In Part 1, we saw there is a “heavenly wisdom” that comes from God and a “man-made wisdom” that comes from the world. Today, we will look at the contrast between the operation of God’s wisdom and the world’s wisdom.
Contrast in Operations (James 3:13–14, 17)
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.
The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
The wisdom from above, God’s wisdom, operates in a different way from the world’s wisdom. Since they originate from radically different sources, they must operate in opposite ways. What are the evidences of false wisdom?
Envy (v. 14a). This word carries the meaning of selfish ambition and zeal. It ties in with James 3:1, where James warned them not to be ambitious for spiritual offices. The wisdom of the world says, “Promote yourself. You’re just as good as the other candidates, maybe better! The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the grease.” Sad to say, there is a great deal of selfish, carnal promotion among God’s people. Even the Apostles argued over who was the greatest in the kingdom.
It is easy to go on an ego trip under the guise of spiritual zeal. The Pharisees used their religious activities to promote the praise of men (Matt. 6:1–18). We ought to be zealous in the things of the Lord, but we must be sure our motives are right. The wisdom of this world exalts man and robs God of glory. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul discussed the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world, and he explained why God works as He does: “so that no one may boast before Him” (1 Cor. 1:29). He concluded the section with the admonition, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).
Is our zeal for the Lord spiritual or carnal? Do we rejoice when others succeed, or do we have secret envy and criticism? Do we feel burdened when others fail or are we glad? When the wisdom of the world gets into the church, there is a great deal of fleshly promotion and human glorification. Beware!
Selfish ambition (v. 14b). This word means “party spirit.” It was used by the Greeks to describe a politician out canvassing for votes. The world’s wisdom says, “Get all the support you can! Ask the people in the church if they are for you or against you!” Of course, this spirit of self-seeking only creates rivalry and division in the church. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Boasting (v. 14c). Pride loves to boast and nothing is prouder than the wisdom of men. There is a way to report blessings so that God gets the glory, but there is also an approach that gives men the praise. It is tragic to see mutual admiration societies among God’s people. When God’s wisdom is at work, there is a sense of humility and submission, and you want God to get all the glory. You have no desire to compare yourself with any other Christian because you see only Christ—and compared with Him, all of us still have a long way to go!
Deceit (v. 14d). “Do not lie against the truth.” The sequence is not difficult to understand. First, there is selfish ambition that leads to strife and boasting. In order to “win the election,” we must resort to boasting; and boasting usually involves lies! A man’s life is not read in his press releases; it is read by the Lord in his heart. “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5). What a relief it is to turn to the evidences of true spiritual wisdom!
What are the evidences of God’s wisdom?
Humility or Meekness (v. 13). Meekness is not weakness; it is power under control. The meek person does not selfishly assert himself. The Greek word was used for a horse that had been broken so that his power was under control. The meek person seeks only the glory of God and does not cater to the praises of men. Meekness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23); it cannot be manufactured by man. There is a false humility that some people mistake for meekness, but it is only counterfeit. Meekness is the right use of power and wisdom is the right use of knowledge. They go together. The truly wise person will show in his “daily life” (behavior) that he is a child of God. Attitude and action go together.
Purity (v. 17a). “First pure” indicates the importance of holiness. God is holy; therefore the wisdom from above is pure. The idea behind this word is “chaste, free from defilement.” James used it again in James 4:8—“purify your hearts” or “make chaste your hearts.” God’s wisdom leads to purity of life. Man’s wisdom may lead to sin. There is a spiritual purity that results in a chaste relationship with the Lord (2 Cor. 11:3); and there is a worldliness that makes the person a spiritual adulterer (James 4:4).
Peace (v. 17b). Man’s wisdom leads to competition, rivalry, and war (James 4:1–2); but God’s wisdom leads to peace. It is a peace based on holiness, not on compromise. God never has “peace at any price.” The peace of the church is not more important than the purity of the church. If the church is pure, devoted to God, then there will be peace. “The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever” (Isa. 32:17). The church can never have peace by sweeping sins under the rug and pretending they are not there. Man’s wisdom says, “Cover up sin! Keep things together!” God’s wisdom says, “Confess sin and My peace will keep things together!”
Gentleness (v. 17c). A pastor translated this “sweet reasonableness.” This carries the meaning of moderation without compromise, gentleness without weakness. The gentle person does not deliberately cause fights, but neither does he compromise the truth in order to keep peace. Abraham Lincoln has been described as a man of “velvet steel.” That is a good description of gentleness.
Submissive or Compliant (v. 17d). God’s wisdom makes the believer agreeable, and easy to live with and work with. Man’s wisdom makes a person hard and stubborn. The compliant person is willing to hear all sides of a question, but he does not compromise his own convictions. He can disagree without being disagreeable. He is “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Many people think that stubbornness is conviction and they must have their own way. When God’s wisdom is at work, there is a willingness to listen, think, pray, and obey whatever God reveals. “Yielding to persuasion” is another translation of this word.
Full of Mercy (v. 17e). To be “full” of something means to be “controlled by.” The person who follows God’s wisdom is controlled by mercy. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). God in His grace gives us what we do not deserve and in His mercy, He does not give us what we do deserve. Our Lord’s Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the meaning of mercy (Luke 10:25–37). For a Samaritan to care for a Jewish stranger was an act of mercy. He could gain nothing from it, except the blessing that comes from doing the will of God; and the victim could not pay him back. That is mercy.
Good fruits (v. 17f). People who are faithful are fruitful. God’s wisdom does not make a life empty; it makes it full. The Spirit produces fruit to the glory of God (John 15:1–16). The lawyer in Luke 10:25–37 was willing to discuss the subject of neighborliness, but he was unwilling to be a neighbor and help someone else. God’s wisdom is practical; it changes the life and produces good works to the glory of God.
Decisive (v. 17g). The word suggests singleness of mind and is the opposite of “wavering” (James 1:6). When you lean on the world’s wisdom, you are pressured from one side and then another to change your mind or take a new viewpoint. When you have God’s wisdom, you need not waver; you can be decisive and not be afraid. Wisdom from above brings strength from above.
Sincerity (v. 17h). The Greek word translated hypocrite in our New Testament means “one who wears a mask, an actor.” When man’s wisdom is at work, there may be insincerity and pretense. When God’s wisdom is at work, there is openness and honesty, “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Wherever you find God’s people pretending and hiding, you can be sure the wisdom of this world is governing their ministry. “Religious politics” is an abomination to God. “Faith is living without scheming.”
There is quite a contrast between the operation of God’s wisdom and the operation of the world’s wisdom. It would be profitable for church officers and leaders to evaluate their own lives and their ministries in light of what James has written. While the local church is an organization, it cannot depend on the “Madison Avenue” methods that make secular businesses succeed. God’s ways and God’s thoughts are far above us! “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor. 2:12).
In Part 3, we will look at the contrast in outcomes between God’s wisdom and the wisdom of the world.