The book of James has a lot to say about living wisely and provides instructions on gaining wisdom. But how can we discern if a person— whether he is a teacher, friend, or advisor–is wise? We need a wisdom detector. James tells us to examine both his conduct and his motives. James 3:13 asks: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” The word “life” refers to our “behavior” or “conduct.” It is found 13 times in the New Testament and means to turn back to something. At the root of this word is the idea of change– a willingness to go back to the truth and to change in conformity with God’s truth. The word “humility” is often translated to the English word “meekness.” The Biblical definition of a meek person is someone who recognizes God’s sovereignty. Meekness is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest. In fact, meekness involves a controlled desire to see others’ interests advance ahead of your own (see Philippians 2:3-4). James goes on to tell us what wisdom looks like by providing a snapshot of true wisdom (James 3:17). Let’s look at some key characteristics from this passage. Pure: This word applies not only to moral purity, but to motive purity; wisdom produces pure motives. Peace-loving: A wise person promotes harmony and reconciliation. When he senses friction between himself and another, he takes the initiative to reconcile. If he is wrong, he admits it and asks for forgiveness. Considerate: The word used here describes someone who is gracious and forbearing (Titus 3:2; Phil. 4:5; 1 Tim. 3:3; 1 Pet. 2:18). Submissive: This word describes someone who is able to be persuaded; he is open to reason and willing to listen. He is willing to change their mind if the evidence is compelling. Full of mercy and good fruit: His life demonstrates a concern for those who are needy and afflicted. Impartial: This word is found only once in the New Testament. It means to act without partiality. A wise person will act according to a fixed Biblical principle regardless of the situation; he doesn’t play favorites. Sincere: The truly wise person avoids hypocrisy. There is no contradiction between his outward profession and his inward possession. An unwise (“otherwise”) person is also known by his conduct and motives (James 14-16). James lists two motives that should be guarded against: Bitter envy (bitter zeal): The word used here describes a person who zealously promotes himself. Unfortunately, some use ministry as a platform to build their reputations. Although they desire people to come to faith in Christ, their motives are all wrong. If their motives are things like self-promotion and “looking good,” their motives are skewed. God cares a great deal about motives (Proverbs 16:2, 1 Corinthians 4:5, James 4:3). Selfish ambition: The word used here has an interesting background. Before New Testament times, it was used by Aristotle to describe a self-seeking politician out canvassing for votes. The world’s wisdom says “Get all the support you can!” Of course, such selfish ambition has no place within Christ’s church and often leads to divisiveness. People begin to the choose sides. This is how church splits begin. Such self-seeking motives stand in stark contrast to the humility that comes from true wisdom. How can you tell whether a person is operating out of humility or bitter envy and selfish ambition? Observe his conduct, as well as the consequences of his conduct. Foolishness is revealed by our conduct (James 16). When we reject God’s wisdom and operate out of the flesh, there are consequences. Wrong thinking produces wrong living. One reason the world is in such a mess is because men have refused to accept the wisdom of God. Two consequences which are born from bitter envy and selfish ambition are stated in this verse: Disorder: Where you have individuals in the church demanding their rights and lobbying for the support of others, you are going to have chaos and confusion. The Apostle Paul used this term to describe the chaotic Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 12:20). Jesus used this same word to describe the chaos of the world in the days just prior to his coming (Luke 21:9). In the last days there will be such mass rejection of God and his wisdom that the whole world will be in chaos. Such confusion sets the stage for various expressions of sinful behavior or what James terms “every evil practice.” Evil practices: The word evil here refers to practices which are petty and worthless. Quarreling over small or insignificant things leads to evil practices. When you see this kind of thing happening in the church, you know that those who are leading the charge have rejected God’s wisdom. The following chart synthesizes what we have learned about true and false wisdom from this section of James.
True Wisdom False Wisdom
Origin God Earthly, Unspiritual, Demonic
Produces Good Works and Humility Bitter Envy and Selfish
Pure, Peace-loving, Considerate, Submissive, Full of Mercy and Good Fruit, Impartial, Sincere
Disorder and Every Evil Practice
Application / Challenge
Demonstrate godly wisdom by your attitudes and by your actions:
- Ask God to help you live wisely in a foolish world.
- Submit yourselves to God’s Word, the source of wisdom.
- Compare your life with the portrait of wisdom revealed in verses 17-18. In what areas do you most need to see change? Cooperate with God in bringing about this change.