Wisdom True and False
Two essential qualities
Continuing a theme that appears early in chapter one, James again exhorts his readers to seek wisdom. What is wisdom? As James uses the term, it is the kind of knowledge that enables good moral judgment. We all need it, but we all face the same barrier to attaining it. The barrier is, we think we are wise already (Prov. 21:2). We all without exception attach a great deal of weight to our own opinions and a great deal of doubt to everyone else’s. But as we will see in James 3, there is a true wisdom and a false wisdom. Before you boast in your wisdom, you had better test what kind it is.
At the outset of discussing true wisdom, James gives its two essential qualities (v. 13). First, it is productive of “good conversation” full of “works.” Back when the KJV was translated, the word conversation had a very different meaning than it has today. Today it means “talk,” but then it referred to a man’s way of conducting himself in society. For “conversation” we could substitute “manner of life” and come much closer to what James intends. He is saying that anyone observing the life of a wise man will see nothing but goodness, especially in the form of good deeds. Yes, the man will use good words, tending to instruct, comfort, and encourage, but even more he will make the effort to help others, though it requires a sacrifice of time and energy. For the sake of assisting the poor or God’s work, he will be willing to part with money he had intended for pleasing himself. He will be willing to break out of his own routines and give time to visiting the needy. Indeed, he will be willing to roll up his sleeves and undertake whatever useful work needs to be done. Thus, James is returning here to one of his major themes—that a good man is a doer and not just a talker.
Paul serves as our example. After his ship wrecked on the Island of Malta, he was willing to join others in gathering sticks for the fire (Acts 28:3). This leader of gentile Christianity was not too important to get his hands dirty.
The second essential quality of true wisdom is meekness. The wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and devilish (v. 15) consists of knowledge that puffs up a man, making him prideful. It is therefore an incomplete knowledge, because it lacks a realistic knowledge of self. A man really knows nothing if he thinks he is something. True wisdom begins in the heart with an understanding that self is nothing before God. If a man wishes to be wise, he must accept that he is a wretched sinner, unworthy to receive any of the good things that God has created. Instead, he deserves only to suffer God’s wrath in an eternal hell. This kind of self-knowledge yields a healthy fear of God, which is the foundation of true wisdom (Prov. 9:10).
Because true wisdom is meek, it is not pushy. It is not always seeking to expose the stupidity of others (Prov. 12:23; 17:27–28; 29:11). I have had students who always wanted to contest things that I said or that I wrote on the board. To silence them, it was seldom enough to prove that I was right, if indeed I was right. Pointing out their ignorance merely provoked them to argue, as if the sheer quantity of words is a measure of truth. The only way to stop their counterproductive comments and questions was to deal with the root problem, pride.
Of course, to teach is not being pushy if we have a responsibility to teach. Nor is it ever inappropriate to answer questions or furnish information in reply to someone who is seeking truth. But we do not parade our wisdom or force it on others. What did Jesus do? When challenged by His enemies, He frequently chose to evade the question rather than get into an unprofitable dispute, or he even chose to keep silent (Matt. 21:23–27).
Now turning to discuss false wisdom, James says that it creates “bitter envying and strife,” both deeply rooted in the heart (v. 14). The word “envying” suggests a pronounced resentment toward others in the church, giving rise to hard words or even prolonged war. The word “strife” is similar, although it focuses more on methods than on feelings. It refers to political in-fighting that uses unscrupulous methods to gain an advantage. Both envying and strife arise when someone takes such pride in his own opinions that he is willing to assert them at the expense of hurting others. He insists on his own ideas, paints anyone who disagrees as an enemy, attacks his enemy not only with harsh words but also with maneuverings to make him look bad, and finally tears apart the body of Christ.
James warns against two evil results in particular: glorying and lying against the truth. The first, glorying, speaks of offending the truth by boasting in a party line that is actually a distortion or violation of the truth. The second, lying, speaks of forsaking the truth deliberately, just for the sake of prevailing over others. Both are serious sins because they are the hallmark of God’s chief enemy, Satan. Not only is he the father of lies (John 8:44), but also, like these church members that James is rebuking, he especially gravitates to lies that make him look good.
The Satanic source
Next, James makes explicit the Satanic character of false wisdom (v. 15). It comes not from above, like all the good gifts descending from our generous heavenly Father (Jas 1:17), among them true wisdom (Jas. 1:5). Rather, false wisdom comes from three sources that James characterizes as “earthly, sensual, devilish.” His wording is the Biblical foundation of an idea familiar to Christians down through history—the idea summarizing the sources of evil as three in number: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But notice that James’s wording is more precise. He tells us exactly what is dangerous in the world. It is anything earthly as opposed to heavenly. In other words, it is anything in the world that comes not from the benevolent hand of the Creator above, but from the polluting touch of Satan below. James also tells us exactly what is dangerous in the flesh. It is the sensual appetites that, in their relentless drive to gain satisfaction, overmaster good moral judgment. These appetites include all the desires of body, soul, and spirit that can lead us to disregard the law of God. Finally, James expands upon the threat coming from the devil. It is not the devil alone who endangers the soul. It is also his host of fellow rebels against God, the army of demons under his control, for the word “devilish” could be translated “demonic.”
The fruit of false wisdom is nothing good, either for the man who has it or for the life of the church. It produces “envying” and “strife,” the exact same manifestations of false wisdom given in verse 14, and from these come “confusion and every evil work” (v. 16). “Confusion” suggests the sorry fate of all efforts to continue God’s work in an atmosphere of strife. Bickering and feuding waste everyone’s energy and derail all attempts to win the lost and edify the saints. United effort behind the leaders dissolves into factions with self-seeking agendas. The church as a whole suffers a loss of laborers for every good cause, as well as a decline in both attendance and giving. A spirit of brother helping brother gives way to nasty indifference. The last result is “every evil work.” James may be thinking of what generally happens in the last stages of conflict among members of a local church. All who belong to a combative group go on the attack mode, seeking to take control and force out their adversaries.
From this kind of fighting comes one of two results, both of which I have seen in my experience. The contentious brethren may win. In such a church, torn apart by warring factions and reduced to a remnant who managed to squeeze out everybody else, there is no testimony of God's love and thus no meaningful work of the gospel. The church is dead.
The other result is when the fractious brethren abandon the church, leaving it under the control of the true saints who had war thrust upon them when they desired peace. In such a church, gospel ministry survives, although on a reduced scale through loss of people and financial support. The second result is preferable to the first, but both represent a triumph for evil forces seeking to oppose God’s work.
A church’s top priority must be to stop any conflict before it gets started. Disagreements and misunderstandings and personal slights must be handled immediately in a Biblical fashion, lest they fester below the surface and finally erupt in damaging conflict.