Two Types of Wisdom (James 3:13-18)

I know of and have dealings with a family that has a number of siblings who are all successful adults. Each is blessed with an abundance of talent and abilities. But one of them excels beyond the others and is the natural leader of the family. He is not the oldest, nor absolutely the most successful. And he is certainly not the most aggressive and bombastic. In fact, he is likely the quietest and most sedate. Yet this is not because he is weak in mind or conviction, quite the opposite. He is the epitome of strength under control; and when he at last speaks within the group, all the others listen and follow.

It is such a person who is pictured by James in our section of his letter today. He writes …

James 3:13 – 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.

The wise sort of person that James introduces here is a seasoned individual who is truly deep in “understanding” – an interesting word that in the original language was defined as one who is “intelligent, experienced, one having the knowledge of an expert.”  We all want to be this sort of person and demonstrate that in the way we live. James says this ability comes from the “humility” that is the byproduct of wisdom. Here is another interesting word that is used 11 times in the New Testament – always translated as either “humility” or “gentleness.”  But that doesn’t give the full flavor of the term, as we don’t have a single English word to translate this. It pictures something very different than a merely soft-spoken meek individual. Rather it is a bottled-up strength that is completely controlled and bridled – in fact this word was used to speak of a horse whose strength was fully broken and under the control of a bridle.

So how do we become such a powerfully gentle individual? It relates to what wisdom we choose to deploy – the wisdom of this world, or the wisdom that comes from above. The former is spoken of in verses 14-16 …

James 3:14 – But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

James says to watch out for a “winning at all costs” sort of attitude and action. The picture is of a zealot who is contending for a cause, and that is the way of the world. Get to the top and don’t worry about those stepped-upon; it was their own fault that they didn’t get out of the way. We might even draw to remembrance the situation between Cain and Abel, as these attitudes had an early start in the human condition.

When we think of zealously contending for a cause, our minds rather quickly go to the wrangling we see politically in our culture these days, so often evidenced by harsh verbiage in social media or on network news. So it is actually humorous to discover that the word in verse 16 for “disorder” would be used by Greeks to describe anarchy and political turmoil – Luke doing exactly that in Luke 21:9. So that’s where human wisdom of watching out for #1 will take you.

But there is another type of wisdom. Here then is the sort of wisdom that gives a genuine, quiet strength …

James 3:17 – 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. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

This heavenly wisdom is free from any wrongful agenda and is clean and sincere. If you want to harvest anything, that crop will have to grow in the correct environment and conditions. This is true for an outcome of righteousness. You reap what you sow. Success comes from a healthy process. To grow a garden, you can’t be trampling on the crop all summer and hope to have a harvest in the fall.

There is an interesting story of an African-American man named Daryl Davis who has spent the past three decades befriending white supremacists and Klansmen. He goes to where they live. Meets them at their rallies. Dines with them in their homes. He gets to know them because, in his words, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? Look at me and tell me to my face why you should lynch me.”

He says, “It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting. I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’ I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated. They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them.”

Overcoming evil with good. Using the wisdom that comes from above. It can make you an expert in living life.