james-3-13, wisdomWhat does it mean to be wise and where does wisdom come from?

These are two questions that James writes about. His letter discusses earthly and heavenly wisdom. The question of ascribing wisdom to an individual can often be summed up by the position they hold or the influence they wield. However, James would have us consider a different way of assessing wisdom.

Text: James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8

Wisdom from Heaven

When I was a teenager I received a cancer diagnosis. Not the news that an apparently healthy 15 year old expects to hear. During the latter part of my treatments I came across a booklet in the hospital waiting room. It was written for parents, but I thought I would give it a read anyway.

The emphasis of the booklet was to help prepare parents to deal with the changes that a cancer diagnosis and treatment can have on their child. It covered a range of things including physical changes, like baldness. Emotional needs, how a child’s emotions might range with the expectation that there might be some lashing out or rebellion.

What caught my attention the most in this booklet was a section on wisdom, complete with a picture of an owl. Now, I’m paraphrasing here as I don’t exactly remember what I read 25 years ago. However, it went something like this “your child may exhibit insight into matters which seems to be beyond their age or maturity.”

I liked that section of the booklet. I thought, that’s me showing wisdom and insight beyond my years. Now, whether it is true or something I just wanted to be true I don’t know. You can ask my parents the next time they visit. They aren’t biased at all.

James talks to us this morning of two kinds of wisdom. The first is earthly wisdom and the second is heavenly wisdom. Let’s consider the signs that James gives us to identify these two forms of wisdom.

Earthly wisdom is full of jealousy, bitterness and selfishness. In other words this is a wisdom born of vanity where we demonstrate our insights for the sake of appearing wise. As if our ego demands that we be seen to be superior to everyone else. The description that James gives us of earthly wisdom is very damning. It probes our sinful nature. When we consider James’ description of earthly wisdom to stories in scripture where sin and evil are at the front of things we can understand his point.

Consider the Garden of Eden, the snake tells the women that by eating the fruit she will be like God and know what is good and what is bad. The women looked at the tree and thought how wonderful it would be to be wise. So she took some of the fruit and ate it.

A chapter later we deal with Adam and Eve’s children, two boys named Cain and Abel. Cain kills his younger brother Abel who was favoured by God. Cain wanted to be praised as Abel was and in an act of jealous bitterness he killed his brother.

Fast forward to the end of Genesis we have Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is disliked by his brothers because he is favoured by their father. As a result they plot to kill him, but in the end sell him into slavery. They did this because they were jealous of the attention Joseph received.

In each of these stories we seem how human wisdom leads us to err in judgement. Whether it is seeking knowledge which is beyond us or resenting the attention another has and wanting it for ourselves. Human wisdom says take care of yourself and you will prosper. Act in a selfish, bitter and jealous manner and you will prosper.

However, James and the witness of scripture says that this is not true.

Now consider what James says about wisdom which descends from heaven truly looks like. It is pure, peaceful, gentle, friendly, full of compassion, it produces a harvest of good deeds and it is free from prejudices and hypocrisy. Goodness is the harvest that is produced from the seeds the peacemakers plant in peace.

Consider those characteristics again:

  • Purity
  • Peacefulness
  • Gentleness
  • Friendliness
  • Compassion
  • Free from prejudice and hypocrisy

These are difficult traits to live into, especially in a world which calls us in the opposite direction. These traits are not found in an individual who is driven by their own ego. Society thrives on self-gratification, the question that drives us is “What is in it for me?” If we can’t answer that question to our satisfaction we aren’t interested.

When we hold these words up to the ideals of our culture we see that they are counter-cultural. They move against the ebb and flow we see in the world, they demonstrate a grace and wisdom which is given not from this world but from above.

James shifts direction at this point and begins to speak about divisions and quarrels. He places the source of these disputes on our desire for pleasure. The need to please and be pleased, going so far as to indicate that we are ready to kill for such desires. Desire which is evidenced in the story of Cain and Abel.

James links our quarrels, our unhealthy relationships to a lack of understanding about true wisdom. We seek things out of a worldly desire to appease ourselves. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a million dollars? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could lose some weight? Wouldn’t it be nice if I had the latest car model, the hottest designer fashions, the perfect family? Wouldn’t it be nice…

Yes, I imagine it would be nice. But why are we asking and seeking for such things? Why do laundry commercials insist that my whites have to be spotless? Why do lottery commercials convey a lifestyle that is nigh but unattainable for 99% of people? Why do alcohol commercials always show us the perfect night out or day spent with friends? These images and more create a false sense of what life, of what our present reality is like. They create such a strong desire in us and we ask for and seek out the images we see.

Do you remember Cabbage Patch Kids or perhaps the Tickle Me Elmo Doll? Stores were out of stock minutes after opening. People fought for those dolls, literally fought with each other to be able to take one of those toys home to their kids. Imagine that. Needing to demonstrate your love for your child with a physical item. Wanting to demonstrate that love so badly that you had a physical altercation with a stranger for the ability to do so. Is this how we demonstrate love? Love born out of a selfish desire to please.

What about love which is born out of gentleness, peace and understanding? Love which is grounded in compassion?

Which is the more peaceable way? To act out of selfish self-interest or out of compassion? Which way creates division and which way creates unity?

The message James has for us today is clear. Submit to wisdom which comes from heaven, embrace the ideals and characteristics which God would see us follow. Abandon the path which sees us only taking care of ourselves. For by submitting and loving others we will see what we have be blessed. Amen.