Faith That Works: James 3-Part 2 Jim Erwin
February 18, 2018
If there’s one thing we’re good at it’s knowing who’s the best. Obviously we’re right in the midst of the winter Olympics right now and we’ve determined that Shaun White is the best snowboarder in the world, Mikaela Shiffrin or Lindsey Vonn are the best skiers, and we’re probably all deeply wondering who the best curlers are in the world. Has anybody watched curling or dreamed of being the sweeper? Now I don’t know if we have any aspiring Olympians around here. I was disappointed to learn that the oldest athlete on the US team is 39 years old-so I fear that my Olympic dreams might be over. But determining who’s the best in the world at something is quite a competition, a rather large pond-so that’s where we bring it down a few notches to a smaller pond like our schools. It’s not too hard for students to quickly determine who’s the best in their class-the best athlete, or who’s the best looking or the best dressed, or the best singer. And I’m sure we all remember who had the best grades. Were you the smartest kid in your class? Or if you’re still in school, are you the smartest kid in your class? In my class we all knew it was a battle between my good friend Travis and the brainiac Michelle. All through elementary school these two were the smartest ones in our class by far-until freshman year another girl named Heather moved in and gave them a run for their money. I’m sure you can remember the valedictorian from your class or who scored highest on their SAT or ACT test. As students we all knew who the smartest ones were in class because those were the ones you wanted to get help from with your homework. They were the ones you wanted to do group projects with-because often they did most of the project themselves and you were just along for the ride getting the A. Now I wasn’t the smartest student in my graduating class-but I’d like to think I was the most entertaining-which has a lot of merit itself! But the reason I bring up this topic of the smartest kids or smartest students is because we place a lot of importance on intelligence in our society. We all know that the genius kid in school who wasn’t very popular is going to go on to be the famous inventor or scientist or multimillionaire entrepreneur like Steve Jobs or Bills Gates. These are the kids with promising futures because intelligence will get you far and open doors-however-and this is the point this morning-God’s Word doesn’t often talk about intelligence. It doesn’t often talk about who’s the smartest and gets the best grades and scores highest on exams. Instead, God’s Word talks about wisdom.
Over and over that word is mentioned. If you’ve spent any time reading the book of Proverbs you will have come across it-Proverbs 4:7 NIV. Notice that it didn’t say get good grades or be the smartest person out there or rely upon your intelligence-it said get wisdom. This is something very different from intelligence or knowing facts or having a good SAT score. Wisdom is the ability to skillfully apply knowledge to the matter of practical living. Wisdom is taking what you know in your head to be lived out in your life. As we continue our series in the book of James we’re going to see that wisdom ultimately comes from God and is demonstrated in a life that reflects Him. I like what one definition said-Knowledge enables us to take things apart-like computers or cars-but wisdom enables us to put things together. From a spiritual perspective, wisdom enables us to put God’s truth together with our daily lives.
So open your Bibles to James 3. As you’re doing that I want you to think about the wisest person you’ve ever known. This is a very different question from who was the smartest. The wisest person you’ve ever known might not have been very smart. He or she might not have been educated or well read. They might be just an ordinary person who exercised discernment and good judgement, someone who took what they knew and applied it to their life. Maybe you had a grandparent or a parent who was wise; maybe it was a teacher or a mentor or a boss. Maybe you had a good friend who was really wise and was always trying to steer you in the right direction-whether you ended up heeding their advice or not. Throughout stories we always see someone wise guiding the main character-the wise Gandalf guided Frodo, Yoda guided Luke, the wise butler Alfred guided Bruce Wayne-aka Batman, or even the wise Scarecrow helped guide Dorothy-and the interesting thing was that he only wanted a brain. Despite not having brains the Scarecrow was very wise and sensible-as the Tin Man famously says in the original novel-the Scarecrow is probably the wisest man in all of Oz. So as you think about the wisest person you’ve ever known-look at how James says that person’s wisdom is displayed-James 3:13.
This is a very important verse for two reasons. First, James has circled back to this idea of works. Remember a few weeks ago when we studied chapter 2 where James established the point that faith without works is dead. He was saying that if someone claims to have faith, but has zero fruit, no good works in their life to show for it, then it’s just a hollow claim. A life of faith is revealed by our good works. Those works aren’t the requirement for our salvation, but they’re the inevitable result of it. So likewise as we’re in chapter 3, James is saying that if someone claims to be wise and have understanding about spiritual things it will be displayed by his good conduct, meaning his good works. A person can’t say they’re some wise, spiritual expert who’s got it all figured out if they have no fruit to show for it. Wisdom is demonstrated by godly living. So secondly, did you see how James described the essence of godly living in the verse-verse 13b. I’ve got that phrase underlined in the my Bible-the meekness of wisdom. Or if you have the NIV it says-the humility that comes from wisdom. So Point 1: Wisdom is inseparable from meekness. These two things go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like PB&J. If you just have the PB you’ve got a dry sandwich that’s hard to get swallowed. And if you just have the J then you’ve got a soggy sandwich without any substance to it. It’s why PB&J are inseparable, just like wisdom and meekness. So from a biblical perspective-wise but arrogant doesn’t go together. You can’t say-I want to be wise and noteworthy. People need to notice my wisdom. I want them to applaud my wisdom and see how great I am. It doesn’t work like that because the very essence of wisdom is meekness and humility. And if we go back to Proverbs we’ll see why-Proverbs 9:10. What that means is when we see and understand God for who He is-when we realize that He is our infinite, all-powerful Creator who is perfectly just and holy, our only response is a proper fear. To realize the cold, hard truth that He is God and we are not. And this is the age old issue that mankind has tried to ignore and forget because we want to be a god to ourselves, we want to be in control and call the shots and do what we want. Humility and meekness don’t come naturally to us-but when we see God for who He is in all of His greatness and majesty it can’t help but result in humility and meekness. Godly wisdom says, I take a knee, I bow in reverence and awe to God who is so much higher than me. Back to Point 1: Wisdom is inseparable from meekness.-because the person who is truly wise knows who God is and knows who they are. One Bible commentator said-R Kent Hughes, p 134:
The true root of wisdom is having a profound understanding of the greatness of God and our own finiteness and sin, which in turn facilitates the God-glorifying character trait of meekness. Wisdom and meekness are interrelated. No one can be considered wise who is not at the same time meek. Meekness is the moral characteristic of wisdom.
So if you’re someone of wisdom there will be a meekness about you. Or look at it the other way-if there’s no meekness or humility in your life than you’re probably not exercising godly wisdom. Back to verse 13. James is saying that this is something that’s evident and clearly visible. You shouldn’t have to work hard to convince someone that you’re humble or meek. It ought to be readily apparent. Now meekness doesn’t mean weakness. Jesus described Himself as meek and He wasn’t weak at all. Likewise Moses was considered meek and there was nothing weak about him either as he stood before Pharaoh. Meekness isn’t being shy or withdrawn or indecisive, rather meekness is defined as power under control. It’s being benevolent and kind, unaggressive and mild or as we studied back in the fall during our series on the fruit of the Spirit-meekness bears many of the qualities of gentleness. There should be a gentleness and mildness about the way you live and treat others. Someone who is wise doesn’t live a life described by harshness or arrogance. Earlier when I talked about who was the smartest in your class I mentioned the SAT or ACT test and if you ever took one of those they always had a section of analogy questions-this is to this as _______ is to _________. And you had to choose the right set of analogies. For example palette is to painter as scissors are to barber. And whether you liked those questions and that part of the test or not, James is doing something similar here. He’s saying that wisdom is to meekness as foolishness is to arrogance. He wants us to see how those two sets of analogies go together-and that’s what the next set of verses describe.
We’re going to further explore what wisdom and meekness look like-but first James wants us to understand what it doesn’t look like-verses 14-15. So this is where the contrast comes in. There’s wisdom from above-and then there’s the earthly, unspiritual, demonic wisdom which we’ll define as wisdom from below. And what’s at the heart of it? James says it’s bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. Not two things any of us should be eager to pursue in life. So Point 2: Wisdom from Below: motivated by selfish ambition. What’s in it for me? That’s what the world’s wisdom asks. That’s what it’s chasing and seeking. Look out for you. Follow your heart. Do what you want and what feels right to you. No one should get in your way. You got this. You’re amazing. You can and you will. Those are the kinds of messages we hear. These are the kinds of things we hear Olympians say after they win a medal. They’ve zeroed in on being the best in the world and nothing will distract them from that goal. Now God’s not out to spoil our dreams and crush our spirits by making us feel all lowly and meek. He doesn’t want us to give up in the life or settle or second best. He wants us to accomplish great things and dream big-but He wants us to do it with the right motivation and for the right goal. God doesn’t want us to dream big out of selfish ambition and what’s in it for us. He wants us to dream big for Him and for His kingdom. But the world’s wisdom, the wisdom from below, forgets that. This is communicated well by David Platt, p 83:
The wisdom of the world measures everything by how it affects you. It’s concerned with how you can advance yourself, promote yourself or assert yourself. When looking at conversations and circumstances, the question at the forefront is always: What can I get out of this?
And maybe you’ve found yourself doing that. I know I have. It’s way too tempting to compare myself with others and either become boastful-Well, at least I’m a lot better off than that guy. Clearly I’m way more talented than he is. Or it creates envy and jealousy which James spells out so clearly-Wish I had what that guy had. Wish I was as talented or as successful or as popular as he is-whatever it might be so that it becomes about performance and talent and who’s better or smarter than who. And all that does is make us second guess God and either be mad at Him for not blessing us as much as we think He’s blessed someone else. Or we throw a pity party and develop resentment to God for not treating us the way we think we deserve. Well God, I’ve worked so much harder than anybody else, when is it my turn to be noticed? When is it my turn to be promoted or praised or recognized for my talents? When will I get what I deserve? Have you found yourself asking those questions before? Even if you didn’t intend to be thinking that way, it’s easy to end up there. It can start off so simply, but it becomes so subtle because that kind of thinking permeates our world and our culture-but it’s nothing more than bitter jealousy and selfish ambition as James says. We’re back to that question from Point 2: Wisdom from Below: motivated by selfish ambition. What’s in it for me?.
That’s what happened to Eve in the Garden. That’s what the serpent got her to be asking. Look at Genesis 3:1. He’s getting her to question it and think, That’s not good for you, why is God trying to ruin your fun and stifle your ambition? So he goes on-Genesis 3:4-5. He’s trying to get her to reject God’s wisdom which was to be fruitful and multiply in the Garden and obey His commands. The serpent is trying to get her to reject God’s wisdom from above and trust in his wisdom from below. And how does he do that? What’s his tactic? Appealing to her selfish ambition-to get her to go after what she wants. Which is exactly what Eve did-Genesis 3:6. But the truth is that the devil’s tactics haven’t changed. He still wants you and me to be caught up in our selfish ambition. He wants us to believe the lie that our selfish ambitions are a good thing, the right way to live, that how else are we going to get ahead in life if we don’t push our way and advance our agenda and fulfill our desires at all costs? He wants us to view jealousy not as something negative, but to see it as a right-They have what I should have, they’ve unfairly gotten what was coming to me, so now they’re standing in my way and it’s my right to be angry about it. And then we convince ourselves that that person isn’t someone to reach out and love, but an obstacle to be annoyed with and trample over. He wants to paint our jealousy and selfish ambition in such a good light. Haven’t you found yourself justifying jealousy before-but remember he’s the father of lies. He wants our eyes blinded to the truth of where those things actually lead so that we’re caught up in the here and now. The devil wants us so consumed by the immediate pleasures of what we want in the moment that we lose sight of God’s long-term good for us. He doesn’t want us to look at things from an eternal perspective, he wants us to see the alluring sway of self-advancement and personal desire so that we fall hook, line and sinker for the wisdom from below. And why does the devil want us to pursue the wisdom from below? Look at verse 16a-We’ll reach our dreams? We’ll accomplish great things and find the content and satisfaction we’re seeking? That even though being selfish isn’t good, it’s the means to getting what we want? Hardly-verse 16. That’s the fruit of our jealousy and selfish ambition. We try so hard to convince ourselves that jealousy is warranted and selfish ambition is a good thing-but the result is disorder and every vile practice. James is clearly warning us that adopting the wisdom from below doesn’t lead us to where we want to go.
Do you like disorder in your life? Do you like a disorderly, chaotic schedule so that you’re frantically running around all over the place without a moment to catch your breath, never seeing your spouse or kids because you’re all going in different directions? Like a disorderly kitchen full of dirty dishes or a disorderly pile of laundry that needs folding? Or do you like a disorderly house where everything’s a mess and you can never find anything? Where’s the phone charger? No-of course not. Disorder is not something we strive for in life. Chaos is not an enjoyable experience. But James says when we follow the world’s wisdom from below that tells us selfish ambition and jealousy are okay-then chaos is what we get; that disorder will start to dog us and before we know it every vile practice. And by that he means lying, stealing, cheating, manipulating, adultery, slander, gossiping like we discussed last week. It’s anything you’re willing to do or any ways you’re willing to compromise in order to get what you want. That’s where wisdom from below leads. And so you and I have to ask ourselves-are there places where this kind of wisdom has crept up in our lives? Are there places where you’re tolerating jealousy? Are there people you envy? Is bitterness or resentment growing in your heart? Is selfishness starting to consume you in certain areas? Or things you want so badly that you’re basically willing to do whatever it takes to get them? Are you always insisting on your way and demanding to have the last word all the time? Those are the sorts of questions to be asking yourself because what does God want you to pursue? Wisdom from above.
Look at verses 17-18. Talk about an incredible list. When you begin to walk the path of God’s wisdom this is what it looks like-these are the things that start to happen. Instead of disorder and chaos there’s peace. James used this word three times in these two verses to drive home the point. So Point 3: Wisdom from Above: produces peaceful relationships. How can I connect with others? This is totally opposite from the wisdom of below. The wisdom of below is singular. It’s centered on one-you or me-give me what I want, what’s in it for me? It’s thinking that starts and stops with self. But the wisdom from above is plural, it’s about many different people. It’s about being others-centered and creating relationships characterized by peace. That last verse is so powerful-verse 18. This is describing someone with a heart where selfish ambition can’t thrive because they’re so zeroed in on making peace with others. They’re not worried about elevating self, they’re focused on building relationships with others. Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount-Matthew 5:6-9. All of those qualities are repeated in James’ list here. It’s no accident that what Jesus said there is what James considers wisdom from above.
Go back through that list-verse 17a-and by purity James is referring to spiritual integrity and moral sincerity. This is the person who’s constantly checking their motives at the door, meaning this is the person who’s sincerely praying for the Lord to purify them and root out selfishness so that they’re centered on being the kind of person God’s called them to be. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but it means they’re constantly asking the Lord to purify their heart. David’s a great example of this. Talk about a guy who messed up by falling victim for the wisdom of below when he sinned with Bathsheba. But how did he pray after he confessed-Psalm 51:7-10. David sought purity. Or look at his words in Psalm 26:2-4. David didn’t want to live with a double-standard, hanging out with hypocrites. He wanted a purity of heart as he walked with God. That ought to be our prayer request. Test me, try me, examine me, Lord, purify my heart-because selfish ambition creeps in so simply and subtly as we said earlier. We’ve got to be continually purified-and as we do go back to the list and see what’s produced-verse 17a.
Open to reason. Isn’t that a powerful and convicting statement? If you have the NIV it says submissive or the other translations say willing to yield. Let’s be honest, we don’t really like to yield in traffic, much less in life. But James is talking about someone who’s teachable or compliant. That word submissive means exactly what it says-to be someone who’s okay with submitting to others. That you’re open to other people’s ideas and suggestions and you’re able to make changes based on their advice instead of stubbornly continuing down your own path. Open to reason means that you realize you’re not always right-ouch! That’s not something we like to think about-but the person who’s wise recognizes the value of others and hearing and acting on what they say. Men, how open to reason are you with your wives? God’s given them wisdom that you need. Don’t blow it off. Or what about the wisdom of the body of Christ? God’s given us each other to learn from and listen to-let’s be wise and do that. I came across a quote that said-A man or woman is in a bad way when he or she is no longer persuadable. Are you no longer persuadable? Do you no longer listen to others or heed their advice? Look at Proverbs 28:26; 29:1. It’s to our own folly that we don’t listen to the words and the rebuke of others. Remaining stiff-necked only shuts down the relationship-Oh, you think that about me, you think I’m acting like that, that I do that-then forget you. Lots of people respond that way. I’m sure we all have before. But someone of wisdom says Thank you for sharing that with me, I needed to hear that. Pray that God will help me make those changes in my life. Being open to the reason someone shares with you builds the relationship. It means that now you’re working together as a team, listening to one another and sharpening one another as God would have you. That’s what the wisdom from above is all about-back to Point 3: Wisdom from Above: produces peaceful relationships. How can I connect with others?
As the rest of James’ list says-it’s about offering mercy to others-not getting revenge. It’s about being fair and impartial to others-not playing favorites or showing favoritism. It’s about being sincere and genuine in how you connect with others-verse 17. The idea is that those who are full of wisdom don’t have to be something they’re not. The wisdom from above means you’re not putting on a show or wearing a mask or going through the motions. There’s no pretense or artificiality being described here-with the wisdom from above what you see is what you get. And that’s the essence of meekness-the very thing that started off this passage-verse 13. This is how we’re called to live. And there’s no greater place for meekness to start than humbly coming to the cross. When God’s Word talks about wisdom-and about having a proper fear and understanding of who God is-it’s meant to lead us to the One who is the true wisdom of God-and that’s Jesus.
Look at what it says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-20 NIV. The wisdom of the world, the wisdom from below, is all about that selfish ambition and pride-and that doesn’t allow someone to come to the cross. The world’s wisdom sees the cross as folly, as foolishness, because the cross is about that humility and meekness. The cross says you have to admit the truth about yourself-that without Jesus you’re lost in your sins. The cross forces you to conclude that only the sacrifice of Jesus can save you and nothing else. The cross removes all selfish ambition and jealousy-because it says that before God we’re all equal. No one has a leg up, no one is any better than anybody else-and the moment you start to think you are or that you’re somehow deserving, you’ve missed it and you’ve fallen victim to the world’s wisdom from below. The wisdom from above says you need the One who’s come from above-and that’s Jesus. Look at how this concludes in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 NIV. Jesus is where wisdom finds its fulfillment. He’s the answer. He’s the one that wisdom has been pointing to. There is no wiser thing to do in all the world then trust in Him. You could be the smartest, most intelligent, learned, scholarly person out there-but if you miss Christ than you’ve missed everything. And many people miss Him. They’re so caught up in the world’s wisdom or their own wisdom that they miss truth of Jesus right in front of them. The way of wisdom is found in Him. Wisdom from above is surrendering your life to the One who’s come from above. That’s what we’re called to do. That’s what each of us has to do-to wisely surrender ourselves to Jesus and trust in Him. And when you do that He’ll forgive you and save you and begin to transform you into someone fit for His eternal kingdom. What did Jesus Himself say-Mark 8:36-and the world’s wisdom says Yes, that’s the goal, that’s the dream, to build an empire and rule the world. But wisdom looks past that and it sees eternity. So wisdom does what Jesus says-Mark 8:35. That’s wisdom-losing our life only to find it saved in Jesus.