Have you ever known anyone who claimed to be wise but who acted foolishly? True wisdom can be measured by the depth of a person’s character. Just as you can identify a tree by the type of fruit it produces, you can evaluate your wisdom by the way you act. Foolishness leads to disorder, but wisdom leads to peace and goodness. Are you tempted to escalate the conflict, pass on gossip, or fan the fire of discord? Careful, winsome speech and wise, loving words are the seeds of peace. God loves peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
“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. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 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. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:13-18)
“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.” (v13) Wisdom is the ability to see life from God’s point of view—a request He honors because it is actually an appeal to know him better. Prayer is life’s greatest time-saver, so don’t remain confused. Ask God for His wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5) Genuine wisdom, like faith, is a practical matter; it shows up in how one lives. Literally James says, “Let him show by good behavior his deeds in the humility of wisdom.” Wisdom, then, is not something I will merely possess in my head; if I am wise at all, it is something I will demonstrate in my conduct. For James, humility is a yielding of oneself in ready teachability and responsiveness to God’s word, resulting in a good and unselfish life of peace with other people.
“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (v14-15) “Bitter envy and selfish ambition” are inspired by the devil. It is easy for us to be drawn into wrong desires by the pressures of society and sometimes even by well-meaning Christians. By listening to the advice: “Assert yourself”, “Go for it”, “Set high goals”, we can be drawn into greed, pride, and destructive competitiveness. Seeking God’s wisdom delivers us from the need to compare ourselves to others and to want what they have. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33) James’ investigation of false wisdom uncovers the same source as his investigation of the uncontrolled tongue in 3:6–they are both from hell. James’ intention is to point us to a wisdom from heaven in contrast to the wisdom from hell, a wisdom far superior to any wisdom we find in ourselves naturally, and certainly superior to that which comes from demons.
“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (v16) When we envy others, the enemy is successful in shifting our focus away from God and onto our circumstances. We become distracted, prideful, and covetous. Our eyes are fixed on our circumstances and the rights we believe we deserve, and we end up making unwise decisions. This prevents us from enjoying God’s blessings. “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
“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.” (v17) God’s wisdom leads to harmony and peace, while human reasoning leads to arrogance and dissension. Which of these characterizes your life? You can answer that question by evaluating your relationships. When you fail to seek the Lord, it shows. The first and foremost reason for valuing wisdom is that it will lead people to do what is morally right.
Today’s popular relativism makes it all the more urgent that Christians learn James’s passion for purity. Will we do what is wise first of all because it is right? James lists other attitudes and behavior of the wisdom from above. Peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere fill out a picture of humility put into practice. The first three of these traits are terms that James uses only here in his letter; they describe people who can yield status, who care for others and who are willing to submit and learn from others–all in contrast to the bitterness, envy and selfish ambition of false spirituality. The remaining traits weave some of James’s earlier instruction into this picture. Full of . . . good fruit is reminiscent of the recent imagery in 3:12. Full of mercy reminds James’s readers of his urging to be merciful in 2:13. The terms for impartial and sincere are both built upon the root for judge (verb krino, noun krites)–an important concept already in the epistle.
“Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (v18) James summarizes in 3:18 (literally): “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” This connects peacemaking and righteousness (Mt 5:9-10) and suddenly reveals why the disorder in 3:16 is so abhorrent to James. The opposite of the disorder is not a morally neutral order but a morally significant peace. James wants peace for the church because peace is the context in which righteousness can flourish. This is the positive side of what James said in 1:20, that human anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Again, James writes out of a passion for righteousness.
James asks us to examine ourselves for any jealousy or selfish ambition. What circumstances cause you to be tempted toward these sins? What would your conduct look like if you replaced the jealousy or selfishness with wisdom from above? Consider that God allows these trials into your life as a good gift to teach you to respond, not with jealousy or selfish ambition, but with wisdom from Him. Give thanks and praise to God for his goodness in using difficult things to make you more like Christ.
- My notes from Bible Study “Faith: A Bible Study on James for Women“
- Life Application Study Bible (NIV)