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Wise and Otherwise

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            Tonight I want to talk to you about wisdom. *

General Mark Clark was asked what was the wisest piece of  advice he ever got. The general thought for awhile then replied, “Well, the best advice I ever had was to marry the girl I did—my wife.” And then he was asked the follow-up question, “Well, sir, who gave you that advice?” General Clark replied, “She did.”[i]

Who do you turn to when you need wisdom?

            Wisdom is one of those fuzzy words that needs to be clearly defined. The best definition I’ve heard is this: wisdom is the set of principles which enable you to live skillfully and successfully.

            We usually sense our need for wisdom when we face a crucial decision, or a perplexing problem. What do I do? Which way should I go? How do I handle this? We turn to somebody who we think will give us the wisdom to know what to do, to know which path to choose, to get a handle on our dilemma. But you have to be careful.

            Some folks are wise and some are otherwise.—Tobias George Smolett

     The trick is to tell which is which.

            There is no shortage of folks who are glad to share their wisdom with you. You can switch on the TV and Oprah or Dr. Phil, or even Judge Judy will offer their advice. You can make a phone call to your parents, or grandparents, or some other relative and they’ll probably be glad to share their insights. Your best friend, your coworker, your boss, even your spouse might offer to help you choose. Whether it’s a problem with your marriage, your kids, or a major decision about your job or your salary, or how to invest your money or who to vote for, I can assure you somebody will offer some advice about the wisest road to take. Even preachers have been known to offer a word of wisdom on occasion.

Some of what you hear is good; some is not-so-good; some is downright bad. Some will be wise, and some will be otherwise. How can you tell the difference?      

            Tonight I want to look into God’s word and find some guidance. Turn with me to James 3:13-18, and let’s look at the difference between wise and otherwise.


            James starts right off addressing the issue with a question: Who is wise and understanding among you? I can see the hands going up.

            I am! I’m the oldest! that makes me the wisest!

            I am! I’m not the oldest, but I’m definitely the most experienced!

            I am! I’m the most intelligent!

            The people James writes to have a problem understanding the difference between being wise and otherwise. So James gives them some criteria. He begins in vs. 13 with how wisdom demonstrates itself, then goes on in vs. 14-15, 17 to describe the character of true wisdom vs. the character of false wisdom, and finally in vs. 16 and vs. 18 he shows us the fruit of the wise and the otherwise.

            How do you identify a person who is truly wise? James says in vs. 13 they demonstrate their wisdom by a …good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom…

            Do you notice how James repeats a theme throughout this epistle—what you do is the real test. If you are truly wise, then you will live a good life= a godly life, a life that pleases God, a life that shows off God’s goodness. You live your life skillfully, not carelessly. Your habit is to do what is good, as opposed to what is evil. True wisdom is not just talked about but lived out.

            Living this good life is motivated by the …humility that comes from wisdom…James makes a crucial connection between humility and wisdom. A wise person is humble.

            He/she is humble before God. The Bible says in

Pr 9:10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

            The idea here is not just that fearing God is sensible; it’s that wisdom involves knowing and understanding Who is the Boss, Who is in Control, Who is worthy of your utmost respect and reverence: God alone. Wisdom begins by humbly acknowledging there is a God, and you’re not Him.

            But this humility also extends to the reality that God has all the answers, you don’t.the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

The wisdom we need for life cannot be found apart from God. The only way you and I get wisdom we need is to receive it from God. Otherwise, all you really get is the best guess you, or somebody else, can come up with.

This wisdom that comes from humility before God also shows up in our attitudes toward other people.

Is 5:21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And prudent in their own sight!

Wisdom means understanding your own limitations. No matter how wise you get, you still need to keep a humble attitude toward others, because you still have a lot to learn.  

Who is wise and understanding among you? James says prove it!

            Prove it by how you live. Wisdom is not just about speculation or theory. It has to work in practice if it’s real. You don’t prove your wisdom by your words, but by your works. If your wisdom or the wisdom of anybody else doesn’t work in real life, it’s not wise, it’s otherwise.

            Prove it by your humility. True wisdom shows up in a healthy reverence for God, a healthy dependence on God, and a healthy humility towards others. Any so called wisdom is that fails the humility test is not wise, it’s otherwise.

            James is telling us when you need wisdom, you need to begin by humbly asking God, Who, by the way, loves to answer that prayer.

Jas 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

            But it’s just as important not to just ask for wisdom, but to put it into practice. Wisdom doesn’t do you one ounce of good if you don’t put it into practice!

A school teacher lost her life savings in a business scheme elaborately explained by a swindler. When her investment disappeared and her dream was shattered, she went to the Better Business Bureau. “Why on earth didn’t you come to us first?” the official asked. “Didn’t you know about the Better Business Bureau?” “Oh, yes,” said the lady sadly. “I’ve always known about you. But I didn’t come because I was afraid you’d tell me not to do it.” [ii]

            The truly wise person humbly receives wisdom from God and puts it into action. But there’s another question James answers in vs. 14-15 and vs. 17: what are the characteristics of true wisdom? He answers with a contrast between demonic wisdom and divine wisdom.

            Vs. 14-15 describe demonic wisdom with 4 phrases:

            Bitter envy= describes a person who simmers with rage because of what someone else has.

            Selfish ambition= a deep desire to rise above others, to keep the focus on yourself and on your own needs and desires

            Pride= boasting about yourself and your own accomplishments.

            Denying the truth=refusal to recognize reality.

            This is a perfect profile of Satan and his demons.

Is 14:12-15 12“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!... 13For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;… 14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ 15Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit.

Satan was kicked out of heaven for wanting to sit on God’s throne. Instead of worshipping God, his ambition is to be worshipped. His pride was his downfall, and to this day he is living in denial of his inevitable defeat. No wonder James calls this kind of wisdom demonic.

But he also calls this wisdom earthly and sensual linking it to human beings. Sin has infected our hearts and minds with this kind of wisdom.

One of the most recent examples of this kind of demonic wisdom comes from a bestselling book entitled The Secret. It was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, and has been made into a bestselling DVD. What is The Secret about? Let me just quote from the website:

The Secret teaches us that we create our lives, with every thought every minute of every day.

You are a magnet attracting to you all things, via the signal you are emitting through your thoughts and feelings.

To become a powerful money magnet: Fall in love with money.

Visualize and imagine yourself spending all the money you want, as though you have it already. Love yourself and know that you are deserving and worthy of an abundance of money.  Always, always pay yourself first from your wage, then pay your creditors. In that single act, you are telling the Universe that you are worthy and deserving of more.

To transform every single relationship you have in your life: Fall in love with YOU! Make lists of hundreds and hundreds of wonderful things about you. Keep adding to it every day.  Know that you are worthy and deserving of anything and everything you could possibly want in your life. Know that you are perfect right now.

     To open yourself up and become a powerful magnet to wellness and health: See yourself as completely well in your mind and visualize yourself doing things in a complete state of perfect health.  Know you have the power within you to heal yourself.  Never criticize or blame yourself…for anything.  Make your happiness the number one thing in your life.

            Now you might be listening and saying that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. But let me remind you that this book has sold tens of millions of copies. There is a place on the website for testimonies of folks who share how this really worked for them.

            But more tragic is the fact that even those who never read the secret still live self-centered lives that say it’s all about me. James outlines the symptoms:

·         when your heart is full of bitter envy not because of what you don’t have, but because of

what somebody else does have. I can’t see why he gets the breaks and I get ignored. It’s not fair!

·         When your cheer goes from we’re # 1 to I’m #1. People become a means to an

end, another rung on the ladder of your success. I deserve better than this!

·         When your favorite subject of conversation is yourself, what you’ve done, how talented

or gifted or spiritual you are. As Bette Midler once said, But enough about me, let's talk about you... what do YOU think of me?

·         When you live in denial of the truth because it doesn’t fit how you want things to be.

He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, I can’t forgive her….

The devil is excellent at spreading his so-called “wisdom” throughout the world, from Wall Street to Washington, from the high school to the home. It makes you feel good, it helps you cope, it doesn’t cramp your style. The only problem with this, it’s not wise, but otherwise.

On the other end of the spectrum James describes in vs. 17 what divine wisdom, wisdom from above, looks like:

Pure =holy, conforming to the character of God.

Peaceable= at peace with God, at peace with others, at peace with yourself


willing to yield= teachable and not stubborn. It was used of a man who willingly submitted to military discipline, accepting and complying with whatever was demanded of him [iii]

full of mercy=compassionate, eager to help those in need.

[full of] good fruits=active, shows up in what we do.  

without partiality=treats everybody fairly

without hypocrisy= sincere; real.

            It isn’t hard to see the main difference here: true wisdom is not focused on you, but on God and on others. It is the focal point of love for God and love for your neighbor. This is the wisdom that comes down from heaven…This is true wisdom.

            James gives you and I a checklist to use the next time we need wisdom, whether it deals with family or finances, choices or chances. Does the answer line up with demonic or divine wisdom? Does it appeal to my selfishness or selflessness? Does it line up with God’s holiness or the devil’s playbook? Are you going to follow The Secret or the Bible? It will surprise you how these verses can help you distinguish between being wise and being otherwise.

            But the final proof of what is wise and what is otherwise is the end result.

            In vs. 16 James tells us the end result of demonic wisdom is confusion and evil. Putting yourself first may pay off for awhile, but in the end, it makes your problems bigger, and helps you become an evil person. Maybe one of the biggest examples is the bank crisis our nation is facing right now—a crisis which, from all I can understand, is the result of people following the “me-first” wisdom of pride and greed. Who knows how much damage has been done as a result of following this earthly, unspiritual, demonic wisdom?

            But vs. 18 paints a different picture of those who follow the true wisdom from above. The picture is of a sower who sows the fruit of righteousness= the works of true wisdom==which produces a harvest of peace. In other words, those who live according to God’s wisdom bring peace into their own lives, and the lives of others.

            So here are your choices—live wisely, and enjoy righteousness and peace, or live otherwisely, and suffer evil and confusion. You can choose wisdom or foolishness, but you cannot choose the outcome.

            Now let’s get back to you and I. You need wisdom: principles which enable you to live skillfully and successfully. Maybe tonight you need wisdom in dealing with an issue in your relationships. Or maybe the issue is one of those big decisions that will change your whole life. Whatever the issue, you need wisdom to do what’s best.

            James gives us a fool-proof way to make a distinction between the wise choice and the otherwise choice. But you must chose.

            How many of you remember the old TV show Let’s Make a Deal? Monty Hall would present people in crazy costumes a choice between door # 1, or door # 2. They chose Door #1 and got an omelette maker, or chose door # 2 and got a vacation to Hawaii. You either got a bad deal or a good deal, depending on which door your chose.

            James has given us a peak behind the doors of wisdom. God has revealed how to know the difference between being wise and being otherwise. Which will you choose?


[i]Lowell D. Streiker, Nelson's Big Book of Laughter : Thousands of Smiles from A to Z, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers

[ii]Jerry Lambert 10,000 Sermon Illustrations, electronic ed. (Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2000).

[iii]John MacArthur, James (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1998), 179.

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