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Wisdom From Above

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James 3:13-18


            We had an old second car when our kids were teenagers. The body was rusty and the doors didn’t seal well, but it always started and got us where we wanted to go. The biggest problem was that it had an oil leak. Wherever it was parked, there was an oil pattern under it. When our sons had girl friends, they were asked to be careful where they parked at their place. We checked the oil regularly and had to add oil quite often, but we never fixed the problem. In other words, we solved the surface problem of maintaining the oil level in the engine, but we never addressed the cause of the problem, which was the leak itself.

            Late last winter, we noticed that there was water under our sink in the kitchen. We put rags there and at one point even put a bucket there. It stayed like that for several months until one day I took the time to check what the problem was and finally tightened a few connections and stopped the leak. In that case also, at least for a while, we dealt with the manifestation of the problem, but didn’t fix the source of the problem.

            Last Sunday, in our study of James, we talked about the terrible problem of the tongue. In the last part of that passage, James raises some hard questions. He asks, vs. 10-12. He reveals the terrible incongruity of what comes out of our mouths. If we try to solve this problem by speaking better or by keeping our mouth shut, we will not really get to the heart of the problem. It will be like putting a bucket under a leaking faucet or adding oil to a car that has a leak. Jesus identifies the real problem when he says in Matthew 12:34, “…how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, the problem is not in our mouth, but in our heart.

            In James 3:13, He asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Why does he ask this question? I believe he asks this question to show that what comes out of our mouth is a direct result of the choices we make in our heart. In the verses that follow, he presents two kinds of wisdom that we can follow. The choice we make about the wisdom we follow will show in the life we live, including in the way we speak. And so we are encouraged to choose heavenly wisdom.

Which way of wisdom will we follow? Will we trust God and follow His wisdom or will we trust ourselves and follow earthly wisdom? Which choice are you making from day to day?

I. Earthly “wisdom” 14-16

            In verses 14-16, James describes earthly wisdom. As Christians, we may think that we don’t need to hear about earthly wisdom because we have been changed by God and we don’t follow earthly wisdom. Really???

            In James 3:9-12, we have already noted that many who call themselves believers have a problem with their tongue. They go to church and praise God and then walk out of church and curse their fellow believer. Somehow they are able to follow a wisdom, in their hearts, that allows them to do this.

            Last week, I had a conversation with someone about the conflicts that are happening in the world. As we thought about the wars that are going on, I suggested that part of the reason for these wars was because people were not following God. But as I said that, I had to admit that there have been many conflicts among people who identify themselves as followers of Jesus, such as the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Again, however, it seems reasonable to suggest that those who are fighting are really not following Christ, they are following an earthly wisdom. But then I had to realize that even people who claim to be Christian and even those who claim to be non-resistant, peace-loving Mennonite Christians also fight. In chapter 4, James asks about “fights and quarrels” among the believers. Then and now, believers who would claim to follow Christ and who would hate war and conflict, nevertheless fight with each other. They too follow a wisdom that somehow allows them to do such things that don’t fit together.

            So it is clear that we do need to identify and understand the wisdom that permits such incongruity in the body of Christ.

A. The Source

            The source of such wisdom is not from God in heaven. It is described in verse 15 as earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.

            There is a wisdom that has its origin in this world and has none of the marks of heaven on it. If you ask people in this world, they would identify some things as wise, even though God says they are not wise.

            Such wisdom is unspiritual or as some translate it, natural. It arises out of the emotions and desires of the human heart and does those things that are natural to people on earth.

            Ultimately such wisdom comes from the devil. When the Pharisees, who thought they were being true to God spoke with Jesus, they revealed their heart in their hatred of Jesus. Jesus told them where their thinking came from and what their true allegiance was when he says in John 8:44, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

            For America to go to Afghanistan and bomb it to pieces in order to force it to hand over terrorists makes a lot of sense to many people, but is the source of this wisdom heavenly or earthly? I believe the source of such wisdom is earthly, natural and has its source in the devil.

            If we understand that there are things that make sense from an earthly point of view but not a heavenly point of view, we can be more aware of the choices we make about which wisdom we will follow.

B. The Deeds

James indicates that such wisdom has two primary motivations. It operates out of bitter envy and selfish ambition.

            The word envy is actually a neutral word. It can be translated zeal or jealousy. It is positive when it inspires to great effort and work. It is negative when it is so zealous and so focused that it begrudges what another person possesses. Perhaps I can describe the difference using an illustration from sports. The zeal to excel and do well in sports is a good thing. If we play hard and do as well as we can and strive to excel, that is a good thing. But when we begrudge the other team a victory, when we use unfair methods to gain an advantage, when we feel hatred towards the other team, we have crossed the line from zeal to jealousy. When envy is combined with the word “bitter” we know that it is decidedly negative. The word “bitter” comes from a word that was used to describe stagnant, polluted water and came to describe distasteful, tragic and painful events in life. Bitter envy then is the heart that looks at others and desires what they have and is angry and upset that they are doing well.

            Before we dismiss this motivation as not having a part of our life, we need to think very carefully. How often, when we see someone succeed, do we wish that they did not succeed as much or wish that we would succeed more? How often and sometimes blindly are we filled with anger or hatred towards another person or criticize another person? Our hearts are even blind to the feelings we have towards another person, but if we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we are jealous.

            The other motivation behind earthly wisdom is selfish ambition. The Greek word used here was also originally a neutral word. It referred to spinning for hire and then came to mean work done for pay. From there it came to mean work only for what a person can get out of it. And so it came to mean a focus on ourselves. It is a negative kind of ambition that is motivated by a selfish spirit bent on immediate personal gain at any cost. The sin of selfish ambition runs contrary to the very heart of the Christian ethic, an ethic based on sacrificial love and humble service of the brethren, as so vividly portrayed in the life of Our Lord (e.g., Mk. 10:43–45)

            This sin is at the heart of earthly wisdom. It is not concerned about the things of God, but is focused solely on self and on promoting self. At its heart is self centeredness. If we think that we are immune to it, we need not dig very deep because it is everywhere. When one church is in competition with a another church, when one ministry in the church becomes upset because it can’t get workers away from another ministry, when we are more concerned about making sure we have a pleasurable life than helping others, when we want to become involved in service to show how good a person we are, then we are filled with selfish ambition.

            Wherever we have envy or selfish ambition, we must know that we are following earthly wisdom.

C. The Results

            Whenever we hear about fights between churches, fights within churches, fights between people who are Christians, fights between Christian spouses, slander and angry words among brothers and sisters, we can be sure that earthly wisdom is at work.

            The result of earthly wisdom is chaos and every evil practice. Chaos is the disorder that comes when people are not working together. Evil practice is anything that leads to hurt and wrong. Whenever we use earthly wisdom, it will lead to chaos and evil practice.

II. Heavenly Wisdom

            But we have a choice.

A. The Source

            A number of years ago, Cabbage Patch dolls were very popular and every expensive. We couldn’t afford to buy our children Cabbage Patch and so we bought them something that looked like them but wasn’t. This kind of thing happens all the time and if you are not careful, you can be fooled into thinking that you are getting the real thing, when in fact you are getting what they call a knockoff. One way to tell the real thing from the false is the source. Where was it made?

            Sometimes we may think that we are walking in wisdom, but we are being fooled. One way to tell the difference is to recognize the source of the wisdom. In contrast to earthly wisdom, whose source is earthly, natural and from the devil, true wisdom has its source in God Himself. James next talks about such heavenly wisdom.

B. The Deeds

            Just as there were knockoffs in Cabbage Patch dolls, the same thing happens with clothing. I once had two shirts that looked identical. One was an original - it was bought at an expensive golf course and I received it as a gift. The other was also a gift, but had been purchased at Kmart or something like that. Not only was the source of the shirts different, the quality was also different. I had the original much longer and it outlasted the “knockoff” because it was made of better material.

The wisdom from above is easily identifiable by its quality. What does such wisdom look like? James gives us 8 characteristics of heavenly wisdom.

            Heavenly wisdom is pure. Although we may immediately think of sexual purity this is a much bigger concept. Purity is integrity. It is that which is transparent, unmixed. What kind of a person are you when no one is looking? If you knew that no one would find out about it, what would you be tempted to do? Purity is being the same way when we are not being watched as we are when we are being watched.

            Heavenly wisdom is also peace loving. I appreciate what my great grandfather once said. The church was in a turmoil because they were planning to buy a new church building. My great grandfather was treasurer of the church at the time and was very fearful of the financial results. The church voted to make the purchase against my great-grandfather’s vote, yet when the vote was done, he fully supported the decision of the church. In choosing to accept the decision of the church, he was following heavenly wisdom and acted with a peaceful intention. In choosing peace, we trust that God is in charge and will bring about what is best.

It is considerate. I once observed a conversation in which one person was being severely attacked. They did not retaliate in their words, but were gracious. They took into consideration the reason for the person’s anger and accepted the confrontation with that in mind. That is what it means to be considerate. It is the ability to see the good in others and is thus able to treat each person with dignity

It is also submissive. A while ago, Amos had a whole message on this. It is one of the most difficult things for us to subject ourselves to someone else. Earthly wisdom is very opposed to this, but the example of Jesus who subjected himself to the Father and to death is our example.

Heavenly wisdom is also merciful. A man committed adultery. Very soon after he had done it, he came back to his wife and apologized for what he had done. She forgave him and accepted him back. Did she have to do so? Earthly wisdom might not have suggested that route. Yet, she had mercy and did do so. Mercy is the ability to forgive and to let go of what holds others in bondage.

It also bears good fruit. A few years ago, we were on a canoe trip. At one camp site, we walked into the bush a little ways and there was a large patch of blueberries, loaded with berries. What a blessing that fruit was. Fruit, of any kind, is a blessing. Heavenly wisdom bears good fruit. It is a blessing to others in its speech, actions and thoughts.

Heavenly wisdom is impartial. One of the sad things we have heard recently is fearful and angry responses to people of Muslim and Arab background. Such judgements are not done with heavenly wisdom in mind. Heavenly wisdom allows each person to stand on their own.

Finally, heavenly wisdom is sincere. You can count on the motives of heavenly wisdom. Recently Jonathan was talking to someone who told him that you should trust no one, have no friends, only acquaintances. It was sad to hear about a person, who had obviously been used by others, come to the place that they could no longer trust others. If we live in heavenly wisdom, we will be sincere with each other and so be able to trust each other implicitly.

As we read these descriptions, we see behaviour which must have God at the center and that is the core of the motivations of heavenly wisdom.

C. The Results

            As we live in heavenly wisdom, there will be results. Instead of chaos and every evil deed, we have the direct opposites.

            In the illustration I gave about my great-grandfather, it is evident that choosing the peaceful way resulted in peace.

            The peaceful result of following heavenly wisdom is also the peace we have in our hearts. David writes, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side.”

            Also in direct contrast to the “evil deeds” which result from earthly wisdom, heavenly wisdom will result in a harvest of righteousness. If you sow wheat seeds, you will reap wheat. If you sow canola seeds, you will harvest canola. If you sow heavenly wisdom, you will reap righteousness. James says in verse 18, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”


“The struggle for supremacy between earthly and heavenly wisdom is a constant battle. It is fought in the mind and will of every Christian believer.”

            The question really is, will we trust ourselves and follow earthly wisdom or will we trust God and follow heavenly wisdom?
            If we do not trust God, we will be inclined quickly towards earthly wisdom. Our decisions, our words, our actions will be characterized by selfish ambition and envy and the result will be chaos and evil deeds. If you have a lot of chaos in your life and in your heart, I would ask you to honestly evaluate the decisions you are making. Are they decisions made according to earthly or heavenly wisdom?

            If we trust God, we will learn to act according to heavenly wisdom and we will choose it rather than earthly wisdom.

            The answer to the incongruity of the way in which we sometimes live is to follow heavenly wisdom. This isn’t always easy. As much as we would like to, we won’t always do it. I believe that there are two keys to choosing heavenly wisdom. The first is to trust God and the second is to ask God to change our hearts. When we do, we will grow in our ability to choose heavenly wisdom and we will discover peace and righteousness.

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