Living in Contradiction to God’s Wisdom
The book of James is the wisdom literature of the New Testament. As such, it describes what a life of wisdom looks like. When viewed in its proper context, James is describing the impact of the gospel upon those who humbly surrender to God and His authoritative word.
The gospel rescues us (Rom. 1:16). It rescues us from our sin and its consequences (Eph. 1:7). It rescues us from ourselves. It rescues us from empty passions (Rom. 6:12-14). The gospel not only removes negative elements from us, it also adds God’s gracious enabling power to transform us into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).
One characteristic that James mentions twice in this short letter is meekness (James 1:21; 3:13). Meekness is not common to man. Some have described meekness with this catchy statement, "meekness is not weakness, it is strength under control." A common illustration associated with this definition is the tamed horse whose strength is harnessed in a productive way. It would do us well to gospelize this definition a bit. Meekness is the setting aside of our natural resources in order to allow the Holy Spirit to produce Christ’s gentle spirit in us.
The Greek term for meekness is used numerous times in the New Testament (being translated gentleness, meekness, and courtesy). As we read the different passages in which meekness is used, we discover the following: it is a characteristic of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 10:1); it is called for in Christians (Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 3:15), and is supplied by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23; implied in Col. 3:12). James tells us that it is a hallmark of wise Christian living.
In James 3:13, James asks a question that should elicit internal questioning. He writes, "Who is wise and understanding among you?" He then goes on to explain how one would know if he is wise and understanding.
True Wisdom Is Displayed in Action
James tells us that wisdom is displayed in real life. He is not referring to a wise act here and there, but to a lifestyle ("by his good conduct"). His explanation also reminds us that we do not live in isolation from each other, but we live in community ("let him show"). Our manner of life is not a matter of accruing spiritual credit ("look how great of a Christian he is"), but a display of God’s power through the gospel (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:11-12). We are to show our "works in the meekness of wisdom." James is very interested in the outworking of the gospel (James 1:22, 25, 27; 2:17, 20; as is Paul Phil. 2:12-13).
Action is not the only issue in this text. People can be brow beaten into certain behaviors that display a nicer character. We can attend seminars or seek professional help to be better people. James has more in mind.
True Wisdom Is Detected in Our Attitude
What does God mean when he uses James to write "his works in the meekness of wisdom?" This is James second use of the term meekness. In James 1:21, he instructed his readers to "receive with meekness the implanted word." This should probably remind us of an expression used in several ways through the Old Testament - "the fear of the Lord." The basic idea is a humble realization of God’s authority and my place under that authority. As we consider the development of that concept in our Bibles, we see it as a presentation of ourselves or a surrender of our will before our Father (Rom. 6:13; 12:1), or submission to our Master, Jesus Christ (Col. 1:18-19), or a putting off of our own passion to be filled (controlled) by the Spirit (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16).
Some logical questions we should ask are:
- Who are the authorities in my life?
- Who has ordained those authorities?
- How do I respond to those authorities when I am corrected?
- What does a negative response to those authorities indicate?
A natural amount of pride often prevents a humble acceptance of correction upon immediate impact. While responding to correction improperly is not the desired response, it is not the most telling. After an initial irritation, our second response may be even more informative. Do you move on irritated? Do you move on without another thought? Or after given time to reflect, are you able to recognize the pride embedded in your response? A response of wisdom is indicated with ability to be "open to reason" (v. 17). The New King James Version translates this phrase as "willing to yield," and the King James Version expresses it as "easy to be entreated." More on this subject in a subsequent post.
True Wisdom Can Be Denied by Our Attitude
Rather than a meekness that flows from wisdom, James speaks of other ways a person can respond. In contrast to "meekness of wisdom," our response may be "bitter jealousy and selfish ambition" (vv. 14, 17). I’d say the connection between the two expressions is a thirst for what we think we deserve. James further develops this concept in the first four verses of chapter four. A brief survey of how this term "jealousy" is used in the New Testament reveals how condemning this attitude is. Jealousy is consistent with an unsaved condition (Acts 13:45; Rom. 13:13). Paul spoke of the Corinthians submitting to their fleshly desires and writes, "For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?" (1 Cor. 3:3). Paul also lists jealousy as one of the fleshly works while writing to the Galatians (5:20).
James, back in chapter 3, lets us know that bitter jealousy and selfish ambition reveal a lack of wisdom and understanding. Do you remember the question he began this section with (v. 13)? If jealousy and selfishness characterize our way, we can be sure that we are not wise and understanding (v. 14). These attitudes also, writes James, reflect their source. They are "earthly, unspiritual, and demonic." This certainly should make us feel uncomfortable about living contrary to the "meekness of wisdom" (v. 13). Further, James indicates that this type of attitude produces more sinfulness (v. 16).
When we suppress the truth of the Bible, we are resisting the avenue through which the Holy Spirit lights our way (Ps. 119:105). Paul warns us not to "grieve the Spirit" (Eph. 4:30) or "quench the Spirit" (1 Thes. 5:19). When we are ignoring and opposing the Holy Spirit, we are opening a flood gate through which our old sinful nature can freely express itself. So, whether the form of sinfulness is pride, selfishness, jealousy, disrespect, gluttony, or something else, when we allow sin to dominate us, we increase the volume of our sinfulness ("For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice" v. 16).
James is warning us to consider whether we are living in a right relationship with God’s wisdom. We can see whether God’s wisdom is treasured or ignored by various actions and attitudes that we exhibit. Consider these last two questions:
- Do I find myself constantly at war in my heart with how God describes godly living?
- Does what I hear and read about the ways of God seem like an unwelcome burden?
If you find it difficult to do what God’s word says, you are in good company. The struggle with our own sinfulness is a lifelong battle. However, the one who has been made spiritually alive does not view God’s commands as burdensome (1 John 5:3). We "delight in the law of God, in [our] inner being" (Rom. 7:22). Like Paul, while in our heart we desire to fulfill God’s purposes, we will regularly find ourselves lacking. It is not sin that marks the one who is unwise and lacking in understanding as much as it is indifference toward our sin. As the proverb reveals, "Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy" (Proverbs 28:13).
Do not allow yourself to be callous toward "minor" sins. There is no such thing as simple jealousies or minor displays of selfishness. James declares that these are demonstrations of the natural man and the demonic realm, producing more sinfulness, and revealing a lack of true wisdom. True confession of sin is coming to a place of seeing our sin as God sees it. True confession also provides pure fellowship (1 John 1:3-5, 9) and the power of the Holy Spirit to apply and demonstrate God’s wisdom in our lives (Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:16).