(Sermon delivered at Cromer Parish Church, 5/11/17)
3:13 “Who is wise and understanding among you?”
This evening we take up again the matter that James started his letter with – the issue of wisdom. Remember, wisdom is not intelligence or theoretical knowledge or education. It is not something you gain by studying theology or philosophy. It is the God-given gift of knowing what to do, why to do it, and how to do it. Wisdom and understanding help us to live a life that pleases the Lord Jesus in every way – especially when life gets hard or puzzling.
If you’ve been following this sermon series on James you will remember that at the beginning of the letter James told anyone who lacked wisdom to ask for it in faith. You will remember also that James told us not to be hearers of the word only, but doers of it. So am I right in thinking that all of you who felt you lacked wisdom have already asked God for it? And if I asked who is wise and understanding among you, all of you who’ve been regulars at these evening services could now put your hands up? Let’s assume, for the sake of this sermon, that I am speaking to a congregation that is wise and understanding, and that what James has to say is a message to all of us. And his message is simply this: ‘Show your wisdom and understanding, not by your knowledge of the Bible, nor by your ability to give good answers to home group questions, but by your good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.’
Why does he need to tell us this? It is because there are two kinds of wisdom, the wisdom that comes from above and the wisdom that comes from below – and we who are sinners saved by grace can sometimes exercise wisdom from above, and sometimes exercise wisdom from below, and we need to be aware of where our wisdom is coming from.
Verses 14-16 describe the wisdom from below.
14 But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
Note v 16. Where there is envy and selfish ambition, it will result in disorder and every evil practice. It will still feel like wisdom. When we make a cutting remark, or say something to show how clever we are, or seek to denigrate a brother or sister in Christ – when we think ourselves superior to our church leaders, or to those who show too much enthusiasm in worship or too much simplicity in their faith – we feel we are exercising wisdom. And we’ll be right. But such wisdom tends towards disorder, division rather than harmony, breaking down rather than building up, and the results are evil, not pleasing to God. It feels like wisdom, but it is the wisdom from below, it is earthy (the wisdom of this world), unspiritual (from the flesh not the Spirit), demonic (from the father of lies, the devil and his angels). It is motivated by what James calls envy and selfish ambition – some translations say ‘rivalry’. Envy and selfish ambition are two of the acts of the sinful nature that Paul contrasts with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5; others include hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, dissensions, factions as well as things like sexual immorality and impurity, so much in the news today. That sinful nature is still present in all of us, although we have been born again by the Spirit of God and it is all too easy to let our lower desires have their way on occasions. But we have been born again, Jesus lives in us, and now we can live by the Spirit, with the wisdom that is from above.
Before we look in detail at true wisdom let’s look at those verses at the beginning of chapter 4.
4:1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.
James has said that envy and selfish ambition lead to disorder and every evil practice; now he tells his Christian readers that their disappointed desires are leading them to kill, quarrel and fight. He may have been using exaggerated language; but maybe not. I remember asking a Baptist missionary in Uganda how things were with his church, and he replied, ‘Oh, the usual problems – murder, theft and adultery.’ It’s probably true that throughout history wars, including religious wars and gunpowder plots, have at root godless desires of one kind or another. Not just envy and selfish ambition. We see the lust for money, sex and power causing trouble in our political classes at the moment. These things also cause problems in the church, and have done since the church began, which is why we need always to check our motives. James continues:
‘You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.’
He agrees that we need to pray for the things we need, trusting God will give us the desires of our hearts as Psalm 37:4 says. But James knew the whole of that verse: ‘Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ Asking God for what we want, just for our own selfish reasons, is not going to be answered by God. Motives matter. Let’s keep an eye on them.
Let’s look now at the wisdom that God gives – the wisdom we pray for, and want to exercise in every situation, especially the most difficult.
3:13 “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.” True wisdom is accompanied not by envy and selfish ambition, but by humility, and by a life that is pleasing to God in every way. We are very blessed in this church to have many people whom we could truly call wise; who are wise in the ways of the Lord, and who pass on their wisdom with great humility and gentleness. Let’s learn from them!
James goes on to describe the wisdom that comes from heaven in verses 17 and 18.
17 “But 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. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
Let’s look at this wisdom from God in a bit more detail, and as we do so, let’s earnestly desire this kind of wisdom to govern our lives. Lord, give me this wisdom.
Wisdom is first, pure. The word implies moral and spiritual uprightness. Wisdom does not play with sin, it seeks to keep a clear conscience.
Peace-loving. True wisdom promotes peace, not division. Even when evil needs to be confronted, it is done in a way that aims at harmony.
Considerate. There is a gentle reasonableness about true wisdom, which sees the other person’s point of view. The word is sometimes translated ‘forbearance’; there is a humble patience that is able to cope with malice and other people’s unreasonableness without anger or hatred.
Submissive. The word means easily persuaded, compliant; in the military it meant submission to military discipline, in ordinary life it meant obeying legal and moral standards, respecting authority. What does it mean in church life?
Full of mercy and good fruit. True wisdom is not harsh and unforgiving. Nor is it just words – James has already told us to let our wisdom be seen by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
Impartial. The word can also be translated ‘unwavering, whole-hearted’; wisdom is not like the tongue which can spout out blessing or cursing with equal ease, it holds on to what is right and true.
Sincere. There is no hypocrisy, no putting on an act, about true wisdom.
Does all that describe us? Yes? No? if No, then let us ask God for that kind of wisdom. For as James says, peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. No more disruptive false wisdom!
I’d like with Jennie’s help to move into a time of prayer, after our next song. (Band, please come up.) After we’ve lifted our hearts to the Lord, I’d like us to spend a little time examining our hearts, and seeing if there are particular ways in which we are lacking in the wisdom that comes from above. This isn’t an attempt to load us with guilt – we come before the Lord as people who are forgiven, and whom God accepts as righteous through our faith in Jesus Christ. But the Holy Spirit wants us to grow, and it may be that he wants just to put his finger on something in our lives, some wrong motives, that need to change. After that we’ll spend a few moments asking for wisdom – maybe just in general terms, or it may be that there’s a particular issue in your life that you really need wisdom from above to deal with. But first, let’s ask Jesus to pour his love, grace and peace into our hearts as we sing.
Your love shining like the sun