Everyone wants the good life. We go to school in pursuit of the good life. We pick a career field in order to go after the good life. We buy homes in desirable towns and cities in furtherance of the good life. Some people even strategically pick their friends in light of who might best advance them toward the good life.
General James Mattis gave an outstanding inspirational speech at a charity event recently in which he recounted a true story from his time in the Middle East. American troops caught an enemy combatant in the act of planting a bomb, an Improvised Explosive Device, in the very road that Mattis had just driven over.
They were surprised to discover the man spoke English fluently, so they brought him to the General. Mattis made clear that the man’s future would soon include an orange jumpsuit, and ordered that he be taken away. But on his way out of the room, the prisoner stopped and turned back to Mattis with a question. “If I’m a model prisoner, if I do exactly as I’m told, do you think it might be possible someday for my family and me to emigrate to America?”
Even as he engaged in attempted murder of American soldiers, what that man wanted most…was the good life.
The Good Life
We all aspire to it. Today’s Bible passage from the book of James redefines the good life as God sees it. And it all boils down, James says, to growing in wisdom—not just information, but wisdom. The good life comes from practicing wisdom as God defines it. And that’s exactly what today’s passage unpacks.
Turn with me in your Bible or Bible app to James chapter 3, beginning in verse 13. While you’re turning there, we left off with the question of how you will use the 800 million words you will speak in your lifetime—with James’ alarming warning that the tongue is a tiny part of your whole body, but outrageously disproportionate in its impact. The tongue, James cautions, is as deadly as wildfire and well able to ruin others and burn your own reputation to the ground. James 3:7-8 he concludes…
“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
We left off with that very negative assessment of how our words matter, and we desperately need the power of the Holy Spirit to reign in our tongues, to use our 800 million words to bless and instruct and lovingly correct and build up and strengthen and encourage, rather than the prevailing winds today of using words to divide and conquer, to brag and boast, to win by wounding. If we are truly following Jesus, our words will and must be vastly different from the broader culture around us. That was God’s word to believers in the first century, and it is just as great a need and opportunity today.
On to today’s passage, God’s articulation of the good life. We read, James 3:13-18…
“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. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
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. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
What is Wisdom?
Two kinds of wisdom contrasted: the so-called wisdom of the world, meaning attempts at wisdom apart from God’s revelation, contrasted up against true wisdom, which comes from practicing what God has revealed is the good life. The good life comes from practicing the heavenly wisdom described in this passage, and repenting of the worldly, false “wisdom” that is so often prevalent but must have no place in Christ’s Church, among Christians.
Let’s start with a crystal-clear definition of wisdom. Wisdom is applying God’s revealed truth to every area of life. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Wisdom is not just stuffing your head with information and facts. Wisdom is doing, practicing, working out what God has revealed in the Scriptures regarding everything they speak to: money, sex, power, work, relationships, God in his Word speaks into every area of life. Wisdom is applying God’s revealed truth to each area of life.
Let’s unpack what that does and does not look like. In this passage, James tells us three things about wisdom: how to spot true wisdom, how to sniff out counterfeit wisdom, and how to grow in wisdom. When you take the jeweler’s hammer and strike the diamond that is this passage, these are the three facets that gleam forth: how to spot true wisdom, how to sniff out counterfeit wisdom, and how to grow in wisdom. Let’s take them one at a time. First…
- How to spot true wisdom.
“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 behavioral, not intellectual.
That’s where James begins. Ever-practical, both the Old and New Testaments make clear that wisdom is easy to spot. You know it when you see it, because you can see it: wisdom or lack of it is shown by our actions—the good life, James calls it: “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” That’s a beautiful mouthful.
Verse 13 is an “if – then” declaration: If you have true wisdom, then it will show up by your good life, that is, in good works done humbly. This is how to spot true wisdom.
Most people have an elevated view of themselves and their wisdom. There’s actually a name for this. In the field of social psychology, it’s known as illusory superiority. Illusory superiority is the tendency to overestimate our own qualities and abilities, while underestimating and downplaying the same qualities and abilities of other people. Illusory superiority shows up in Americans’ self-reported strengths in math and science, when in fact students in many other countries demonstrate higher competency in those areas. We just feel good about ourselves, and we imagine we’re better than others.
When professors at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln were surveyed, for example, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability. Would you like to hear that again? 68% rated themselves to be in the top 25% for teaching ability. More than 90% rated themselves as above average.
James goes a different direction: the way to know you are wise, he insists, is by the good life you demonstrate, good works, done with a great attitude, an attitude of humility. Just like Jesus. This is the good life.
And we’re called to pursue it. “Let them show it” is an imperative in the Greek, meaning it’s a command. Go for this! This is worth devoting ourselves to! This is how Jesus, and the Twelve, and the early church, and ordinary Christians all through history, have honored God and drawn others to Christ—by the good life they lived, humbly doing good along the way.
By the way, this is why we offer the “free prayer” outreach here in the YMCA. The most recent time we did so, there was a man who had been fired from his job. He was sitting at home and his wife told him to go work out at the Y. He came here to sweat out the stress, but God. God had an interruption planned for him. He stopped and poured out his heart, and he was able to receive the blessing of being prayed for. It’s a simple thing, a practical way we can show true wisdom by this “deed done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
The humility that comes from wisdom
Let’s talk about humility. Humility isn’t looking down on yourself. Humility isn’t putting yourself down. Another translation puts it as meekness. But meekness or humility doesn’t mean you make yourself a doormat for others to abuse you.
The Greek word translated humility here is about being gracious. It’s about willingly coming under the sovereignty of God. The adjective was used in ancient times to describe power under control, the example being a wild horse that learns to be useful in battle. That’s not weakness.
It’s the same word translated gentleness in Galatians chapter 6’s description of the fruit of the Spirit, how to know you are Spirit-filled: you’re gentle. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” How do you spot true wisdom? Look for good works done with gentleness, with humility, with graciousness. This, James insists, is the good life, the life Christ calls us to pursue, to devote ourselves to, to pour our energy into.
Dale Durie tells how one fall afternoon not unlike today, his grandfather was at home with his grandmother, when they heard a knock on the door. The visitor was a neighbor who said to my grandfather, “I was out feeding the horses, and I felt like God was prompting me to come and say thank you for the difference you’ve made in my life.”
She sat down and began to tell stories about times when Dale’s grandfather had demonstrated the good life James describes here, humbly doing good for her: lending a hand with her cows and horses, doing a variety of practical things across the years.
She thanked him for being the real deal, what a Christian ought to be like. She went through this list of good deeds built up over the years, including helping restore peace in relationships with some of her children. She finished with, “I just felt like God wanted me to tell you that.”
Dale’s grandfather humbly acknowledged her thanks, then his grandmother struck up conversation with the neighbor. A few seconds later they heard a cough and saw Dale’s grandfather slumped over. He was with Jesus. What a way to go! And what a track record…of the good life, a life filled with good deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. True wisdom is easy to spot.
Dale Durie, from the sermon Mission Possible (6-1-03)
From the positive of how to spot true wisdom, in verses 14-16 James switches to the important negative of…
- How to sniff out counterfeit wisdom.
“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
The Two Kinds of Wisdom
In the end, there are only two kinds of “wisdom:” true and false. There is the so-called wisdom of the world, a “wisdom” that limits itself to no God, and no revelation from God, which by nature cuts out the greatest source of wisdom.
And there is what James calls heavenly wisdom; wisdom that expands our input to include God’s counsel on each area of life.
What’s wrong with worldly wisdom? Consider Omar Bradley’s observation. Bradley was an American Army General who served in WWII and the Korean War. He saw the twisted mess of brilliant minds being put to deadly use, and came out with this observation:
“The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” (Omar Bradley)
Our own smarts, on our own, are not enough to find the good life Christ invites us to experience.
James warns against bitter envy and selfish ambition. The word translated bitter here has the basic meaning of being prickly, pointed, sharp. No doubt you’ve encountered prickly people along the way. Maybe you’ve been a prickly person, or you still are from time to time. That’s not wise, James cautions. Don’t confuse truth-telling with just being a pain, being prickly. Consider the other person before you start cutting and wounding.
There is an ancient tale about two people, one of whom was envious of the other. The envious person was given an opportunity to ask a favor from the king, with the proviso that his rival would get twice as much of whatever he requested. This put the envious person in a difficult position. After much consideration, he asked that one of his eyes be plucked out! Bitter envy.
Adin Steinsaltz, Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters in Life (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 126
Envy is resenting God’s goodness to someone else, while forgetting God’s goodness to you.
William Arthur Ward put it well when he wrote, “Blessed is he who has learned to admire but not to envy, to follow but not imitate, to praise but not flatter, and to lead but not manipulate.”
James also warns us away from selfish ambition. There is ambition that is good and worth pursuing—1 Timothy 3:1, for example, saying that aspiring to leadership in the church is a noble thing. That’s a good ambition. What James exposes is self-centered ambition. The Greek word has a fascinating history. Originally it was used to describe spinning thread for hire, then more broadly sowing for hire, and then over time expanded to refer to any kind of work that was done for personal gain.
I wonder if in our day we might get at the idea by looking at someone becoming a mercenary. The dictionary definition of a mercenary is someone who is primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics. That’s along the lines of what James exposes as counterfeit wisdom: when someone prickles with jealousy at others succeeding, and pursues their own personal gain at others’ expense, that’s foolishness. It contradicts following Christ. It must not be so among us.
Why? James pulls no punches. Verse 15: “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”
The Bible presents the three greatest threats to us actually following Jesus as the world, the flesh, and the devil—all three of which correlate to the characteristics of counterfeit wisdom that James exposes here. The so-called wisdom of this world apart from God is earthly (of the world), it is unspiritual (of the flesh), and it is demonic (of the devil).
Counterfeit wisdom is earthly in that it is limited to the present and only to the material. It has no room for God and whatever wisdom he might impart. But as we’ve talked about another week, if the latest scientific estimates are that more than 99% of all matter is invisible to us—can’t see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, or hear it—then it’s certainly not a stretch to suggest there is also spiritual reality that is just as real, even though we can’t see it. As Christians, we believe wisdom became one of us in the person of Jesus. As Colossians 2:3 declares, we believe that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Wisdom is ultimately found in a person: his name is Jesus, and he came to earth, from heaven. Earthly “wisdom” is insufficient for finding the good life.
Counterfeit wisdom is also unspiritual. 1 Corinthians 2:14 explains, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” If someone isn’t a genuine Christian, they don’t understand the wisdom found in God’s Word. Many times you’ll hear people’s testimonies that it was only after they came to faith in Jesus that the Bible came alive to them. That’s the personal power of the Holy Spirit.
Third, James warns, counterfeit wisdom is actually demonic. I was just telling someone this week how in a college English composition class, we had a professor who one day began class by saying, “Every year I do this, and every year I get complaints. But I’m going to do it anyway. Who here believes the Bible?” Two students raised their hands—an Orthodox Jew and me. The professor then proceeded to attack the Bible in an attempt to disabuse us of believing it is in any way the word of God.
That afternoon I went to my job at a Christian bookstore, with shaky faith, and asked the owner for his help. He took me to the apologetics section—the defense of the Christian faith—and there I found intellectually robust rebuttals of what that prof had just attempted.
Later in college I saw a class on the Bible was going to be offered. I went to that professor’s office to ask what the class covers. “The Bible” was his answer. I rephrased the question, and he again shot back, “The Bible.” After a third attempt at trying to find out what the class would cover, he sighed, and answered, “The myths, legends, and stories of the Bible.”
Friends, let me offer you a reasonable proposition: If there is a God, and if that God wants us to know him and experience the good life as explained here, and if he has spoken to us through the authors of Old and New Testaments, then Satan’s fiercest efforts will be focused on trying to keep you from reading, hearing, believing, and obeying God’s Word. I think that’s a reasonable statement. Don’t fall for counterfeit wisdom, wisdom that limits itself to the natural world without revelation from God.
James has told us how to spot true wisdom: it shows up in the good life, good deeds done with Christlike humility.
He has told us how to sniff out counterfeit wisdom: if it’s the kind of behavior praised by the world, enticed by the flesh, or tempted by the devil, it’s not wisdom. It is hellish.
The Wisdom from God
Finally, in verses 17-18 James tells us…
- How to grow in wisdom. And here we discover the character that makes for the good life. James writes…
“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. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
James holds out seven descriptions of what heavenly wisdom looks like; the character qualities that mark the person who is growing in wisdom.
The wisdom that comes from God is firstly pure. The idea behind this Greek word is being free of contamination, undefiled. James is circling back to what he spoke of in chapter 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” includes “keep[ing] oneself from being polluted by the world.”
The apostle John adds in 1 John 2:3, “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
When you take the Lord Jesus for yourself and begin to yield to his leadership in your life, the result should be a growing pursuit of purity.
Second, the wisdom that comes from God is peace-loving. To love Jesus is to love peace with others. You begin to fight less and pursue peace with others more. As Paul puts it in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” You can’t always. But the one growing in wisdom pursues being at peace with others. You find yourself wanting to build bridges more than put up walls.
There’s a TED Talk that went viral after it applied learnings from a chicken experiment to the business world. William Muir is an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University who studied chickens. He was interested in productivity, which with chickens is easy to measure, because all you have to do is count their eggs.
Muir wanted to know what could make chickens more productive, so he devised an experiment. He put nine ordinary chickens in one coop, and just let them be, for six generations. Fed them, etc., but no special treatment, and nothing special about that first group of chickens.
But then he put together a hand-picked group of nine highly productive chickens—let’s call them super chickens. He put them together in a super flock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding.
After six generations had passed, you know what Muir found? The first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically.
And the second group, the super chickens? All but three were dead. They had pecked the rest to death. And the three that remained had been pecked bare of all their feathers! There’s something to be said about the wisdom of being peace-loving. You don’t have to win every battle.
Margaret Heffernan, “Forget the Pecking Order at Work,” TED Talk (May 2015)
Third, the wisdom that comes from God is considerate. Other translations speak of being gentle at all times, of thinking about others. The idea is that you’re ready to accept someone else’s point of view. The person who is growing in wisdom is open to the possibility that on a given issue, maybe you’re wrong. Maybe the other person has some things to add to the mix that are valid and that you’ve not yet considered. If you honestly can’t recall a recent time when you changed your view on something based on input from someone else, this is the one to focus on, growing in becoming considerate. It’s a key characteristic of godly wisdom.
Fourth is that the wisdom that comes from God is submissive. You’re open to reason, you’re persuadable. You can state your position reasonably and listen to someone else’s position reasonably. One translation is that the wisdom God gives brings “sweet reasonableness.” This is the good life.
You don’t have to win every argument. You don’t have to always come out on top. It’s a word that was used outside the New Testament to describe a soldier willingly submitting to military order and rank. This is wise.
The fifth mark of wisdom that comes from God is that it is full of mercy and good fruit. Another translation says godly wisdom “is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds.” A merciless Christian is doubtfully a Christian. To be a Christian is to be someone who has experienced God’s mercy. And from what we have received, we extend mercy to others.
Sixthly, heavenly wisdom is impartial. It is fair. You don’t play favorites to some but denigrate others. Some of the ways people talk about immigrants these days blatantly defy this description of what godly wisdom looks like. The Greek word used here means not to be parted or divided, that you treat each person the same.
The seventh characteristic of heavenly wisdom is that it is sincere. It doesn’t pretend to be what it isn’t. Another translation is without hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is what Jesus had the greatest problem with, and it’s what Jesus displayed the greatest anger against. Hypocrisy slams heaven’s door shut to more people than we dare to imagine. Wisdom is marked by sincerity, rather than hypocrisy.
And finally, James holds out a promise: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” Another translation says, “Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” What you throw out there, determines what will come back to you. What you plant, determines what you reap. The wise person goes out carrying seeds of “Let me bring some peace into this office, into this next conversation. Let me bring peace into my home, and peace into my church.” And doing that a day at a time, over the course of a lifetime, what you will harvest—what will grow up from what you have planted—is righteousness. The good life.
We wrap up with a wisdom story from our nation’s history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—two brilliant intellectuals and very good friends—eventually fell out with each other over politics, and over personal slights, and each one felt betrayed by the other. Adams served as President of the United States until 1801, when Jefferson was elected in his place. And as great as these men were in the founding of this nation, they devolved into a battle of pride and prejudice.
For years they avoided one another. They refused to write. And it troubled those who knew both men, that this is what they had come to. People couldn’t fathom that these giants of the American Revolution would remain estranged for the rest of their lives.
But then in 1809 a mutual signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, had a dream about the two former Presidents, wrote it down, and sent it to both men. In the dream he saw the two alienated friends renew their friendship and begin corresponding with each other.
John Adams, in the dream, addressed a short letter to Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson responded. These two brief letters were followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually owned up to their errors, and the foolishness of their conduct against each other. This was all in the dream.
Both Jefferson and Adams politely, separately acknowledged their friend’s letter, but did nothing different. Made no steps to repair the damage done.
Three years later, at Rush’s urging again, Thomas Jefferson sent a tentative letter to John Adams. Adams responded with a guarded reply. Adams heard nothing back.
So he wrote to Jefferson a second time. But received no reply. He wrote a third letter to Thomas Jefferson. Nothing back.
Finally in July of 1813, John Adams wrote the following to Jefferson: “Never mind it, my dear Sir, if I write four letters to your one; your one is worth more than my four … You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
And that began the thaw. Dear friends, who had become bitter enemies, prodded by an acquaintance who sowed seeds of peace, began to experience peace between them once again. They remained friends for the last several years of their lives until they died—both on the same day, and only three hours apart: on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Fred Smith, Forgetting the Little that Divides, The Gathering blog (10-22-15)
This is the good life: receiving the wisdom that is to be found in Christ and in God’s Word, and putting it into practice by the good we do, and by the way we do it, with the character traits that mark the wisdom that comes from God.