Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But 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. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
In verses 13-18, James addresses the subject of wisdom and understanding. He is concerned with demonstrating the sharp contrast which exists between the wisdom of this world and the wisdom that God gives. Godly wisdom leads us along paths that lead to life. The alternative to following God’s wisdom, choosing to live foolishly in God’s world, is to risk our lives. Well clearly it’s better to be wise than to be foolish. It’s better to live a life that’s blessed by God than to risk missing out on the good things God has planned for us. But how do we do it? How do we get wisdom, and once we’ve got it, how do we show in our lives that we have it?
How do we show that we have Wisdom? If you want to be wise, you need to show your wisdom by the way you live. And how is that? By your good life. Through works done with the gentleness that’s born of wisdom. James highlights what this means by showing the opposite sorts of behavior. “But 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.” Now of course it’s not politically correct to be negative about someone, is it? There’s some sense to that when it comes to talking about others. It’s always easier to think of things to criticize about someone than things to praise. Not to mention that if you can criticize something in someone else, you feel justified in thinking better of yourself. But what we’re talking about here is self-examination. Here James is asking us to look honestly at our own hearts, at our own actions and motivations, to work out whether we’re truly acting with wisdom.
What is it you see when you look at your behavior; when you listen to yourself talking? Are you envious of others? Do you envy them their gifts or their success, their family, their jobs, their looks, their new car? What is it that motivates you? Are you motivated by selfish ambition? By the desire to get to the top no matter what? Do you desire power in the roles you take on? Do you avoid positions where you know you won’t be able to exercise the power you desire? When you make decisions, how much do you focus on the effect they’ll have on you, or on your own agenda as opposed to that of others in the community? How about in your speech. Are you prone to boasting? To exaggerating for effect? Do you tend to emphasize how good you are, or your family is, or your church is, while downplaying others’ successes or focussing on their failings?
Now I could say I’ve seen that sort of behavior in others, but that would be to fall into the very trap of foolishness that I’m talking about. No my job is to ask whether I’ve done any of that, whether I fail in any of those areas. Believe me, I will be the first to admit that I fail in many of these areas. However, just because I have failed does not mean that I cannot do my best to correct my own actions and ask for forgiveness. I need to understand my own behavior and understand where that sort of behavior derives. I know that it doesn’t derive from godly wisdom. This sort of wisdom derives from the fallen world in which we live. Far from being spiritually based it’s the work of the devil.
Well, enough for the negative, what’s the positive side of wise living? “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” It seems to me that this is a tough list to live up to. Purity has the idea of being morally upright, innocent, blameless, motivated only by the sincere desire to serve others, ignoring self interest. That’s the first test. Then there’s the test of peaceable, gentle behavior. This is in stark contrast to the bitter envy and selfish ambition of the worldly person. The wise person seeks peace above selfish desire. They’re willing to yield to others even if their own desires aren’t being met. They’re full of mercy in the way they approach others. They bear good fruit, without any sense of partiality or hypocrisy.
You’ve probably noticed that some people do lots of good works, but their motivation is actually self serving. They’re working to boost their own sense of importance or they do good things for people they think might be able to do favors for them at a later date. But the wise person acts out of pure motives, not seeking their own welfare but only that of those they’re serving.
And notice the result: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The result of wise living is that we enjoy the peace that only God can give. Wisdom is worth having. So how do we find wisdom? We begin by realizing that God is the source of all wisdom and then we ask God to give it to us. How do we show that we’re wise? By our good lives; by works that are done with gentleness that’s born of wisdom. By our purity of life, by behavior that’s peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and goodness. Show that sort of behavior and there will be no doubt that you have the wisdom that comes from above.