Late in life, General Omar Bradley observed, “the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom,” illustrating the great difference between knowledge and wisdom. He was concerned that we had come so far in acquiring knowledge, especially in developing the technology of warfare, but still lacked sorely in our ability or willingness to make peace, to show mercy, to live the golden rule. People, he believed, largely lacked character and wisdom.
In our passage today, James 3:13-18, we learn that there are two kinds of wisdom. One is humanistic, what we would call carnal, and the other is “from above.”
A person can possess humanistic wisdom and be considered by the culture as wise and successful, even though his or her life is filled with bitterness and conflict. Certainly in our culture, we don’t lack extreme examples of knowledge and skills without wisdom. It’s in the news every day. Our politicians, for example, overwhelmingly are people who can win elections but whom very few people would consider to be statesmen or, in many cases, even people of great character. In our history, the statesmen have been the people with fervent patriotism and who have led not to satisfy their own self interests, but the interests of the people and the nation.
There is an ample list of recent examples. Take Congressman Mark Foley, for instance. He had significant leadership responsibilities as one of the relative handful of people elected to lead our government. While in his leadership position, he was accused of preying on teenage male congressional pages; obviously, not a choice one would call wise.
But that is only a very small part of the story. The leaders in his own party knew about the problem but covered it up in fear of possible political fallout in the upcoming 2006 elections. The leaders of Foley’s own party were not the only ones lacking wisdom. The opposing party leaders also knew all about the problem, and they had known about it for more than a year. But they kept the information from the public until they could time its release to help win Foley's seat in the 2006 elections. Meanwhile, Foley, according to the accusations, continued to prey on the teenagers.
My point is that the behavior of the people involved, all of them national leaders, showed they were more concerned with political advantage than with the welfare of the teenage pages. Wise, mature, statesmen-like leaders would not have hesitated to act quickly to protect the pages regardless of the political impact.
There are so many more examples we could point to in our current political and business culture, from the self-serving pork-barrel spending of Congress to the fraud of predatory lenders; from the cooked books of Enron, MCI, and most likely hundreds of other corporations to the fast-talking salesperson more interested in the commission than the needs of the customer.
That is the wisdom of the world. But there is another kind of wisdom. James calls it wisdom “from above”: pure, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, and without hypocrisy. In other words, it is the wisdom of a person who not only advocates these qualities, but whose life actually demonstrates them.
I often wonder what some of the biblical writers would tell us if they were here with us now. If he were here with us today, I think James would probably tell us that wisdom from above is just as evident in how someone lives as in what they say. These are keys to understanding James 3:13-18.
The connection between wisdom and works (13)
Wisdom is evident through righteous living and good works, as James puts it: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.” That is a pretty clear standard: if I am wise and understanding, I will show it in my behavior. Conversely, as we see around us practically every day, the lack of wisdom from above also is evident in behavior.
James further defines what he means by gentleness or meekness in verse 17: pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, and without bias or hypocrisy.
People with wisdom from above don’t feel threatened by people who oppose or reject them. They don’t insist on agreement, because it is not a matter of pride. They don’t create strife by arguing incessantly. They seem gentle and even merciful, while unwavering in speaking and living the truth.
Verse 13 is and important key to understanding the book of James. The book has been unfairly characterized as legalistic. It is not. James never advocates righteousness and works as ways to merit God’s favor. Instead, the book of James is about Christian maturity, and verse 13 well sums up the overall theme: Christian wisdom, or real maturity, shows itself in appropriate, godly behavior.
The characteristics of carnal wisdom (14-16)
On the other hand, James describes the wisdom of the world in carnal terms: earthly, natural, and demonic. (“Natural” means ”sensual,” according to human senses.)
Just like the wisdom from above, carnal wisdom also has distinctive fruits or characteristics: bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. James mentions these characteristics not once, but twice (verses 14 and 16).
This carnal, or human, wisdom builds on the world’s values as its foundation, which James points out brings disorder and “every evil thing” (a better translation: “all kinds of evil” or “evil of every kind”). We could expand on what James is saying by just looking around us and reading the news. Carnal “wisdom” is controlling, motivated by self-interest and jealousy, leads to rivalries and bitterness, seeks victory rather than truth (as he points out in verse 14, carnal wisdom is arrogant and lies against the truth); it seeks personal glory and results in confusion, disorder, quarrels, and constant struggles.
Carnal or earthly wisdom traps us in an environment of confusion. We constantly try to deal with clashing philosophies and values. We value winning above principle, opening the door to, as James puts it, all kinds of evil. He identifies the root of this kind of false wisdom in verse 15—earthly, natural, and demonic.
Remember how Paul describes the difference between spiritual and natural discernment? “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The Christian’s mind is open to a whole world of understanding and discernment not possible for one who knows only the philosophies of the world, that is, the “natural man.”
So we in the community of Christian faith should not be surprised at the behavior of some people around us. Without the indwelling Spirit of God, there is no spiritual discernment. People we know, as well as our politicians, businesspeople, and the fast-talking salesperson act exactly as we should expect. Using James’ terminology, their conduct exhibits bitter jealously, selfish ambition, disorder, and every kind of evil. The reason we should not be surprised is that “the natural man” lives in complete harmony with his or her world, conforming to worldly values, driven by worldly objectives, and governed by worldly, self-centered, demonic standards.
The characteristics of the wisdom from above (17-18)
James explains that true wisdom is from above. The source of its values, objectives, and standards is not the world and its selfish ambition, but God and His character and will. The Holy Spirit within us is His constant presence and source of our wisdom from above. Solomon wrote that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). “Fear” in that passage means awe, respect, and reverence.
James points out that the standard of wisdom from above is truth and that wisdom from above results in certain fruits or evidences we can see or experience. Wisdom from above is pure, that is, free from moral impurities; virtuous, of godly character. It reflects the pure and holy character of God. But it’s not automatic. Paul wrote advice to Timothy about how to grow in wisdom and maturity: “Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:21). In other words, it’s a choice. We can embrace our self-centeredness, or “flee” from it and embrace the holy and righteous values that characterize God.
Wisdom from above is peaceable (“peace-loving”), and not a product of bitterness, anger, jealousy, or self-glory. People showing wisdom from above have good relationships despite differences. They are forgiving and longsuffering. Wisdom from above also is gentle (meek). Meek does not mean weak. Instead, meekness or gentleness is a character quality that is the opposite of arrogance and self-centeredness.
Wisdom from above is reasonable, meaning teachable, compliant, or submissive. James is referring to a willing submission to God’s standards, to submit to each other rather than being selfish. As Paul advised the Christians in Ephesus: “Be subject to one another out of reference for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
Wisdom from above also is full of mercy, because it is free of pride and envy. The mature Christian devoted to wisdom from above forgives readily, ministers to people who are suffering pain and hardship, and is generally known for kindness and compassion. This kind of wisdom also is full of good fruits. Paul defines these fruits in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
James also tells us that wisdom from above is unwavering (literally, “without partiality”). It shows no ambiguity, double-mindedness, or uncertainty. The authentic Christian will show qualities of confidence in his or her faith and knowledge of God and a lifestyle that is consistent with that faith.
Finally, James tells us that wisdom from above is without hypocrisy. That means without hidden motives or selfish ambitions. The Christian demonstrates wisdom from above by his or her consistency in faith and living and sincerity in living out the fruits of the spirit.