gentle. Their strength is under control. This “meekness” (prautēs) is one of the fruits of the Spirit [GALATIANS 5:23, “gentleness”]. It is expected of all Christians in their walk before the Lord [EPHESIANS 4:2; COLOSSIANS 3:12]. Jesus identifies Himself as gentle [MATTHEW 11:29] and presented Himself to the Jews as the “humble” King [MATTHEW 21:5]. Humility, or meekness, is a Christian virtue modelled after Christ’s own life in which He served others, sacrificed Himself and sought the Father’s will.
Humility is a central theme concerning all that James expects of those to whom he writes. Christians are first enjoined to received the implanted Word with humility [JAMES 1:21]. As we have seen through our studies in James to this point, humbly accepting the Word means doing the Word. Thus, humility describes a submissive readiness to do what the Word says, with “works [done] in … meekness” [VERSE 13]. In the passage before us, James says that as we exercise humility before God, we become willing to live in peace with one another. The opposite of humility is unwillingness to learn and a refusal to yield. The result of such absence of humility is bitter jealousy and selfish ambition resulting in chaos. According to James, meekness is yielding to a teachable spirit and immediate responsiveness to God’s Word, which results in a good and selfless life with other people who share the Faith.
James began this chapter by cautioning, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” [JAMES 3:1]. The problem of teachers spreading the error of false doctrine is not under scrutiny (as was often the case when Paul wrote), but it is arrogance that is in view. Even one teaching correct doctrine can have an attitude of arrogance. I can be correct in my doctrine down to the most esoteric details; I can attain a consistency in my orthodoxy which surpasses others; I can gain a reputation for my thorough grasp of theology and be regarded as a protector of the faith; and my teaching may still be “earthly, unspiritual, demonic,” resulting in “disorder and every vile practise” by stirring up suspicion, slander, distrust and contention within the Christian community.
Godly teachers are wise teachers who not only provide sound instruction, but live as humble servants of the True and Living God. It is not easy to be genuinely humble, and it cannot be faked. It is real, or it quickly becomes apparent that it is contrived. Few Christians face the perils of those who teach; teachers become used to people accepting what they say. It is in no small measure that because of my fear that I may slip into arrogance that I ask those who hear me speak to open the Word and see if the things I say are in accord with what is written therein. There are always some who dissent from what is presented, and I encourage dissent, provided that those dissenting have a basis for their disagreement other than their own particular feelings.
Base your conclusions upon the Word of God and you will always rest on a firm foundation. Base your conclusions upon your feelings, or upon how others may perceive you, and you build on shifting sand. The Word will never cause you to stumble, but it will confront any tendency to promote yourself. Are you wise and understanding? You will not need to promote yourself among the people of God; your life will reveal whether you are truly wise and understanding, and those who are following hard after Christ will recognise you as such.
FALSE WISDOM DESCRIBED — How would we recognise the false wisdom that James confronts among the people of God? James gives more of a description than a definition, which is fine since most of us will readily extrapolate from the description to form a general understanding of what is implied. In order to understand fully the will of God for us, it will be beneficial for us to explore this description James provides. Again, bear in mind that the verses under scrutiny at this moment immediately follow James’ warnings about the untamed tongue. James will list three aspects characterising false wisdom, and each evidence arises from abuse of the tongue.
James begins the fourteenth verse with the adversative “but.” He does this to point up the contrast between what God expects of His people and what is too often the case among the churches. God expects good behaviour that reveals humility before Him; this is the essence of wisdom. Contrasted to the humility expected is “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition” should the professed people of God promote themselves as rulers over the congregation.
Kent Hughes tells the story of two men who lived in a certain city. One was envious and the other covetous. The ruler of the city sent for them and said he wanted to grant them one wish each—with this proviso, that the one who chose first would get exactly what he asked for, while the other man would get exactly twice what the first had asked for himself. The envious man was ordered to choose first, but immediately found himself in a quandary. He wanted to choose something great for himself, but realized that if he did so the other would get twice as much. He thought for a while, and then asked that one of his eyes be put out. In the church this type of person could honestly pray, “Lord, I would sooner your work was not done at all than done by someone better than I can do it.”
James confronts the members of the churches as he warns them to ensure that none among them permit themselves to be contaminated with either of three dark stains: “bitter jealousy,” “selfish ambition,” or “boasting and falsity against the truth.” Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition are the opposite of humility, and as surely as smoke flies upward from the fire they lead inevitably to boasting and lying against the truth. The adjective that is translated by our English term “bitter,” speaks of a harsh stance that demands to be recognised as wise rather than being willing to learn. This is jealousy that erupts in the demand for recognition.
The second noun, translated “selfish ambition,” exposes the sinful desire for personal recognition. The word speaks of political ambition in the church. The same word is used by Paul in PHILIPPIANS 1:17, where he speaks of some who think to injure him through preaching out of rivalry (selfish ambition). This attitude brought a party spirit to the churches, resulting in vile little support groups that envenomed one another in sustained attacks.
In the context of the teaching before us, the word describes an individual who seethes if he or she cannot be the centre of adulation within the assembly, and withdraws emotionally or physically from participating in the life of the Body until they can foment political action to place themselves where they imagine they belong. In particular, James employs the word to speak of one who imagines himself or herself to be a teacher, refusing to submit his or her particular view to the judgement of the Word.
Finally, James says that those possessing such terrible attitudes are prone to boast against the truth, proving themselves false when compared to that perfect standard. In other words, those who are guilty of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” must cease claiming that their attitudes are the result of God’s wisdom. Self-assured individuals often act, and openly state, that they are doing God’s will according to God’s design even as they are destroying the work that God has blessed. Such individuals may well be guilty of arrogance, a despicable sin.
Having exercised their own will, the individuals James describes will begin to boast—gloating over their superior intellect and standing before God. In doing this, they ignore the Word of God. Jude informs us that not even Michael, when confronting the devil, presumed “to pronounce a blasphemous judgement” [JUDE 9]. Instead, he left judgement to the Lord. He demonstrated humility before the Lord, knowing that his position was that of a servant of God’s people. It is not so much that Christian people actually begin to lie about the truth, but rather that their actions are a denial of the truth—they are living a lie.
So, James describes people who have become arrogant, perhaps because they feel that they have been slighted or that their view has received short shrift. Such people advance their own interests without regard for the assembly. Inwardly, such individuals are fuming because they feel slighted. Consequently, because they have allowed themselves to be ruled by their feelings they are prone to exalt their own interests against the truth. Though they know the truth, their actions and their words deny the truth. Perhaps they give verbal assent to the truth, but their actions testify that the truth has no place in their lives. They have become masters at rationalising their actions despite knowing what the Word says. Such individuals will frequently aver that they were compelled to take a particular action because they had no choice, despite knowing that their actions contradict the Word of God. It is the ultimate triumph of feelings over knowledge. There is no further place of the Word of God in their lives.
Before I advance the study beyond this point, we need to realise that any of us are liable to such sin if we fail to guard our spirit. If we permit ourselves to imagine that we are better than another, or that our knowledge of the will of God is better than theirs, or if we begin to substitute our own reason and our feelings for the revealed will of God, we will defend our actions through claiming that we are doing the work of God according to the will of God. Whenever we justify our actions, rather than mourning injury to God’s people, we are guilty of arrogance.
It was likely that such conceit lies behind the warning that the Master issued in His Sermon on the Mount. Undoubtedly, you will remember His challenging words: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” [MATTHEW 5:21, 22]. Haughtiness places the individual in serious jeopardy, ultimately even bringing that one into judgement before the Lord.
You must guard yourself against falling into the trap of allowing your feelings to push you into such grievous sin against the Body of Christ! You must not begin to imagine that you are the centre of God’s work or that you are superior to others of God’s holy people or even think yourself superior to the Spirit who directs the labours of the assembly. James’ stinging rebuke is a sharp challenge to any of us who presume ourselves to be wise in doing God’s work while still being driven by pride. Such arrogance becomes evident when our speech is marked by subtle gibes and witty ripostes as we attempt to destroy those with whom we disagree.
There is one singular truth that underlies all that James has written to this point, though he will shortly state the truth in the clearest of terms: The peace of the Body is paramount in God’s estimate. It is not the peace that comes through compromise with evil that God esteems, for that would be no peace at all; but it is the peace that attends brothers who are dwelling together in harmony. Godly wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable.” First, purity, then peace, is the order given to the churches. The wisdom of God is identified as “gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” [JAMES 3:17]. It is these latter graces, operating in purity, that ensure the reign of God’s peace among His people.
However, where false wisdom has triumphed, “disorder and every vile practise” prevails. James is speaking of assemblies that have embraced the wisdom of this dying world; and that should frighten each of us, because we are not immune to his warning. False wisdom results in chaos and every sort of wicked practise. James clearly sees the connection between one’s inward stance and outward practise. It is indeed humbling to realise the evil that we Christians are able to justify when once we have surrendered to our feelings and displaced the Word of God from its legitimate place of rule over our conduct.
Genuine faith will manifest itself in deeds; and the same principle holds true in the contrasting demonic realm. The false wisdom that is said to be demonic will manifest itself in practises of turmoil and evil. This is nothing less than the application of the principle James learned from his half-brother, Jesus, who is recorded as saying, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” [MATTHEW 7:15-20].
Underscore this one vital truth in your mind, do not ever allow yourself to forget it—When self-glorification is at the heart of Christian ministry by church members, those Christians will eventually become sowers of disorder, contention and other evil practise in the church. The consequence of yielding to our feelings is so dreadful as to cause us to shrink in horror. The triumph of false wisdom among the people of God will render the work of God powerless for many years, even leading to the death of the congregation and the destruction of lost people that look to the people of God for moral and ethical guidance.
Misanthropic behaviour characterises a way of life based on “wisdom” that is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. James reasons from effect to the perceived cause. Actions reflect attitudes, and James outlines a list of internal vices. We have previously considered restlessness and instability arising from the presence of evil as well as double-mindedness. Envy and selfish ambition have been highlighted as particularly evident corrupting agents within the hearts of James’s hearers. Wherever the “wisdom from below” prevails, James warned, there is “disorder” and disturbance within community. Should this situation surprise us? Church leaders commonly resort to such wisdom for pragmatic reasons. For the sake of control—whether controlled growth or entrance into leadership—churches will sacrifice the peaceable wisdom of God. Expediency is never a neutral manoeuvre; there are always spiritual and moral consequences. The unspiritual character of worldly management, if not reined in by the wisdom from above, will dominate the church and cause it to stumble into a myriad of evils.
James declared that his hearers would be led by the wisdom from below into every evil practice. How extensive is James’s “every?” Does anyone who harbours envy and selfish ambition become expert in evil? Put another way, when believers return to the way of demonic wisdom, they express sins that even the world has not learned. Their hypocritical sins are not like those of persons who make no pretence of biblical faith. Religious evil is a special brand that produces extraordinary sin, even its own kind of blasphemy. In Proverbs the sins of the ungodly make them into fools for whom there is little hope. But for the religious fools who are, contrary to the wisdom of God, “wise in [their] own eyes” [PROVERBS 3:7], there is no hope. Is it any wonder James was so vehement in his warnings against self-deception? All of these vices are the harvest of its unrighteous attitudes.
THE SOURCE OF FALSE WISDOM — Origin determines outcome, and since the wisdom that is esteemed by inhabitants of this dying world is not of God, it should not be surprising that it has such a deleterious effect. Among the churches of the Lord, the most important thing we can do is to measure our ministries by the Word of God rather than the wisdom of man. The fact that we have church fights resulting in splits, and an absence of purity and peace suggests that something is wrong. That something which brings such harm is the substitution of the wisdom of man for the wisdom of God. However, we should recognise the source of this false wisdom that seems to have infiltrated so many of the churches of our Lord?
James says that the wisdom causing disorder and every vile practise is not from above—it is not heavenly, it is not from God. Rather, he identifies three sources working in concert through the use of three adjectives that build in an ascending scale of wickedness. The false wisdom that destroys is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” Understand that godly wisdom—the wisdom from above—is a gift. Earlier, James counselled, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” [JAMES 1:5]. However, the other wisdom that so often prevails even among the people of God is earthly. That is, it is philosophical, not taking into account the revealed will of God. Thus, earthly wisdom leads to death. This earthly wisdom attempts to calculate itself through the world by the “shadow due to change” [JAMES 1:17] provided by its natural light. This earthly wisdom is bound by material and physical concerns, and “will not suspend its interest in the temporal plane for the sake of divine glory.” PROVERBS 14:12 characterises this wisdom quite well:
“There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death.”
This other wisdom is unspiritual, natural or soulish. Rather than appropriating God’s perfect gift of wisdom from above, this false wisdom is self-centred, seeking personal gain. This wisdom arising from the soul is behind the boasting and denial of the truth because it corresponds to a way of life. As the earthliness of this wisdom expresses a way of life that is centred upon physical needs and urges, the soulish nature of this wisdom further expresses a way of life centered upon the dictates of the selfish mind and heart. This wisdom arising from the soul is set in opposition to God because it has become a law unto itself. One can only think of the Proverb,
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.”
Finally, perhaps not surprisingly, James reveals that this false wisdom is demonic. James is not saying that the demons are in the assembly, nor even that those of us who succumb to this false wisdom are demonised; he is, however, saying that human interests serve satanic interests when one’s life is not submitted to the Lord. When we operate in our own strength or according to our own wisdom, we are susceptible to being manipulated by demonic powers. When this false wisdom prevails within a congregation, demonic powers are empowered to work their diabolical destruction. The effect of false wisdom that is permitted to reign among God’s people is demonic. Faith that merely assents to Gospel truth is demonic [see JAMES 2:19], and as soon as believers act on the basis of their feelings instead of walking in knowledge of the will of God as revealed in the Word of God, their actions are demonic because they enable demonic deception to work within the congregation.
False wisdom originates from the flesh, the world and the devil. Ultimately, just as the unbridled tongue is employed by demonic powers to destroy the work of God [e.g. JAMES 3:6], so the false wisdom that is esteemed by this world is used by demonic powers to destroy God’s holy work. Whenever we employ worldly wisdom, refusing to embrace godly wisdom, we become unwitting workers together with the evil one. This should be particularly distressing because we are each susceptible whenever we cease to think biblically.
Preaching such as James provides here would not be welcomed in most of our churches today; he would be considered too severe. However, this harshness is precisely the point. Anyone who thinks the church or the Christian Faith are to be exploited for their own personal use will find that James’ words cut to the quick! But his words need to be spoken repeatedly because of our tendency to betray the Faith through advancing our own personal agendas.
If you have been guilty of permitting such false wisdom to reign in your life, now is the moment to turn from this, asking for and receiving the wisdom that comes from above. Indeed, each Christian who asks for this wisdom will receive it, for God gives generously and without rebuking those who ask [JAMES 1:5-8]. As a congregation, we need to ask the Father to keep us from stumbling into the morass of earthly, unspiritual, demonic wisdom. We must make it a mark of the church that each time we face a choice we turn to the revealed will of God to determine the proper course of action.
You have no possibility of appropriating this divine wisdom if you have no relationship to the True and Living God. You need first to be born from above in order to receive the wisdom that comes from above. This is the way to be born from above. The Word of God is quite clear that “If you confess with you mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ believing in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. For it is with the heart that one believes and is declared right with God, and with the mouth that one confesses and is saved.” That promise is emphasised as God declares that “Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved” [ROMANS 10:9, 10, 13, author’s translation]. Believe this message and be saved today. Amen.