In the second part of chapter 3, James talks about the nature of true and false wisdom. We’ll close out the week by looking at the first part of this discussion.
Jam. 3:13-16 Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. (14) But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. (15) This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. (16) For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.
If You Know, Let It Show
How do you know when someone is truly wise? What is the best measure of intelligence?
I think one reason James talks about how to recognize authentic wisdom is because of the church situation of many of his readers. They had moved to new cities and began to assemble with other believers. Who was going to be in charge? Who had the wisdom necessary to guide the local assembly? So James helped them identify the truly wise in their midst.
It’s no accident that this question follows James’ discussion of tongue control. Many people who think they’re wise want to let the world know by talking about it. That’s not the measure of true wisdom, though. True wisdom and knowledge reveal themselves in good living, good works and meekness of wisdom. Let’s look at each of those traits separately.
True wisdom shows up first in “good conversation.” Virtuous living is the ultimate IQ test. (The Old English word conversation means behavior or lifestyle.) If you want to know if someone is wise, see how they live. Harvey MacKay wrote a book entitled “Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt.” That’s it. Don’t let people talk you into thinking they are wise – examine their character. Look for those who live wisely and ask them how they do it. If you’re wise, show it by living well.
True wisdom shows up in good works. A person who really has good character will show it by doing good works. The distinction here is between the Pharisees, whose self-proclaimed goodness consisted mostly of what they didn’t do, and the Good Samaritan, whose good deeds exceeded his reputation.
The third trait of wisdom is its “meekness.” Meekness isn’t weakness – it’s restrained power. It’s Christ laying down His life on the cross when He could have requested 12 legions of angels to deliver Him (Mat. 26:53). In this context, it’s being wise, but not beating people up with your wisdom. It’s knowing you’re right without demanding that others acknowledge that you’re right. (More on this in our next study.)
Envying and Strife
If you’re so called wisdom produces “bitter envying and strife’ that’s nothing to be proud of. Don’t call that wisdom. Real wisdom doesn’t make you jealous of others. It doesn’t demand that others bow to your superior wisdom. Real wisdom is committed without being cantankerous.
I think a word of caution is in order here, though. Sometimes real wisdom does create jealousy and strife in the hearts of those who don’t have it. I’m thinking here, of course, of Christ and the Pharisees. No one ever had more wisdom than Christ. No one was meeker. But the Pharisees hated Him. The main reason they orchestrated His crucifixion was that they envied Him (Mat. 27:18). James is talking about what true wisdom produces in “your hearts,” not how others react to it.
Earthly, Sensual, Devilish
Where does this wisdom come from that causes those who have it to be jealous and ornery? This isn’t the wisdom God gives in answer to prayer (1:5). No, there are three other sources for wisdom of this kind.
It can be “earthly.” Earthly wisdom is the wisdom of this world. It’s the “everybody knows” wisdom that sounds good, but is really ungodly. Here are some examples:
- Do unto others before they do unto you.
- Nice guys finish last.
- Blow your own horn, because no one else will.
False wisdom can be “sensual.” Sensual wisdom is wisdom derived from the senses or experience. This is the “I always say” kind of wisdom that we hold because of what we been through. “You can’t trust anyone,” we say, because we trusted someone and they let us down. We often trust this kind of wisdom more than any other because it’s rooted in experience. The problem is, though, that we come to all sorts of wrong conclusions based on limited or faulty information.
False wisdom can be “devilish.” Devilish wisdom is the result of Satan’s work in the world.
This kind of wisdom, the kind that leads to envy and strife, creates confusion. Who’se right? Who should you side with? Who should you follow? It’s like our modern politicking. Both sides spend their campaign trying to convince you that their opponent is the devil incarnate. When its over, you wonder who is telling the truth, and you’re left to choose between devils. All kinds of evil deeds are the fruit of this sort of wisdom.
How Are You Doing?
- Do you have the kind of wisdom that shows through your good living, good works, and meekness?
- Or does your “wisdom” make you jealous of others and disagreeable?
Read James 3:13-16. What is the best way to show that you are wise?
What are some of the traits of false wisdom?