The Wisdom from Below
What is “worldly” wisdom or the wisdom from “below”? James answers this for us in his letter by identifying several characteristics of worldly wisdom. And note that he focuses his attention on what wisdom produces in terms of personal conduct and motivation. Continue reading . . .
What is “worldly” wisdom or the wisdom from “below”? James answers this for us in his letter by identifying several characteristics of worldly wisdom. And note that he focuses his attention on what wisdom produces in terms of personal conduct and motivation.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18).
The first indication that you have yielded to the world’s manner of interpreting reality is that you are consumed by “bitter jealousy” that fuels and energizes “selfish ambition” (v. 14a).
Instead of “bitter jealousy” the word “envy” is more likely. He has in mind the sort of person who is bitter and resentful of others because they have things or power or name recognition that he/she does not. This is the sort of “sour soul” that results in disdain and even hatred of other people. It’s a perverse emotional energy that says: “You have what I ought to have and because of that I don’t like you anymore. Not only do I not like you but I’m going to devote all my efforts to getting what you’ve got. And once I’ve got it I’m going to flaunt it and make sure everyone knows that I’ve finally obtained what I ought to have had from the start.” That’s what v. 14 is describing.
James then explains that when this perverse energy takes hold of a man or woman it leads invariably to “disorder and every vile practice” (v. 16). In other words, peace and propriety and a reasonable approach to life are cast aside and chaos takes over. And the sort of heart that is given to such things will eventually find a way to justify every manner of evil and immorality and vile behavior. That’s what v. 16 is describing.
And what is James’ assessment of this sort of so-called “wisdom” that expresses itself in this way? He says three things about it.
First, it is “earthly” (v. 15a). That is to say, this is the sort of wisdom or perspective on life that is altogether circumscribed or limited by the values and beliefs of this world. No appeal is made to anything transcendent or heavenly or supernatural. What man wants is the measure of what matters. What man enjoys is the measure of what is good. The revelation of God in Scripture simply plays no part in forming this person’s world view or value system.
Second, it is “natural” (v. 15b). There isn’t a great deal of difference between something being “earthly” and it being “natural.” The point in both cases is that the mental and emotional energy that gives direction to life need look no farther than the depraved and self-serving interests of a fallen and corrupt heart.
Third, it is “demonic” (v. 15c). It’s fascinating to note that this is the only place in the NT where this particular word appears. James appears to be saying that the sort of “wisdom” that leads to bitter envy and selfish ambition and arrogant boasting is “demonic” in nature and origin. This is how demons think and behave. And they love nothing more than to seduce people into thinking and acting like they do. Don’t ever forget that Paul talks about “teachings” or “doctrines of demons” in 1 Timothy 4:1. And here James says there is such a thing as “demonic wisdom” as well.
Demons have a strategy for this world and for your church and for your life. And at the heart of it is to lie to you and make it sound like the truth. They aim to convince you that following Jesus is stupid and anti-intellectual and “on the wrong side of history” and contrary to the prevailing winds of enlightened culture. Following Jesus will only rob you of sensual and sexual pleasures that you deserve to experience. Such “wisdom”, says James, is demonic. Don’t be duped by it!
And if you are wondering if James’ language of “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic” corresponds to what the apostle John refers to as the “world, the flesh, and the devil,” the answer is Yes!
And what, in the end, will result from this sort of earthly, natural, demonic wisdom? Two things are noted in particular.
The first is what James calls “disorder” (v. 16), by which he means the disruption of God’s will and ways for how humans should live. Disregard for the revelation of God’s will, confusion rather than clarity, chaos rather than purposeful action. Just stop and look around the world today and what do you see at every turn? Disorder. Don’t mistake what James means by “disorder” as if he’s denouncing genuine, godly fervor and excitement. They are not the same! “Disorder” is whatever steps outside the boundaries of God’s revealed will for how we live and speak and worship. But within those boundaries there must always be freedom and joy and excitement and passion.
But not only disorder, says James, “every vile practice” (v. 16) is in some way justified and said to be within your rights and ought to be protected by law. After all, you have a right to do what feels good. You have a right to pursue your pleasure in whatever way fits your fancy.
Nothing is under control. Everything is permissible. Such is the fruit of the “wisdom” of this world.