“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
It can be hard to know how to react to the world sometimes, can’t it?
Should I get a vaccine? Should we wear masks to church? How should I react to the news of another black man killed by police? How should I respond to protests and riots? What should I do with my stimulus checks? How is our national debt going to survive another round of stimulus checks? How should Christians respond to the Equality Act? What should I do if a transgender person wants to use the girls bathroom at my daughters school or compete against her in sports? How do I get out of the rut my marriage is in? What do I do with John Walker as the new Captain America?
To react well requires wisdom.
How do we get it?
How do you sort out good ideas from bad ones? How do you sort out all of the opinions in your life and recognize true wisdom? The passage we are going to read this morning was written precisely for that purpose. Should we read it?
Let’s read James 3:13-18.
I recently came across a series of videos on YouTube called Testing Strangers’ Diamonds. In the videos a young guy walks around in malls admiring peoples bling and asking them if he can check it out with his diamond tester – it’s a hand held tool that measures the heat transfer of gems and can differentiate between counterfeit and genuine diamonds.
Some people turn and run, some people hold their ground and pass the test, and some people are exposed as frauds for the viewing pleasure of millions of spectators.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a tool like that to test people’s opinions? That’s an interesting opinion you got there. I just happen to have a wisdom tester in my pocket, can I test your wisdom?
That doesn’t exist. But James gives us something pretty close.
This passage teaches us how to spot the marks of counterfeit wisdom and more importantly teaches us how to recognize and develop true wisdom.
With the wisdom test you can get a fresh perspective on a problem that you are facing that has got you stuck, you can evaluate the reliability of teachers and influencers you are following and you can avoid decisions that will bring pain, bitterness and regret into your life.
Verse 13 sets up the test:
“who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
Jesus taught that wisdom is justified or proved right by her children. (Luke 7:35)
It’s not strong opinions that prove wisdom. It’s not self-assurance, a large vocabulary or eloquent words. It’s action. It’s your life.
This is the test of wisdom.
James beats this drum throughout his letter, doesn’t he?
You say you have faith? Show me your works.
You say you have wisdom? Show me your lifestyle.
Show me your marriage. Let me talk to your spouse about your wisdom. Let me look into your home and see you interact with your kids when no one is watching. Let me see your social media activity.
The NIV puts it like this: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life,”.
There are two words used for good in the New Testament. The one James uses means attractive.
The HELPS Word Study defines the word in verse 13 like this: it’s
“attractively good; good that inspires others to embrace what is lovely beautiful, well done so as to be winsome.”
A good life is a life that attracts other people, it draws people over from across the room to see what you got and where to get some themselves.
A good life is the proof of wisdom. We’re going to come back to that in a minute, right now we are going to move into verse 14.
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not boast and be false to the truth.
There are two marks of counterfeit wisdom that you can look for in a person’s life. Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. If you spot one or both of these qualities, that should tell you that the wisdom you are looking at is suspect.
Let’s start with jealousy. The word in the Greek can mean zeal our jealousy. Zeal is enthusiasm or eagerness for something. Zeal can be a wonderful thing. A non-profit leader who is zealous for the welfare of the people she serves is a gift. We know that James isn’t talking about good zeal, because he uses the word bitter to describe it.
Jealousy is zeal which has turned sour.
The Cambridge dictionary defines jealousy as a feeling of unhappiness and anger because someone has something or someone that you want:
Jealousy is bitter. It’s bitter in the heart that harbors it, it spreads into the lives of everyone it touches.
Jacob in the Old Testament is a living demonstration of the bitterness of jealousy.
As a young man Jacob envied his older brother’s position in the family and came up with the wise plan to cheat his brother out of both the inheritance and the blessing of the firstborn son. He got what he wanted but it cost his relationship with his brother and his home.
After running away from his enraged brother, Jacob settled in a new home with relatives. He was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved and he eventually married both of them.
Leah was jealous of the affection Jacob showed Rachel. She didn’t have his love, but she did have his kid and when Rachel couldn’t she became jealous of Leah. In their jealousy the sisters schemed up plans to coerce Jacob to father children with their servants. In the end Jacob had 12 children with 4 different women and a life of constant conflict and irritation.
Jacob’s sons were jealous of the favoritism he showed to their brother Joseph. In their jealousy they worked out a plan to sell him to slave traders on the road to Egypt. That decision brought heartbreak to Jacob and bitterness to the whole family.
In his old age, God worked a miracle of redemption and brought Jacob’s family together. When he looked back at his life, do you know how he described it?
“And Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.”
That’s the bitterness of jealousy.
It was bitter jealousy that caused Cain to kill his brother Abel. It was bitter jealousy that caused the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to plot the entrapment and execution of Jesus.
William Penn said that jealous people are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves.
How do you recognize jealousy? How can I find out if it’s in my heart?
Here’s some diagnostic questions:
- Is your happiness threatened by the success of others?
- Do you feel pleasure when others experience misfortune?
- Do you define your identity or success by comparing yourself to others?
- Do you feel the need to diminish or explain away others’ success?
- Do you feel dislike or hatred towards people who have more than you?
- Do you gossip or speak negatively about a rival when they aren’t around to make others think less of them.
- Do you try to undermine or oppose their success?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may have jealousy in your heart.
The 2nd mark of counterfeit wisdom is selfish ambition.
Ambition is an earnest desire for achievement or distinction, such as power, honor, fame and wealth.
Ambition can be good or bad. Without ambition good causes suffer and good organizations decline.
Some Christians are skeptical of every thing that smells like ambition, but Jesus never corrected anyone for ambition. It was selfish ambition that he condemned.
That’s the kind James is talking about.
Here’s an interesting note about the word James uses: the only pre New Testament use of the word on record is Aristotle writing about “selfish and bitter partisanship” of factional, greedy politicians.
2 Samuel 15 tells the story of the ambition of King David’s son Absalom. Absalom was a gifted prince who enjoyed a life of privilege, prosperity and popularity. But it wasn’t enough. He had his sights on the throne. In his ambition he developed a plan to spend his days at the city gates warmly greeting people who had come to visit the king. He would listen to their problems and needs, mourn with them that the king was too busy to meet with them and offer his help. In time he stole the hearts of the people and staged a coup. It worked but Absalom listened to some bad advice and made a decision which cost him his life.
What could make a son turn on his own father like that? Selfish ambition.
How do you know when your ambition is selfish?
Here are 7 signs that ambition has become selfish:
- You are eager for attention and exposure.
- Your need to win is greater than your need to love.
- You make decision based on what wins instead of what is right.
- You are unwilling to get involved with people or tasks that don’t give you exposure or advancement.
- People are a means and not an end to your work.
- You take all the credit instead of recognizing others.
- You are always thinking about the next big thing and can’t rest in the present moment.
Carey Nieuwhof is a church leader who came to a painful realization about the negative consequences of selfish ambition in his career. He describes the ways selfish ambition eats away at a leader’s soul:
When ambition is selfish your personal sense of worth goes up and down with the opportunities ahead of you.
When ambition is selfish, failure is terrifying.
When ambition is selfish, it’s hard to say no to any opportunity.
When ambition is selfish, you are always insecure.
Selfish ambition burns the bridges it crosses and arrives at its destination in solitude. A selfish wisdom is a false wisdom.
Isn’t it the worst when spiritual leaders who are supposed to be sources of wisdom are driven by jealousy and selfish ambition?
Pastor John MacArthur writes that:
“A professed Christian who is proud, boasting, self-centered, loveless, and arrogant is a fraud. To claim otherwise is to lie against the truth, to utterly contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ and the clear teaching of all the NT.”
If you’re struggling with a situation and trying to find a solution, this is so helpful – ask yourself does your solution involve jealousy or selfish ambition?
Is your decision about where to send your kids to school pressured by what other people are doing? That might not be wisdom. You might need to re-evaluate how you are thinking about the problem.
This is also a great test of the influencers you are listening to. What is their motivation? What are they gaining from their platform?
How do you do that? We’ll see that in just a few minutes.
Notice that the orientation of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition is inward. They are good things twisted and corrupted.
James tells us that they have an origin that is earthly, unspiritual and demonic.
Christians talk about three influences working against the person who is trying to life a righteous and wise life: the world, the flesh and the devil.
The world or the earthly is the realm of the purely physical. An earthly perspective sees no authority higher than human authority, no power but what humans can attain, no standards other than human desire. An earthly perspective sees no life beyond the present one.
John describes the things of the world in this sense in 1 John 2:16:
“a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions”
An earthly perspective tells us that time and resources are limited, that we must compete to get everything we can while we can and to use any means necessary to get it. An earthly perspective tells us that we must fight for ourselves because no one else is going to look out for us.
The 2nd word describing the origin of jealousy and selfish ambition is unspiritual. It’s an interesting word. In the Greek it’s psychikos, from the soul. It was used as a word for the passions and desires of the heart.
Pyschikos is used a handful of times in the NT, in every instance it is put into contrast with the word spiritual – pneumatikos.
Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God – a union of spirit and flesh. But the rebellion of humanity resulted in a spiritual death of the human soul – leaving us with the passions of the flesh, cut off from the life of the spirit.
An unspiritual wisdom is driven by the impulses of the psyche. It’s passionate, but it’s passion is incomplete and corrupted.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that:
“The natural [(psychikos)] person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually [(pneumatikos)] discerned.”
An unspiritual perspective cannot see or understand the things of God.
The final word is demonic. Last week we read in James that the tongue is set on fire by hell. In our late modern era our ears our tuned to hear words like hell and demonic with skepticism and distaste.
Yet when you hear the stories of Adolph Hitler transformed into a master orator and bringing an arena full of people into hysteria or when you consider the way a quiet date night is transformed into a screaming rage fest, you have to admit – the fires of hell might not be a bad description.
Why are we so prone to bitter jealousy, why are we so drive to pursue our own gain? The Bible tells us that there is a fire burning under the surface of things. A darkness lurking in the corners of our human experience.
An earthly and unspiritual worldview is never just that. The world is home to an invisible darkness.
We are introduced to that darkness in Genesis. It comes in the form of a voice sowing seeds of ambition.
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.
In that moment a demonic seed of selfish ambition was planted into the human heart.
There are two passages in the major prophets in the OT that provide background to personality responsible for that seed.
The first is in Isaiah 14:12-14, a message directed at the king of Babylon, but with a scope that goes far beyond the human:
“How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.[a]
14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.”
This is understood to be a reference to the origins of Satan, a magnificent being whose ambition took aim at the throne of heaven.
The second passage is in Ezekiel 28, a message direct to the king of Tyre, but again with a much larger scope:
“Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.”
In his pride, the wisdom of Satan was corrupted with jealousy and selfish ambition. After a failed bid to rise above God, he was sent to earth where he sows bitter seeds into human hearts.
The conduct and character of Satan the serpent are manifested in the bitter jealousy and selfish ambition of this world. His wisdom is earthly, unspiritual and demonic.
Verse 16 tells us the outcome of this kind of wisdom.
Disorder and every vile practice.
Disorder. “a restless, unsettled state.” Translated unstable in chapter 1.
With no authority, there is no submission. With no submission there is no order.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine you have bought tickets to hear a symphony. You are in a great hall and a large orchestra fills the stage in front of you. Before the program begins the violinist in first chair stands up to take the microphone away from the conductor. He explains to the crowd that a small group of musicians have discovered that the idea of a composer is restrictive of individual freedom, that music bars are prison bars. We have decided that we for the individual to flourish we must cast off oppressive structures. This conductor seeks to enslave us. We will not recognize his authority tonight. He sits down, the flustered conductor attempts to begin the night’s piece. Some of the orchestra try to follow him, but the majority break out into a chaotic explosion of sound. What do you have? Discord. Disorder.
In the early 20th century a group of artists sought to bring the ideals of total freedom and originality into their fields. Musicians like John Cage expressed the postmodern philosophies of freedom in their avant-garde works. It was going to change music forever. The genre didn’t last long. Because nobody likes it.
Total freedom and chance cannot produce beauty.
You can’t have order and beauty with a room full of individuals competing with one another.
Earthly, unspiritual and demonic wisdom produces discord.
Doesn’t that sound like our world today?
The second outcome of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition is every vile practice.
The novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky said something similar in his famous work The Brothers Karamazov, in a conversation about God and morality a character notes that “if there is no God everything is permissible.”
Does that mean everyone who doesn’t believe in God will do all kinds of terrible evil?
No, but don’t we have terrible examples of what happens when ambition is unrestrained by a higher authority?
Racial ambition and jealousy gives us holocausts and genocide. Financial ambition gives us the slave trade and child labor. National ambition gives us war and prison camps. Ambition and jealousy in the church gives us gossip, slander, division and scandal.
Augustine wrote that “humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”
There is a wisdom that is false. It comes from a place that is earthly, unspiritual and demonic. If you follow it you will get disorder and every vile practice. You can recognize it by two signs: bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.
Now James moves on to true wisdom.
The good news of James is that there is something greater than us in this world, there is a wisdom that comes from above.
In verse 17 James shows us how to recognize true wisdom.
The first mark of true wisdom is back in verse 13.
1. Wisdom is shown by works.
If you’re wise you won’t sit on the sidelines as a critic.
“Wisdom is knowing what to do next, virtue is doing it.”
– David Starr Jordan
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
From verse 13, we move to 17 and the list continues.
2. Wisdom is pure.
If you’re wise you won’t drink from multiple sources.
You won’t try to serve God and money. You won’t try to enjoy sin and holiness. You won’t try to be a disciple of Christ and some secular teacher.
3. Wisdom is peaceable.
If you’re wise you will not seek out conflict. Your objective is not beating your opponent but winning them over.
When you are peace loving, you love the whole more than the parts. You love the diversity of God’s creation. You appreciate people who don’t see the world like you do. You understand the value of having people who don’t look like you and who have different personalities and perspectives than you do in your life.
I’m so proud of how this church handled the COVID-19 crisis. We have different opinions. Some of you feel very strongly that masks are unproductive and a dangerous sign of government intrusion into the realm of private rights. Some of you feel very strongly that masks are the simplest and most obvious way to demonstrate concern for others and support leading medical professionals. We have strong opinions in this room. But do you know what we don’t have? Conflict.
4. Wisdom is gentle.
If you’re wise you will use your strength to help others. You will never use your strength to wound or hurt.
A gentle or meek person does not retaliate, not because they are weak, but because they are strong. Because they are strong enough to master their own emotions, they are strong enough to see the needs of others.
“that genuine concern for people in their need to be loved, accepted, and treated with dignity”
– Erickson, R. J.
“One of the most difficult things in the world is to argue without passion and to meet arguments without wounding. To be utterly convinced of one’s own beliefs without at the same time being bitter to those of others is no easy thing; and yet it is a first necessity for the Christian teacher and scholar.”
– William Barclay
5. Wisdom is open to reason.
If you’re wise you will value truth over your beliefs.
You’ll understand that your perception does not equal reality.
You will listen.
You will change your mind.
You will recognize what is good in your opponents.
Here’s a test: can you explain someone else’s viewpoint as fairly or better than they would themselves?
6. Wisdom is full of mercy and good fruits.
If you’re wise you will have mercy.
You won’t seek to destroy someone who is different than you.
You won’t minimize the feelings of others.
You won’t minimize the honor of others or seek to shame them.
Robert Johnstone says:
“The Christian man loves to make allowances for the ignorance and weakness of others, knowing how great need he stands in constantly of having allowance made for himself both by God and man.”
7. Wisdom is impartial.
If you’re wise you will seek the good of every tribe.
You won’t despise differences.
You will recognize the value of people who are different than you.
You’ll seek to understand the hopes and dreams and troubles of people who are different than you.
8. Wisdom is sincere.
If you’re wise you will be open about your mistakes and weaknesses.
If you’re wise you won’t hide ulterior motives or seek to gain influence in order to promote your own glory.
This list is great as a checklist. Is my perspective, opinion, choice . . .
- open to reason
- full of mercy & good fruits
You can use this list if you’re are looking for a source of wisdom: you may be listening to the radio, or a podcast or watching a YouTube channel. Do they fit the qualifications of true wisdom?
This list is great if you are evaluating a potential leader in your life or your own potential leadership.
You can use it when you’re in the middle of a conflict in marriage trying to find a way out, when you’ve got a big decision in front of you and you are torn between two options, when you’re having a conversation about complex social issues or ethics.
In verse 18 James shows us what wisdom produces. He pictures a field, ripe with grain and ready for harvest. The harvest is righteousness, the field has been sown with seeds of peace by peacemakers.
Every act of wisdom sows seeds of peace.
Every time you own your mistake and apologize.
Every time you offer your forgiveness.
Every time you rejoice at someone else’s success.
Every time you choose mercy over judgment
Every time you listen, really listen to someone to hear their heart
Every time you cross the aisle to connect with someone different than you
Every time you take the back seat to let someone else get ahead
You are sowing seeds.
And if you do that over days and weeks and months and years, you have a harvest of righteousness.
I heard the greatest compliment I’ve ever received about our church recently. Do you want to hear it?
Someone said to me, since I’ve been hear I haven’t seen one instance of drama in this church. I haven’t heard of any conflict or division. I don’t hear any gossip.
I thought YES! That’s peace. That’s righteousness. That’s the way of Christ and we’re doing it here!
What if I get it wrong? What if I’m not wise. What if I’ve already blown it?
I don’t come here on Sunday mornings to preach good advice, I come to preach good news. There’s a difference.
You may have noticed that we don’t take time at the end of our services to compare ourselves to one another and celebrate the ones who are really getting it. Everyone in this room is struggling.
The good news is that there is one person who got it and got it perfectly.
There is someone who never made a bad decision or passed along a faulty opinion.
Jesus was the living embodiment of wisdom.
He is pure. There was no hint of selfish ambition in his life, in the desert of temptation he rejected every demonic appeal to power, pleasure and pride.
He is peaceable. When he was struck he turned and offered the other cheek, he prayed for his enemies and blessed those who persecuted him. When he could have rallied legions of soldiers against his enemies, he instead surrendered himself to their spears and whips.
He is gentle. He had ultimate power, but the smallest child and the most wounded and tender souls were safe in his embrace.
He is open to reason. It was never his own interests, but the cause of truth and justice and will of the Father that guided his decisions.
He is full of mercy and good fruit. Wherever he went, he left behind trains of souls who deserved the sword of justice yet received the medicine of mercy. Heaven will overflow with the fruit of redeemed souls and reconciled relationships.
He is impartial. He served no party, he swore allegiance to no nation. He was a servant of all from the greatest to the least.
He is perfectly sincere. He never acted a part, he never covered ulterior motives with false masks.
Jesus is the ultimate peacemaker.
When he hung on the cross, at an enormous cost to himself and bearing an unimaginable strain Jesus brought together righteousness and mercy, justice and love came together in his body.
On the cross he brought together sinful rebels and their holy God.
On the cross he destroyed every barrier of class, gender, ethnicity and nationality that separated the world.
He restored the union of heaven and earth, spirit and body, eternity and the temporal.
Through the cross he brings together our stains of sin and folly with great strokes of perfect artistry to create breathtaking masterpieces of wisdom and redemption.
Jesus knows your sin and folly. He came to live the wise and good life you could not. He came to offer you not only his wisdom but himself.
Our purpose here is much more than to gain some helpful tips for life.
Our purpose here is to be swallowed up in the greatness of Christ and to bow our hearts in reverent worship.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown