Two Kinds of Wisdom
Topic: Wisdom Passage: James 3:13–3:18
Two Kinds of Wisdom
When I was a kid, one of my favorite game shows was Let's Make A Deal where the host would call a contestant down and offer them one mystery choice after another. The contestant would then try to guess which deal was a good one and which deal was a bad one.
In what has come to be known as the unluckiest contestant ever, Alexis was called down by host Wayne Brady, who then offered her a roll of 50 bills. She could see the first bill was a hundred dollar bill, but couldn't see what the other 49 bills were. They could all be $100's or they could be $1's. She had to choose between the roll of bills and a box that was worth at least $500. It could be a new car, it could be $500 worth of dog food. She chose the bills. The host then revealed that the prize under the box was $10,000. She had the roll of bills, but before Brady let her unroll them, he offered her a bigger box worth at least $1000. Bills? Or box? She chose the bigger box. So he opened the roll of bills and she saw that they were all $100 bills - $5000 cash. But she had given them up for this bigger box worth at least $1000 – it could be a trip for two to the Bahamas or it could be $1000 worth of old newspapers.
But…the host had one more deal to offer. She could take the box worth at least $1000 or she could trade it for what was behind the curtain. No value was guaranteed for whatever was behind the curtain - which for those who watch Let's Make A Deal regularly knew it could be a new car and it could be a donkey. She chose the curtain. Under the box worth at least $1000 was…another $10,000. And now viewers are getting the feeling that this is not going to end well for Alexis. Every time she passed on a lot of money, the camera would pan over to her husband who sat up in the audience holding his head in disbelief. Behind the curtain was a laundry line upon which hung large, phony dollar bills. Laundered money. Worthless. Poor Alexis navigated her way like a guided missile through 3 out of 4 good choices to the one worthless choice of the bunch.
If we were playing “Let’s Make a Deal: Church Edition” this morning and I called you down and offered you this choice: in my hand is the unclaimed Mega Millions lottery ticket worth 1.5 billion dollars OR you can choose a box marked wisdom. You don’t know all that lies under the box, just that it contains wisdom. 1.5 billion dollars or wisdom. What do you think you’d choose? Of course this being church you know the right answer is “wisdom”. If we ever faced that choice for real we might be very tempted to choose the 1.5 billion dollars, but the Bible tells us that wisdom is far more valuable than any amount of money. Listen to Prov. 3:13-18
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed.
In real life, God says we are much, much better off choosing wisdom over riches every time. So let’s say you choose the box marked “wisdom”. But before we reveal what’s under the box, I give you another choice. You can choose the box marked “wisdom” or you can choose the curtain that Carole Merrill is standing in front of and to your surprise the curtain is also marked “wisdom”.
That’s the surprising choice that James lays out for us. He’s not comparing riches to wisdom, and he’s not comparing foolishness to wisdom in this passage. He’s comparing wisdom to wisdom. Two types of wisdom: one from above, one from below. One from God, one from the devil. Fortunately we have more than a box or curtain to help us make the choice: James identifies the characteristics of these two types of wisdom. Let’s begin by looking at the wisdom that is from below.
- Characteristics of demonic wisdom
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
It’s not the wisdom that comes from above but it IS a type of wisdom. It isn’t obviously stupid or foolish, in fact it sounds wise. It’s appealing because it makes sense, it adds up, it follows a logical progression of thought. Satan has a long history of using wisdom to lure mankind down the path of death. When he came to Eve disguised as a serpent in the garden, he tempted her by pointing her towards a curtain marked wisdom:
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”… “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened…Gen 3:1,4-7
We are missing the point of Gen. 3 if we think the devil is some bumbling, foolish being who anyone with a lick of sense would see through. It says the serpent was more crafty (intelligent sneakiness) than any other beast. Much of what he said to Eve was true: they didn’t die physically that day, their eyes were opened, they were suddenly able to know good and evil, the fruit was able to make them wise. But it was a devilish wisdom that brought with it separation from God (they died spiritually on that day) and with the knowledge of good and evil came a heart irresistably bent towards evil.
Satan is a clever and fiercely intelligent being. And he is wise – in a sense. He’s not wise in the ultimate sense, he’s not wise like God is wise, but his work and his strategies are carried out with a wisdom that is cunning and effective. So James says when we’re choosing wisdom, we need to look beyond intelligence and logic, and even whether it contains truth. We need to look at the fruit of the wisdom. Satan’s wisdom will always produce poisonous fruit, God’s wisdom will always produce life-giving fruit.
The wisdom God gives us isn’t about being super smart. It isn’t about having all the answers. God-given wisdom is the ability to navigate life well. It is the inner compass that allows us to assess accurately all the complexities of life and choose the best path.
The wisdom from below is just that: it’s earthly and doesn’t take eternity into consideration, it’s unspiritual (it doesn’t take God into its calculations) and it’s demonically inspired. Demons aren’t neutral, unbiased creatures that have no axe to grind, they are ferociously anti-God and anti-life and they hate mankind. Their agenda is your death and destruction. So the wisdom they impart will contain all those things: it will be tied to this earth, it won’t take eternity into account, and in one way or another it will lead us away from God. Lucifer fell from heaven when he sought to be God saying, “I will be like the Most High”. He then tempted Eve with the same hellish agenda: “you will be like God.”
James mentions two inner heart impulses that drive demonic wisdom. I think there are more but these encapsulate the pride filled, “me-driven” agenda that characterizes demonic wisdom: bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. When our hearts are filled with the desire to promote and push ourselves forward, it will end in disorder and evil. We might begin with good intentions, but if our hearts are filled with self-interest and selfish ambition it will ruin everything we touch. Selfish ambition leads to disorder and division and “every vile practice”. We’ve probably all seen the devastation that bitter jealousy and selfish ambition create.
Marriages have been devastated by a husband or a wife whose heart was narcissistically centered on themselves and not the good of their spouse. Churches have been destroyed by charismatic but selfishly ambitious leaders who claimed to have God’s will and the people’s good in mind, but what really burned in their hearts was their own promotion. James says where these motives are present, every vile or evil practice is also present. It may not be obvious at first, but over time it will devolve into rotten, vile, filthy practices. That is where demonically inspired wisdom will take us.
We can never navigate life well if our compass is full of these evil motives in our hearts. The problem is, though, when our hearts are filled with self-centered pride and selfish ambition, it’s incredibly deceptive. When our hearts are clogged with this stuff, we are usually the last to be able to see it. We don’t see ourselves as proud or selfishly ambitious. We see ourselves as the best qualified man (or woman) to lead. We have all the answers. We know what needs to be done and how it should be done.
James counsels us to humble ourselves and be brutally honest with ourselves: Do not boast and be false to the truth (vs. 14). The only way to real wisdom and real freedom is to be honest with yourself and others.
- Characteristics of Spirit-filled wisdom
James asks, Who is wise and understanding among you? How do we identify which wisdom to choose? How do we know if we’re wise and understanding? It’s way too easy to think cause we’re the answer-man (or answer-woman) or the loudest voice in the room or because in our opinion we’re always right that we’re wise and understanding. Not so fast, James says. Taste of the fruit of your life. Here’s what the wisdom from above should taste like:
- Good conduct and good works done from a meek heart. Meekness isn’t timidity or weakness, it’s strength under control. Wisdom doesn’t mean being a doormat or a wallflower. We should conduct ourselves honorably and do works that display wisdom that is meek, rather than proud. Strong, but gentle.
Then in verse 17 James lists eight characteristics of wisdom: pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. Many of these characteristics overlap with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The wisdom from below comes from demons, the wisdom from above comes from the Holy Spirit.
We could go through each characteristic one by one and that would be worth doing, but I also think that taken together they’re meant to give us a picture of wisdom and something to pray for and aspire to. Someone who is filled with Spirit-filled wisdom is someone we can trust. It’s not that they have every answer or are never wrong about anything. Wisdom isn’t infallibility. But we trust their motives. We trust their inner compass. It’s like a child and his or her parents – Moms and Dads aren’t always right (just 99.9% of the time!) but children should be able to completely trust that no one loves them like their mom and dad and no one is as fiercely committed to their good as their mom and dad is. I remember when I was a kid being warned if a stranger ever asked me to get into their car with them I was to run away. Even if they offered me candy – a kid’s highest assurance that the person is a nice person – I was to run! Why? Cause strangers who offer candy to kids and invite them into their cars have a vile motive. Underneath the nice exterior is the foulest of evil. Kids can trust their mom and dad because they don’t have a selfish agenda, they want the very best for their children and will lay down their lives for the good of their kids. The underlying motive is essential to assessing godly wisdom from demon wisdom.
We won’t take the time to touch on each, but as we assess, am I a wise and understanding person? We can ask these questions:
Am I peaceable? Am I a peacemaker? Or am I a disturber of the peace? In verse 17 James says that wisdom from above is peaceable and then in verse 18 he says that a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. Peace is a big part of Spirit-filled wisdom. It’s also a fruit of the Spirit. Is there a harvest of peace in the fields where I’ve sown? Or do I leave disruption and division in my path?
We should seek to leave peace in our path, but there are exceptions to this. We can’t seek peace at any cost. 80 years ago, when Neville Chamberlain got off the plane in England holding up a non-aggression pact he and Hitler had signed, he declared “I believe it is peace for our time.” A year later England was plunged into World War II. Chamberlain’s “peace at any cost” approach made things worse, not better. A far better and more peaceful approach would have been to tell Hitler in no uncertain terms that if he took one more step towards occupying Czechoslovakia or Poland he would face the full fury of England and France’s military in response. Hitler would have been in a far weaker position in 1938 than he was in 1939 and ironically, WWII may have been avoided, or been far less devastating, if political leaders hadn’t been so obsessed with seeking peace at any cost.
There are disturbers of the peace who will interpret a peace at any cost approach as permission to keep on disturbing the peace and doing damage and wisdom will do all it can to restrain them even if it means disruption in the short term. But even in those situations, the goal of wisdom is real and long term peace.
Another question to ask: am I open to reason? Am I a reasonable person? Do people find it easy to bring concerns or disagreements to me and do I listen carefully and humbly? Or do we argue and insult and defend and accuse them of having wrong motives and all the stuff that makes people never want to bring anything to us again?
I know a person who used to get very defensive in certain situations. In an argument he would feel personally attacked and would mount counter offensives against the other person. Far too often he wouldn’t take the time to listen carefully to what the other person was saying but would quickly assume he knew and respond without trying to clarify what the other person meant. He would interpret concerns or disagreements that his wife brought to him as personal attacks and would get very defensive and argumentative with her, often focusing more on the way she brought it rather than focusing on what she was trying to say.
That person was me. I’ve had to learn, and am still learning, how to be open to reason. How to be easy to bring disagreements to. How to hear the other person without defensiveness. If you relate to what I’m saying, I think that often there are deep things going on in our hearts that make us respond that way. We might feel like our identity or our worth are under attack when someone brings a criticism or a disagreement to us. The problem isn’t them – even if they bring it in a wrong way – the problem is us. Me. You.
It takes a work of the Spirit in our hearts to help us change. And God is in the business of changing us. He’s good at it. But we need to confess our sin and admit our need to Him.
Remember James 1:5 – If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
The fruit of wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit are like all fruits – they don’t start out fully grown, they start out as small seeds that grow. Wisdom has the capacity to grow in our lives. Who is wise and understanding among you? Not the person who thinks they’ve got wisdom figured out, but the man or woman who humbly confesses their lack and ask God to help them grow in wisdom. The person who sincerely fears God, for the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. The person who puts Christ at the center of his or her life for as 1 Cor. 1:30 says, Christ Jesus has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
What wisdom will you choose this morning? Does your heart long to be wise and understanding with the wisdom that comes from above? Here’s the good news: no matter where you are, no matter how bad the choices you’ve made, you can get to wisdom from here. The Holy Spirit is eager to fill us with His wisdom and guide us in His paths everlasting. All we have to do is ask sincerely and with faith. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
As we close, let’s take a moment to ask God silently to help us grow in wisdom and bear a harvest of peace and righteousness.