James 07: Discerning for wisdom

James 3:13-18 – 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

I want to start tonight by asking who here has ever gotten a speeding fine, can I see your hands? Keep them up if you could avoid that fine if you were given a second chance?  Now I really wish I had that second chance!  Because recently I was bringing home an MC member and was driving through a stretch of road I’ve driven many times before.  I’ve seen the 60km/h signs, I’ve seen the warning signs to check my speed, and I’ve got Helen generally telling me to slow down everywhere.  And my answer to those warnings is almost always, “yeah, I know”.  Drivers, I’m sure you know what I mean.  But guess what.  I lost my clean driving record in a flash that night.  Literally in a flash.  The expensive lesson I learnt? It doesn’t matter that I know a lot if my actions don’t reflect what I know. 

And as Christians I’m sure is something we all struggle with daily.  We know so much about the bible, we know the right doctrine, we know who God is, but that’s it.  We just know a lot.  There’s no transformation in our hearts to act on that knowledge.  So it’s no wonder that a lot of us feel like we’re stagnant.  At the start we felt growth because we’re learning and gathering so much information, but we’re now just flat lining. Then there’s some of us who get easily disappointed as Christians because no matter how hard we try, we find ourselves doing the opposite thing over and over again.  And then there’s some of us who also feel like we have imposter syndrome.  We’re just Sunday Christians and don’t really know how to live as Christians every other day of the week.  We just know a lot.  James says we’re struggling because we’re missing one thing.  Wisdom.    

But why’s James talking wisdom all of a sudden?  It’s because wisdom brings everything he’s said and will say together.  This passage isn’t random in the middle of his letter.  It’s not because he’s got some space left to fill out in chapter 3.  But it’s like a speed limit sign that makes us check our hearts for wisdom.  Because over the last couple months we’ve heard how to navigate trials and temptations in life, to be doers of the Word, to be impartial and to tame our tongues.  But James says knowing all this means nothing unless we have the wisdom to apply it in our lives.  So the ultimate question for us tonight is do you have wisdom?

We’ll look at 3 things, the test for wisdom, demonic wisdom and heavenly wisdom. 



The Test for Wisdom

To begin James asks us a very simple question.  13A Who is wise and understanding among you? Do you think you’re wise? Do you think you have understanding?

How would you answer James’ question tonight?  Because if you think about it, other than maybe doing a wisdom series like we did in February, can you agree that wondering whether or not we’re wise isn’t something we’d do often?  As prep for tonight, I asked Helen after a nice dinner, “Babe… How would you describe wisdom? Would you say you’re a wise person?”.  Do you know what she responded with? “Why are you asking such deep questions?”.  The fact is we just assume that we have wisdom because we know a lot in life.  

So even though no one put their hands up to answer James, I’m sure deep down in our hearts we puffed up a little saying “yeah, I’m pretty wise” “I know quite a bit”. 

But then what do you say makes a wise person?  Is the wise someone who can answer all the questions asked of them? Is the wise someone who has multiple degrees hung up on the wall? Or is the wise someone who’s a leader and minister of this church?

Here’s what can happen if we’re not careful.  We can easily think of wisdom to just mean having information or more information.  That if I just join Kingdom Growth classes, listen to Tim Keller podcasts, study Ps Yosia or Edrick’s sermon summaries on Instagram, participate in MC discussions – then I can say that I have wisdom.  Isn’t that how we normally think of wisdom?  Well if that’s our thinking, then we’re foolish!

Why? Because if anyone says they’re wise, James says okay well “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom”.  Meaning having knowledge is only part of the picture, but it’s not wisdom.  I love what Alec Motyer says “Nothing is known until it also reshapes the life”.  Church, wisdom in the bible goes beyond than just knowing a lot about the bible.  It’s great you know everything the bible says cover to cover.  But to have wisdom requires us to show that our lives are changed by it!  So tonight James gives us a test to discern if we truly have wisdom or if we’re just lying to ourselves.  He says you have wisdom when you can demonstrate two things, “good conductand “the meekness of wisdom”.  

Good Conduct

So the first part of the test for wisdom is having “good conduct”.  Now when James says good conduct, he doesn’t mean you need to live a perfect Christian life. That’s not what he’s saying.  What James means is that when we live our lives in obedience to God, that wisdom to obey God produces what scholars call a ‘beautiful lifestyle’.  Meaning when we obey God, we don’t do it like we’re being forced to, or because we’ll feel guilty or like we’re completing a checklist.  It’s like yes! Don’t swear – tick, don’t watch porn – tick, read the bible – tick, pray before eating and sleeping – tick.  No, there’s nothing beautiful in that.

Rather what drives us to obey God is because it brings us so much joy to do what’s pleasing to Him.  And it’s something not done once or twice just because we’re in Church or MC.  But we gladly obey God every single day.  Eventually it’ll become a habit.  Aren’t we reminded of just how Jesus lived on earth?  The bible says he was wholeheartedly obedient to God the Father.  And because of it wherever Jesus went, crowds were drawn to him.  There was something attractive about Jesus and nothing they’ve ever seen before.  His actions were beautiful.  Church, like Jesus the wise person’s motivations for obedience is never ‘I have to’ but ‘I want to’.  I want to obey God because I love Him!  It’s genuine. 

Take marriage for example.  If a husband says he loves his wife but then always does the bare minimum, the chores, organises dates, and says nice things only because his wife tells him to do these things, would you say the husband truly loves his wife? Of course not.  But if the husband takes initiative to do all these things and more because he absolutely adores her, how do we normally respond seeing that? Aww so cute! What a relationship!  See the difference?  They’re genuine actions done from love.  I think most wives just side eyed their husbands. 

As a point of reflection, what’s the manner in which you obey God today?   Is your obedience genuine and become a habit? Or is it forced because it’s done out of obligation? Or maybe there’s no obedience to God at all in your life.   

The point is when we obey God the way Jesus was obedient; we begin showing good conduct in our lives.  There’s just something beautiful about our actions and people are drawn to it.  And it’s not because we’re good ourselves, but there’s just something Godly in what we do.  Our conduct is good, because our God is good.  Let me say that again.  Our conduct is good because our God is good!  So the wise person says James demonstrates good conduct with their lives. 

Meekness of Wisdom

And the second part of the test for wisdom is having “the meekness of wisdom”.  Now don’t miss this because without meekness in our lives, we can never have good conduct.  But what exactly is meekness?  In the original Greek, the word for ‘meekness’ is used to describe having ‘power under control’.  So here, James says the meek are wise because they’ve put aside their own power to submit to the one with absolute power, God. 

Douglas Moo says “Christian meekness, or humility, comes from understanding our position as sinful creatures in relation to the glorious and majestic God.”  Meaning we can show meekness when we realise that before God, we’re nothing but sinful broken people.  There’s just nothing good that we can do on our own.  And without God in our lives we’ll just end up destroying ourselves and the people around us.  But it’s not to just stop there in our thinking.  The meek have the wisdom to see that at the same time, God doesn’t leave us on our own.  That despite our imperfections He sent His one and only son Jesus to not only be the best example of good conduct, but to also be the very way that enables us to submit to Him.  Because when we look to Jesus we see a powerful God who comes down to our level.  We see a God who is patient, kind and gentle with an undeserving people.  And we see a God who in his meekness died to save the very people who killed him, you and I.  Church, this is the Gospel.  The Gospel is what enables us to submit to God and be guided by Him. That’s the meekness produced by wisdom! The Gospel becomes our assurance that despite our shortcomings and failures, He still loves us. 

And do you know what happens when we hold onto that truth?  It changes how we relate with each other.  We can meet the sins and weaknesses of our brothers and sisters in the way Jesus meets our sins and weaknesses.  Not with condemnation, but with meekness.  We no longer seek approval or recognition from others, but instead seek to serve and encourage others.  And we’re no longer troubled when people falsely accuse us or say we’re wrong, but instead are patient with them. 

So then on reflection, do we have meek and humble hearts? Or are we more concerned about living and getting our own way in life?  Because James says the wise person also has the meekness of wisdom. 

Church, can you see that having wisdom changes every part of a person’s life?  We can’t say that we’re wise and understanding or that we know the Gospel if our lives don’t prove it.  So tonight can you say that you have wisdom?  Does your life show “good conduct” and “meekness”?  Because if we can’t pass this test for wisdom, then James says we’re driven by another type of “wisdom”.



Demonic Wisdom

14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 

So after pointing out how we can recognise wisdom in our lives, James now shows what the opposite of that looks like.  If what’s central to the wise person is God, what’s central to the foolish person is themselves.  It’s a heart governed by “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition”. 

But don’t misunderstand James here, he’s not saying all jealousy or ambition is a sin.  These feelings can be used for our good.  In marriage, there’s jealousy if a spouse gives someone else an unhealthy amount of attention.  We can also have ambitions to build and improve our community and church.  So having jealousy and ambition isn’t a sin.  But! it’s a sin when our jealousy or ambition is infected by “bitterness” and “selfishness”.  Instead of wanting to do good for others, we’re just looking out for ourselves and our own interests.  

If bitter jealousy is focused on what I don’t have, selfish ambition is focused on what I’m going to do to get it.  They’re two sides of the same coin.  We see life as a giant race and all we want to do is just beat everyone.  It reminds me of me and Jeremy when we were kids.  When leaving the house we’d always race to see who’ll be the first to touch the car.  No one said it was a race but we just did it anyway.  Can say that I still win.  But it’s like that.  We become competitive and just want to win no matter the cost.  Have you been around these types of people before?  They’re not pleasant to be around right?  But if we’re honest, isn’t this who we are?

At work when you’ve been wanting that promotion for so long and you’ve sacrificed so much to be the best candidate, but lose the promotion to a junior.  What do we do? Post on their Linkedin saying “congratulations, well deserved!”, but despise them in our hearts. 

At school, when the student who’s been a no-show all semester, gets a better grade than us.  What happens?  We become annoyed, say “it’s a fluke” and maybe would spread some goss, “don’t tell anyone but do you know what Sam did the other night?”

At home, when we’re tired and just want to watch Netflix, then get nagged to do the chores.  What do we say?  “Hmpf… but I’ve done more than you this week.  I deserve a break!

And at MC or church, when we hear our brothers and sisters being blessed with a new car, a new job, a new family member, new iPhone, a boyfriend or girlfriend, got engaged, got their PR.  What’s our response?  “Praise God, I’m so happy for you” “That’s so awesome”, but deep down we’re bummed.  We’re disappointed because that should’ve been me.  And our hearts groan, “How did they get such blessings? What did they do that I didn’t do? I’ve been a good Christian, I’ve kept up my bible reading this year, I’ve sacrificed so much more!  I’m so much better than them! When’s it gonna to be my time?” 

Church if this is how we respond to others then let me be the first to say that you’re not living a life of wisdom.  You’re someone who has bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in their hearts.  And James says, “do not boast and be false to the truth.”  In other words, stop kidding yourselves! You may claim to have wisdom, but your hearts are so far from the truth.  We can’t say that we know the Gospel on Sunday or what James taught us the last couple months, if we then let bitter jealousy and selfish ambition run wild every other day of the week.  That’s not living a beautiful lifestyle.  It’s not showing good conduct and meekness.  It’s hypocrisy and it’s unattractive.  If anything it’ll just show that we don’t really know the Gospel and that we don’t have the wisdom from above. 

But then if this isn’t the wisdom from above, what is it? James gives the answer in verse 15, “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  It’s a kind of “wisdom” that only makes sense to the world.  It’s not from above or from God.  And because it’s not from God, it won’t include God.  It’s focused entirely on you, and what you want, what you deserve and what you should have. 

It’s “earthly” because it values only the temporary things of this world.  It’s concerned with how much more wealth, power, and influence I can get over other people.  

It’s “unspiritual” because it fails to see that there’s more to life than meets the eye.  All it’s concerned with is satisfying the desires of the flesh.  It says “YOLO”! 

And finally, James says it’s “demonic”.  Wow. I hope we don’t just brush this off lightly, but take it as a serious warning.  Because if we have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our hearts, it can only come from one source.  The devil.  There’s no mistake here church.  It’s a demonic “wisdom”.  See the devil is never concerned about others or God.  He’s only concerned about satisfying himself and making us like him. 

And do you know what the scary thing is? We don’t even realise that we’re doing the devils work.  Can you see how easy it is for our sin to grow?  It starts off earthly.  We think there’s no harm in getting more money, there’s no harm in just admiring women, there’s no harm in wanting to excel.  But then it slips to wanting more because suddenly it makes us feel good.  But it doesn’t stop there.  It slips even further until what we thought was harmless in the beginning is now a burning fire of passion.  And we’ll do anything to satisfy it.  Even if it costs our relationships. 

Look where this leads to in verse 16 “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  There will be disorder and every vile practice.  That’s what happens when we only care about ourselves.  People often think that when you take God out of the picture, there will be peace.  No.  The opposite happens in a Godless society.  There’s an increase in death, poverty, crime, war because everyone’s only thinking about themselves.  Closer to home.  How’s your relationship with your spouse, your children or your brothers and sisters in Christ? Are there any cracks and divisions starting to show in your relationships, your MCs or ministry?  James says check your hearts! Because if there’s grievances and broken relationships, there’s demonic wisdom at heart. 

And before we move on, while James’ letter is written to the whole church.  Tonight’s message is especially important to the leaders of this church.  Because as the church looks up to its leaders we have a responsibility to lead our church or to lead our ministry in step with the one we follow, who is Christ.  Because too often we think we’re wise but deep down we’re harbouring bitter jealousy and selfish ambition against one another.  Too often we point to others and say “repent” “confess your sins” but fail to see the sin in our own hearts.  Too often we forget Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.”  Are we still yoked to Christ and learning from him? Or have we started to focus on ourselves?  If we want to see our church grow in unity and in peace then it needs to begin at the top. It begins with us yoking ourselves to Christ who is meek.

Because when we yoke ourselves to Christ as leaders, as ministers and as a church, there is wisdom.  Not the destructive “wisdom” that’s demonic.  But a heavenly wisdom that governs our lives and the church.



Heavenly Wisdom

17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Phew! It’s like we can finally take a deep breath.  After showing us the consequences of demonic wisdom, James now says “But the wisdom from aboveis different.  It doesn’t lead to disorder and evil practices, but leads to harmony.  It’s what causes unity within God’s people.  Isn’t that what we want in this church?  It’s a picture of what true wisdom produces.  It’s like James saying “alright guys, now you know the test to see if you have wisdom and what wisdom isn’t but listen! This is what true wisdom is and where it comes from!  This is what causes us to live a life of good conduct and to be meek”. 

So James gives us a total of seven attributes of wisdom which are evident in a wise person.  And he begins with purity, “But the wisdom from above is first pure….  Now what’s purity and why is it important to be listed first?  Purity describes a person’s unmixed submission to God.  It’s like when you want to see how valuable gold is, you test its purity.  Pure gold is more valuable than gold mixed with other metals.  So someone who’s pure is a person wholly devoted to God.  Even though they live in a fallen world, they’ve separated themselves from the practices of the world.  If they sin, there’s conviction in their hearts to grieve that sin, confess and repent.  And James says purity comes first because it’s from a devotion to God that the following six attributes come to fruition.  Let’s take a quick look at each one.       

Peaceable”, means someone who’s peace-loving.  The wise seek peace and unity instead of division without compromising the gospel or giving in to sin. 

“Gentle” means someone who’s considerate and willing to yield.  The wise respond with kindness and patience instead of being defensive and ready to fight. 

“Open to reason” means someone who’s willing to listen and obey.  The wise aren’t stubborn to push their own agenda, but are able to take the perspective of others, and ready to be persuaded. 

“Full of mercy and good fruits” means someone who’s compassionate for those suffering and then acts on that compassion.  The wise are those who readily offer grace even in situations with no returned benefit to them. 

“Impartial” means someone who’s steadfast to the truth and doesn’t show favouritism.  The wise aren’t double minded in loving God one minute, then loving the world the next minute.  They’re loyal to God in all areas of life.

“Sincere” means someone who’s genuine and trustworthy.  The wise are transparent and have no hidden agenda.  It’s a picture someone who isn’t a hypocrite. 

What a list to live by! And where does living out all these attributes of wisdom lead to?  It leads to peace.  James says “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace”.  It’s a peace which enables the wise to go and sow the same attributes of wisdom in the lives of others.  So when we live in wisdom, we reap a harvest of righteousness that others can benefit also.  It’s an ongoing cycle of sowing and reaping, sowing and reaping.

But there’s a problem.  Looking at that list, hands up if you’re lacking in one or more of those attributes of wisdom?  Well the easiest thing that I can do is to say well church since you know what the attributes of wisdom are.  Just try harder.  Go home, remember them and just do your best to live with wisdom in your life.  End of sermon.  But if I do that, I’d probably get a phone call from Ps Yosia tonight.  Because here’s the problem that we all have.  No matter how much we try to have wisdom by living out each attribute, we will always fail.  And I’m sure we’ve experienced this many times before.  For example, we’ve tried to be gentle and even prayed about it, “God, I promise to tame my tongue by being gentle today”.  Then we get on the road and the next thing you know it’s not only the car horn that’s beeping.  We’ll always end up failing.  Why?  Because we are all sinners.  Whether we like it or not our hearts by default just live for themselves.  Sound familiar?  The reality is that our wisdom is the wisdom of the world.  It’s foolish and demonic by nature.  And because of it we deserve every bit of God’s judgement and eternal wrath. 

So then what hope is there for us?  Church, there is hope.  And our hope is not found on what attributes of wisdom we need to perfect, but is found on who the attributes of wisdom point to.  James this whole time is not telling us what is the wisdom from above that we need to have, but who is the wisdom from above that we already have.  And who is that wisdom?  Jesus!  I love what Paul says in 1 Corinthians, he says Christ Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption”Church do you see that?  We can have wisdom because Jesus became our wisdom!

And how can Jesus be our wisdom? Because Jesus was the perfect Son of God who was in every way pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, merciful, full of good fruits, impartial and sincere.  He is everything we read in verse 17! Yet even though he personified every attribute of wisdom, do you know what happened?  Instead of peace, he experienced pain, suffering and every vile practice.  He was mocked, stripped and tortured in the most horrible way.  Instead of unity, his body was broken, torn and crucified on a splintered cross.  But that wasn’t all church.  For it was on that cross that the whole world witnessed the ultimate act of good conduct and meekness.  Jesus took our place of condemnation that we deserved and suffered God’s eternal wrath on our behalf.  Just let that sink in for a second.  Jesus had all of heavens glory and majesty, yet he graciously gave it all up for you and I who had nothing but our wretched sins.  We should’ve been the ones eternally punished for our foolishness! But do you know what we received instead?  Heavenly wisdom.  What Jesus accomplished at the cross gives us that second chance we could never have! And it’s not just any second chance that we can fail ever again.  Because Paul says that wisdom is also our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption”.  Meaning it comes with the guarantee that we will live as a righteous, holy and saved people of God because we have in our hearts heavenly wisdom himself, Jesus, in our hearts.  Just how beautiful is the Gospel!  This is what Keller says, “The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering (arrogance) and snivelling (discontentment). I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.”  Church the Gospel is our very confidence that we have wisdom.  Yes we’re still flawed and far from perfect.  But what causes us to pass the test for wisdom, live in good conduct and with meekness, and even begin to live out the attributes of wisdom, isn’t because we can ourselves. But it’s because we have Christ working in our hearts.  That’s why James says we can be peacemakers. We can go on to sow that wisdom in the lives of others, in our homes, workplaces, classrooms and this very church.  What an assurance that we have! 

To close I just want to say that then it doesn’t mean as Christians you won’t ever struggle.  Oh you will struggle! But on those days when you’re struggling to love others, be peaceable, gentle, open to reason and so on, don’t look for answers in self help books, what people say you should do or even to yourselves to just try harder.  No, don’t do that.  You’ll just feel more disappointed.  But rather discern for wisdom at the foot of the cross.  Gaze upon the cross and behold what Christ has done for an unlovable wretched sinner like you.  Because only then will you be reminded of the heavenly wisdom within you to continue living out good conduct and the meekness of wisdom. 

Let’s pray.



Discussion questions:

  1. What struck you the most from the sermon?
  2. James says we pass the test for wisdom when we show good conduct and the meekness of wisdom in our lives. Do our lives reflect good conduct and the meekness of wisdom? Explain why or why not?
  3. Can you see bitter jealousy and selfish ambition evident in your life? Where and how does it affect your life?
  4. What are some ways in which we can sow the attributes of wisdom in our workplace, classrooms, family, MC, Church (as they apply to you)
  5. Out of the 7 attributes of wisdom, which attribute do you see yourself lacking in? How does the gospel cause us to live a life of wisdom despite our shortcomings?
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