Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith
The Wisdom of Gentleness
Ryan TOmpkins // FEBruary 10, 2019
scripture Passage // James 3:13–18 (ESV)
“ 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Last week, we began our consideration of James 3 and what we saw there was James addressing the issue of the tongue, and of course, the tongue is a metaphor or an image that's meant to describe human speech. And James taught us that the tongue is very powerful like a a bit that directs a horse, or a rudder that directs a ship, the tongue or speech sets the course for our entire life, and he taught us also that the tongue is wicked. But in the passage where we limited ourselves, we did not really get an answer as to how to deal with the tongue. How does one tame it? How does one grow in righteousness related to the tongue?
What James does as we begin this passage today is he pivots from that discussion to a broader answer, in other words, he's not just dealing with the issue of the tongue at this point, he's dealing with the issue of, how do we deal with all of the brokenness and sin in life? And his answer is going to be wisdom. And James is not going to sell you something. He will tell you that life is hard and that discipleship requires a lot of diligence and a lot of effort. And he's going to say, for you to navigate this road, well, you need wisdom. It's the only way that you're going to make your way. And of course, James is drawing on a huge body of wisdom literature that exists in the old testament that was always wrestling with the question of, what does it really look like to walk faithfully with God?
And one of the ways James challenges us today is that he would suggest to you that the problem is not only that you lack wisdom, he's not just saying that you don't have wisdom. What he's saying is even more significant, and it's this, you seek the wrong kind of wisdom. It would be one thing if we could just say, "Oh, I don't have wisdom. I need some wisdom. I'm going to try to get it." But what James is actually going to show us is that often when we do decide to pursue wisdom, we pursue the wrong kind of wisdom, and because we pursue the wrong kind of wisdom, it has dire effects for us as a result. So we need to consider, one, the need for wisdom, number two, what earthly wisdom is, and number three, what wisdom from above is or what heavenly wisdom is. So the need ... two, earthly wisdom and three heavenly wisdom. So what is this need for wisdom? Now, if you remember, James had profoundly strong language to use regarding the tongue. He said that the tongue is a world of unrighteousness, stains the whole body, sets on fire the entire course of life and is itself set on fire by hell.
Now, that's really strong language. It's quite a picture of something that could destroy not only ourselves but those around us. And James says to work at taming this, to work at reigning that that in our lives, which isn't sanctified, to do that, this is why we need wisdom. This is why it's so necessary. And so he begins in verse 13 by saying, "Who is wise and understanding among you?" Not a bad question. How would you answer that question? Who is wise and understanding among you in this room? Who would you identify in that fashion? Now, the second question is just as important. On what grounds would you decide who is wise and understanding? Who would you decide is set apart on those terms and why? Well, James tells us, "By his good conduct, let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom."
In other words, James has just spent the first two chapters telling us that faith needs to be demonstrated by works, and now he's saying very similarly that wisdom needs to be demonstrated by works. If you want to evaluate the quality of wisdom that you think informs your life, then you need to look at the conduct that you put on display. It's a mirror, so to speak, of the wisdom that you actually possess. Now, to say this, James is drawing on very deeply the notion of wisdom and the ideas of wisdom literature that exists in the Old Testament. And right off the bat, we need to start to distinguish between a biblical notion of wisdom and a worldly notion of wisdom. Now, if we were to survey everything the Old Testament says about wisdom, that would take a very long time. It would be a long class. But if we really boiled it down and you would say at least three things about wisdom as it's presented in the Old Testament, what a biblical notion of wisdom is.
Number one is that wisdom is not from experience. Wisdom comes from God. We have a tendency to think, "Oh, well, if I work hard at certain things and develop certain skills, I've acquired a certain level of wisdom." There's maybe truth to that, but that's not the wisdom that the Bible is talking about. If you think of Solomon, the wisest man apart from Jesus to walk the face of the Earth, in 1 Kings 4 says Solomon wasn't really savvy and took lots of classes and had a high IQ and figured everything out. So his wisdom came from God. It was a gift to him from above. That's what equipped him. And you know this, long time ago there was a woman in the church and she thought she was wise and she would tell you, "I've lived a lot of years. I have lots of experience. I'm particularly wise." She would just say that straight up. Which was ironic because everyone around her thought, "No, you're particularly foolish. You don't have much wisdom to offer." Oh, your experience doesn't mean that it's produced wisdom in your life because wisdom comes from God as he informs us and teaches us how to walk with him, which leads us to the second aspect of wisdom, which is that wisdom, biblical wisdom is not how to navigate life.
Wisdom in a biblical sense is about how to walk faithfully with God. Wisdom is a relational category and it means you're making the right decisions so that facilitates an intimate relationship with God. You think wisdom is something that just informs, I'm pretty savvy at life. I'm good at whatever I do and I make good decisions on behalf of my family and I avoid most pitfalls and I've got lots saved up, so on and so forth, generally how the world would describe wisdom. That's not what the Bible is talking about.
You can't be fooled that you're wise because you have experience if you're not actually thinking about wisdom in the sense of your relationship with God and whether it's producing proper fellowship. Joe in chapter 28, he's describing the idea of wisdom toward the end of his book and says that wisdom really is turning away from wickedness and toward righteousness, and the words he says, wisdom is bound up in how one faithfully walks with God and avoid what alienates one from God. Then the third aspect of wisdom from the Old Testament, which you might be able to guess is that since wisdom is about a relational aspect with God, then wisdom begins with what? The fear of the Lord. Over and over again in the Old Testament will tell us that wisdom begins with proper reverence for God.
It's almost as if the Old Testament is describing to us the notion that real wisdom is bound up and not wanting to appear foolish before God. As we wake up in the morning and engage the day and start to think about how the day is going to go, we might ask, how do I have right fellowship with God? How will I not appear to be foolish before God? But this is the problem in the sense that I think we spend a lot more time thinking about how do we make sure we don't appear the fool before someone else, the fool before our friends or our culture, our society, our neighborhood, our community, rather than really being worried about being foolish before God.
We all have embarrassing stories that we would prefer not to tell. There's a funny article that as writers to share their most embarrassing stories from their 13th year of life. It's a pretty embarrassing year. There's a lot on the table. And Allie Drucker told the story that AOL instant messenger was all the rage as she was 13. And so she started messaging people and there was a cuter boy who's a bit older on their bus and she wanted to get his attention. So she messaged him some cryptic series of letters that essentially said, what's going on? And I'm for not much. And then you for how are you, which right there is the fall of Western civilization. But that aside, this is how she was communicating. Then she made a joke, she thought she was pretty savvy and the boy responded, LOL.
Well, Allie didn't know what LOL meant. So she asked her friend. And her friend said, "Well, LOL means ‘lots of love.’” And so Allie was encouraged that this boy apparently was into her. And so she said, "I didn't know you felt that way, but I'm really glad that you were open about your feelings and I have feelings for you too." The boy who was baffled and explained to her that LOL meant laughing out loud, and then Allie wanted to crawl into a hole and never be seen again for her embarrassment. Another author who tells a story is Chrissy Milazzo. She was 13 and she didn't want to be left out, so to speak, she didn't want to admit that she hadn't been kissed.
Now, boys and girls, let me tell you, if you're 13, the only people you should be kissing are your parents or your grandparents, but for Chrissy, where she was in life, this was a thing, and so she made up a story that she had kissed a boy named Mike the year before in a driveway. As all lies go, got bigger and more complicated, and eventually she was sitting in Algebra next to Mike and one of their peers said, "Ooh, Mike, how has that kiss with Chrissy?" And Chrissy had been caught right in front of Mike and was so nervous and filled with anxiety that she peed in her pants a little bit.
Now, this would be bad enough, but she was wearing white gauchos at the time, very chic look, but not so good for water sports. And so she had to decide, how am I going to handle this? If I remain seated, it's kind of being conspicuous, if I stand up, it couldn't be more obvious. So she remained seated for 40 minutes waiting for the entire class to clear out, and then ran to the bathroom and spent the entire rest of the day in the bathroom. Now, 13 is a rough age, right? We're all a little bit more in tune with what other people think of us, perhaps to some degree. But does it really change that much? Right? Do we ever grow up all that much?
How much time and energy do we expend so that people perceive us in a certain way? I think we're all barely pretty good magicians, right? Here's our life, but we don't want you to look at that. So we'd do a few tricks over here. Look at all these. I'm diverting your attention. Look at what I want you to see. Here are my successes listed for you. I don't want you to see my underbelly, while over here is really my life and what is going on. You see where motivated significantly by the effort not to appear foolish before other people. Now, the reason that this is important is, if you're motivated by avoiding appearing foolish before other people, you're worried about the wrong kind of foolishness, and if you're worried about the wrong kind of foolishness, then you're going to seek the wrong kind of wisdom.
If my real concern is how I'm appearing before other people, then the wisdom I need is something that makes me look successful in an earthly sense. But if the foolishness I'm really worried about is appearing foolish before God, well, then all my questions change, all my decisions change. Now I'm making decisions based on how I'm living before an audience of one and the wisdom I seek is wisdom that defines my relationship with God, not a wisdom that makes me look good in front of other people. Those are dramatically different paths. And realize that if you choose the ladder to be worried about looking like a fool before God and to pursue wisdom in terms of your relationship with him, you probably will look like a fool before other people. I mean, it's one of the few things that is pretty much guaranteed because God's wisdom often looks like foolishness to things that are happening here and in the lives of people here.
So you have to be willing, there has to be a willingness. If you are serious about pursuing wisdom from God, realize that you will probably appear foolish before your friends and men and women and society. Now, we're beginning to get a sense of a biblical notion of wisdom, it comes from God, it's not generated by experience, it's characterized by walking faithfully with him and being in relationship with him, and it begins by having a proper reverence for him. But James is writing to the church and the church has decided to go for a different kind of wisdom.
Now, we need to understand more particularly the difference between earthly wisdom and wisdom from above and the consequences. So here's number two, and this is earthly wisdom, which James begins to take up in verse 14, says, "But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts", so this is how he's beginning to describe what he will say, his wisdom that is earthly, selfish, ambition and bitter jealousy. This is what describes earthly wisdom. And the notion here is something that you would do to get ahead. Something that's very self serving. You're willing to throw somebody under the bus, whatever is necessary so that you're getting the life that you want and things are happening for you the way that you expect them to. Now, in verse 15, he'll go on to call this wisdom and says, "It's not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic."
Now, at the end of verse 14, James says something pretty interesting about this kind of wisdom. He certainly isn't saying anything nice about it, but he says in the latter part of 14, “Do not boast and be false to the truth.” In other words, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth." What does that mean? What does that mean that James would write to the church? If you have this kind of earthly wisdom in your hearts, a bitter jealousy, a selfish ambition, then do not boast and be false to the truth.
Well, the only way that James would write that was if the church had actually decided to start embodying an earthly wisdom, but we're baptizing it as a heavenly wisdom. In other words, they've decided to live by selfish ambition and bitter jealousy, but they're saying on the other hand, "We're really being godly people.” So James says, "What are you doing? You're boasting in the wrong kind of wisdom and fools as a result, and you're being false to the truth. What true wisdom is. What does it look like when the church begins to drink deeply of the well of earthly wisdom and lives out of that, but then tries to pretend that it's something that is good or as holy?"
Well, there's a lot of examples in the Old Testament where we see bitter jealousy and selfish ambition coming in to poison the story of God's people. We could certainly think of Cain killing Abel because he was jealous of his sacrifice. We could think of humanity building a tower up to God saying, we will reach to the heavens. We don't need God to come down to us. We could think of the judges over and over again. God would save his people only for the people to go back to the idols and to reject him again and again be in need of a judge. We might think if Saul who when he is encouraging David as he goes before Goliath says, "You need my armor", and David says, "No, I don't need the armor because I've got God.” A comparison between heavenly and earthly wisdom." If we were to talk about the church today, what does it look like when we would go down this path and are fooled by earthly wisdom, when we appoint elders who are rich and only successful in business but are not godly? We buy into earthly wisdom.
When we decide that all we need our clicks, we've established our friend group, we're good with that friend group. We don't need to go outside it. That's driven by selfish ambition. Your content, what you need, your needs are being met, so you're not going to worry about other needs. When we're not serious about holiness, we buy into earthly wisdom. There's been a tragic and very good example of late in the church that is willow creek. You may have followed it somewhere in the news. Willow creek is a giant church outside Chicago, is often credited by being really the spear point of the seeker sensitive movement, but influential, hugely influential in the evangelical world. And the pastor there was thought to be, I mean, really, a remarkable modern day prophet in some ways.
Over the years, women kept coming forward saying, "This guy is harassing us. He's not who he says he is." And the elders went to great lengths to keep those charges very quiet. And now as they began to report and the story comes out, what's the most fascinating is their thinking process in the midst of it. As these women came forward, they said, "This couldn't be true", but why did they say that? So this couldn't be true because we're the most successful church in America and there's no way that God would bless us to this degree if this man was doing what you claim. That friends is earthly wisdom. We're going to define the holiness of the church by its success, by earthly standards. We've grown really big and we have huge money and were very influential. Therefore, we must be holy. And tragically, it pulled the church apart and a good portion of the elders and the pastoral staff all resigned, and in repentance saying, "We did not take this seriously. We are ashamed and sad for what we've done and how we've participated in this." And that's you see wisdom from above coming in and beginning to right that situation.
But anytime that we begin to participate in this earthly wisdom, this selfish ambition, this bitter jealousy which comes in and captures our heart, and this is, I will make the life that I want for myself and I will consume others to do it, it of course, destroys the church from within. And this is what James says in verse 16, "There will be disorder and every vial practice." That's the result of earthly wisdom, disorder, and every vial pack practice, it pulls the community apart from within. We don't want to go down that road, but what does it mean then to really embrace and pursue wisdom from above?
Now, notice what James says in verse 17, "The wisdom from above is first pure." Now, that word pure there could just as easily be translated, holy. Wisdom from above produces sanctification. It produces holiness. Remember we said Biblical wisdom is all about one's relationship with God and walking with God, and if we seek wisdom from above, then it comes and it helps to facilitate that relationship by making us holy. And as we are made holy, what is the result?
Read the rest of these characteristics, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. Isn't it fascinating that James doesn't say, if you get heavenly wisdom, everything's going to go great in your life, or are you going to make all the right decisions or your business will be just knock it out of the park or you'll be the best at school. The effects that he describes a biblical wisdom, this pure wisdom is what? They're all communal. It means that you'll put to bed all of the bitter jealousy and selfish ambition that characterizes the world and a community will be created that lives out of pursuing holiness before God then loves and serves one another like no other community on the face of the earth. This is why James goes on – “as a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” This is the wisdom of God at play within the community. And this of course is the wisdom that Jesus has invited us in to. You might want to look with me over at Matthew 11:29 and 30. Jesus has invited us to take his wisdom upon himself, and this is of course what James is talking about. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
On the ancient world, the yoke represented the Mantel of wisdom that would be handed down from teacher to student. So any disciple of any teacher would be said that I'm taking on the yoke of rabbi so and so, teachers so and so. So Jesus says, "Take my wisdom upon you. My wisdom is actually like. It's an easy burden to bear." Now, how can that be? The wisdom Jesus is calling us to is also described as picking up our cross and follow after him and dying to ourselves.
How can he say that this yoke is easy and light? It's almost absurd. How can you reconcile that? Unless the alternative is much, much harder. Unless the alternative is actually crushing, because the alternative, if you reject Jesus wisdom is to live in earthly wisdom and earthly wisdom is nothing more than bitter, jealousy and selfish ambition, in which you will consume others to try to fill yourself up, to try to acquire what only Jesus can offer, and in that very process, your heart will die 1,000 deaths in that endeavor. But to come to Jesus is to receive a yoke that is indeed light because he has taken the burden of our sin and death upon himself.
What does this look like actually in life? I've always loved Peter as a picture of wisdom and foolishness. An apostle to encourage us all. When Jesus reveals to Peter, he asked him, "Who do people say that I am?" Peter eventually says, "You are the Christ." Jesus says, "Well done. God has revealed this to you." And then Jesus says, "This is what this means. We're going to go to Jerusalem and I'm going to die." And Peter says, "No, that's not what it means. That was a good try, Jesus, but you didn't quite get it." And what does Jesus say to Peter? "Get behind me, Satan." Because Peter opts in that moment for earthly wisdom. I don't want the wisdom you're offering Jesus because they don't like what it looks like. I like the earthly wisdom that says you are going to go to Jerusalem and you're going to tackle everybody. Think of the right phrase there. You're going to win. You're going to be a conqueror and this is the Jesus that I want. So Peter prefers earthly wisdom.
And then you fast forward or you think Peter would learn to some degree along the line, but what a difficult place to be. He's standing in the courtyard as Jesus is being tried and "Hey, aren't you the guy who was hanging out with him? You have an accent just like his. We don't think you're from around here.” And what does Peter do? Earthly wisdom or heavenly wisdom? Earthly, right? “I don't want to be part of this story if this story ends in our destruction. I don't want to end up on a cross. I don't know the man. Never seen him, haven't hung out with them.”
But the beauty of Peter’s story, you go to the very end, which occurs at the end of the Gospel of John and Jesus meets Peter on the beach and Jesus will ask him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” Three opportunities to profess his love to do three denials right in the courtyard where he would turn his back on Jesus. And each time that Peter affirms his love for him, Jesus charges him, "Go and be a shepherd of my sheep." He restores him. Why? Because Peter understood the earthly wisdom had led them in some bad directions. He totally missed understanding who Jesus was. How foolish must you feel, not only bad for denying Jesus, but if you're in the courtyard and you know he's going to be raised from the dead three days from now, you're like, yeah, I know him. No question. I'm on his side, in three days, you're in big trouble.
You can only get that looking back, but in the moment he lives in earthly wisdom. It's a picture for us to choose heavenly wisdom. Even though when we don't fully understand what's playing out, it's always better to be in tight intimate relationship with God than to try to pursue strength and our own power. And so how do you do this? Well, in closing, James has already invited us. If you look at chapter one verse five, James Says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith with no doubting for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind." You want wisdom from above? Run to God and ask him ask him, ask him every day to grant you wisdom that would facilitate your relationship with him and know that that means you're putting on yourself the yoke of Christ, which means you have to be busy about picking up your cross and dying to yourself. But that's the road of wisdom from above, and that's the road just as an aside by which your tongue will be tamed if that's your issue.
The other road is earthly wisdom and James says what? You'll be like somebody tossed to and fro on the waves of the sea. You wake up one day and try to figure out, “I'm going to do this and it will work and then I'm going to do this and it will work, then I'm going to do this and this will work,” and over and over again, you look at your life and you're just here to and fro moving in different directions, never staying in the same place, never actually developing a deeper relationship with God, but simply being tossed back and forth through different versions of earthly wisdom. And it's miserable because it doesn't offer life. God is so gracious. He would give you wisdom and he invites you to ask for it today.
Father, we thank you that you are abundantly gracious to offer us wisdom and we confess this morning that we are in deep, deep need of wisdom. Our tongues, our minds or hearts can all be so committed to wickedness and selfish ambition and bitter jealousy that they are very destructive and compromise, all sorts of things. Goodness for the pain that we have caused in this world. Would you forgive us and would you help us to be more serious about being wise? And by wise, we mean help us to ask and seek the right kind of wisdom. Not a wisdom that is earthly success, but a wisdom that is intimacy and friendship with you. We ask that you would encourage us and Lord Jesus, would you send your spirit upon us and ample portion to equip us to really seek this wisdom? We need your help in it and we ask that you would meet us at this table and that you would make it so. We ask it in Christ's name. Amen.