Wisdom in Action

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on October 18, 2015)

Last month, when we had our picnic on the lawn, Elaine and I shared a table with some new students at George Fox.

All of them are part of the Honors Program, a unique way of studying. It’s focused on some of the greatest books ever written–reading them, studying history and philosophy and literature all together as you wrestle with the texts. At that point they were only a couple of weeks in, and they were already loving it! It was fun to listen to their experiences, and it reminded me of a conversation I’d had a few weeks before with one of their professors, our own Corwynn Beals.

One of the benefits of this way of learning, he said, is that students get to see the ways that ideas are woven together and build upon each other, the way you can trace threads of ideas through all kinds of the great books throughout history. When you put these all together in your study, those threads and themes start leaping off the page, the connections and repetitions that come over and over again.

I’m wondering if you, like me, are having a minor version of that experience with our study of the book of James. Whenever we spend multiple weeks in one book of the bible, instead of picking different verses here and there, one of the benefits is clearly seeing the threads and the themes in each book come to life, leap off the page. And that’s happening for me in this journey through James.

Today’s section, James 3:13-18, brings together two of the huge threads of James.

One is obviously the thread of wisdom, something James talks about often and right from the start. The second is the thread of actions matching belief, of deeds going with faith, of how we live going hand in hand with wisdom. Wisdom is quite different from intelligence or knowledge, which are more head and belief based. Wisdom is life-giving truth expressed through wise, community building actions.

When I introduced this series back at the beginning of September, wisdom was one of the themes I said we would see throughout the book. I also talked about God’s desire to bring us to maturity, to completion, to perfection, to the fullness of what we were created to be. God has a desire to shape us, improve us, develop us! And wisdom is part of what does just that. To be whole and complete is to be singleminded, pure in our focus, not divided between competing attentions. Wisdom is when we focus on Christ and find God bringing about character change within us.

Listen as I read James 3:13-18. Follow along on your phone or with the bible in front of you. Listen for some of these themes sprinkled all though these 6 verses. Today I’m going to read from the New Living Translation, a little different from the TNIV there in your seats.

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18, NLT)

“If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom.”

Our usual TNIV translation says: “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.”

These words remind me that wisdom never lives in an ivory tower, separate from regular life. Wisdom, by definition, lives and breathes right where we are every single day. Wisdom shows up in our lives, in the good actions we do, in the ways we care for others in humility.

Look with me at verse 17. All the verses in this section compare and contrast false and true wisdom, and I want to begin at the end, by first grabbing hold of the beautiful picture of true wisdom. There are eight words here that describe what wisdom looks like in people, in community. As you look at verse 17, this definition of true wisdom…are there other places in the bible that it reminds you of?

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. (James 3:17, TNIV)

It very much looks like other places where the bible describes what it means to live a Christian life, doesn’t it? Wisdom is the root that leads to the fruit of a life lived as God intends. And, always remember chapter 1: wisdom isn’t elusive, or reserved for certain special people. No, if we lack wisdom, we’re told we can “ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given…” (James 1:5)

Wisdom brings about and is shown by these things…let’s look at these eight words.

First of all, wisdom is pure. It’s holy, set apart for right use, innocent, undefiled. Wisdom is not manipulative or tricky or a way to get others to do what you want. What you see on the surface of wisdom is the same all the way through it, and it leaves you with a clear conscience.

Next, wisdom is peace-loving– or peaceable, as some translations put it. More than just avoiding conflict, wisdom works toward right relationships in every sense of the word, not ignoring differences, but making sure that differences don’t drive a wedge between people.

The third word is translated considerate, or gentle. Greek language scholars also note the tone of “yielding” that is present in the uses of this word. In many ways, this pushes farther and deeper than peaceable. Wisdom is very different from being persuasive. It’s not about bending people to your will or to the truth, but rather about being considerate of others, gentle with others, yielding to others.

It’s the fourth word that I want to spend the most time with. What do your translations say in verse 17 for the fourth word, the one after either considerate or gentle? [ASK- “submissive”, “willing to yield to others”, “reasonable”, “open to reason”, “easy to be entreated”]

Why such a wide variety?

James has used a rare Greek word. In fact, this is the only time this word is used in the entire bible, so we have to look to the context and to other uses of the words in Greek literature. James Adamson brings this to life for us. It’s a word that describes someone:

“…who is fair, considerate, generous rather than rigid and exacting in …relations with others: thus in Aristotle it is contrasted with ‘strict justice,’ and is used of judges who do not press the letter of the law. Thucydides also speaks of [people] of moderation who listen to reason. It was also highly prized by the rabbis. This quality Christ constantly exhibited especially toward his enemies.” (James Adamson in New International Commentary on the New Testament)

I think this part of wisdom is so needed. It reminds me of Jesus, with the Pharisees so often trying to catch him by the letter of the law…whether it was paying taxes to Caesar, or healing on the Sabbath, or the woman caught in adultery. Jesus refused to let the letter of the law bind him, but recognized always that God’s giving of the law was for the purpose of helping human beings live the healthiest lives possible. He healed on the sabbath because healing always helps people, and trumps the law of not doing work on the sabbath. Demonstrating wisdom, Jesus acted in ways that were considerate and generous rather than rigid and exacting

This word describing wisdom reminds me of Solomon, confronted by two women claiming to be the mother of one living child. Both claimed it was the other woman’s child who died in the night. The way Solomon got to life-giving truth was to act as if he was imparting strict justice. He acts as if he is going to cut the baby in two so that each can have half, a “fair” but rigid and exacting standard in the dispute.

But of course that’s exactly what helps him move to true wisdom, wisdom that is considerate, generous, and life-honoring. The mother who has been lying, who already lost her child, doesn’t care if he kills the remaining child; but the true mother begs Solomon not to kill her baby, offering to give it to the other woman rather than have the baby killed. And of course Solomon now can give the baby to the rightful person, bound not by a rigidity, but a life-giving wisdom.

Oh, do we need this wisdom!

God, you who give wisdom freely and without finding fault…give us this kind of considerate, gentle, life-giving wisdom!

Our world is so polarized in so many ways. We see things so differently, from politics to how to respond to mass shootings, from immigration policies to abortion…so many polarized and divisive issues in our world, our country, our day-to-day lives. The temptation is to become rigid and exacting: We parse every phrase of the Constitution to find an exact justice. We sometimes try to club down dissent with the bible. “It must be like this,” we say. “I’m sorry if that seems heartless.”

This, I think, is one of the most difficult things about how to live today. How do we stand for truth in the midst of our many, substantial differences without becoming rigid and exacting, without becoming people marked only by the letter of the law? Does God really have enough wisdom to go around to allow us to be considerate and generous in how we relate to others?

God…you who give wisdom freely and without finding fault…give us this kind of considerate, gentle, life-giving wisdom!

As the list continues in verse 17, it continues with the same theme of putting people and life over rigid application of rules.

Wisdom is full of mercy and good deeds, good fruit. It is impartial or unwavering…these translate another one of those words that is found nowhere else in the whole bible. It’s a word that probably echoes back to favoritism in chapter 2. Wisdom is not something that changes its behavior based on how important we think the person is. Rather, it is unwavering, steady, fair…not rigid, but for the good of everyone, regardless of their status in the world.

Finally, wisdom is sincere. Literally, the word is “without hypocrisy”. Once again, we have the reminder that wisdom comes to life when we have integrity, when our actions and the way we treat others matches the love we profess that comes from God through Jesus Christ.

Isn’t this a beautiful and compelling picture of wisdom?

These are the kind of characteristics that draw me in, the marks of a person that I want to be around. This is the kind of behavior that is needed in our world. Wisdom in a very practical way is what we need in our relationships, because it works towards peace and life and mercy and all good things.

So now we can go back to verse 13, knowing how beautiful and good this true wisdom is. As we ask God for this wisdom and as it transforms us, we will show it by our good lives, our deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. Having the healthy and right picture in our minds, we can now cement it further by looking with James at the marks of the opposite, the marks of false 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. (James 3:14-16, TNIV)

In the TNIV, envy and selfish ambition are the translations of words we see in v. 14 and 16. Some translations use jealousy instead of envy, and instead of selfish ambition some translations use contention or even faction. Digging deeper with these words has helped me.

The word translated envy and jealousy is literally “zealos” where we get our word “zealous”.

It’s clearly not meant to be a “positive” kind of zeal, because it’s modified by the word “bitter”. This is the kind of zeal or envy or jealousy that is so focused on getting your group’s idea across, that you will stop at nothing. You want to win. You want to overcome.

The other word is most often translated “selfish ambition”. It is a good translation, but for me, that’s a phrase that I tend to apply individually. I think of MY selfishness, MY ambitions. But it’s clear that in Greek, this word is about a group’s strong desires to get what they believe is right.

Before the bible, one Greek lexicon says this word was used to describe “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means.” Adamson writes: “The picture in this word…is of unattached workers who go round seeking a day’s work, or politicians who, more or less like [those workers]…solicit support for themselves or their faction while advancing their own glory, pride, profit, pleasure, personal interest or ambition.”

False wisdom is the opposite of the peaceable, yielding, considerate wisdom that comes from above, that comes from God. False wisdom is marked by people who build factions for a cause, who are so focused on building momentum to bring about what they think is right that they move toward it at any cost, regardless of the damage to relationships or community.

So this is where I feel led to challenge us today.

Within our church and Yearly Meeting, we have differences where some on BOTH sides think their cause is right, and are completely focused on getting to that right end, regardless of damage to relationships or community. I believe this is not like the wisdom that comes from above.

Within our city and country and world, we have major differences about politics and religion and all sorts of things. Radio and TV and social media often come with a bent toward a particular viewpoint, and actually heighten the differences, building a sense of belonging that “our group has it right” and “the other side must be stopped at all costs.” I believe this is not like the wisdom that comes from above.

Truth and wisdom are not in any way lessened or damaged when we work hard to present our perspective in a peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy way! James tells us strongly that we are to avoid the selfish ambition, the jealous pride that we have all truth. The truth and wisdom which come from above are marked by characteristics that look to me very much like the fruits of the Spirit.

Bede, a saint of the church who died in 735 said this: “The wisdom from above is pure because it thinks pure thoughts, and it is peaceable because it does not dissociate itself from others on account of its pride.”

We need the Holy Spirit to bring about this wisdom fruit in us! We live in challenging times. We need not fear. We need not play the “win at all costs” game. We show God’s wisdom in our lives by having enough trust to pursue Christ without distraction as we work in community toward peace, being considerate and yielding to one another. “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18, TNIV)

Holy Spirit, give us the wisdom from above! Make us peacemakers, and create the harvest of righteousness that we and our world so desperately needs!

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