13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.
14 But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth.
15 This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.
16 For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.
17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.
18 Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
What a powerful passage to speak into something that plagues many a church in our modern times! This portion of the book of James speaks into wisdom and the character of a wise person. James is comparing those who boast in their intellectual prowess with those who are truly governed by the godly characteristic of wisdom.
Verse 13 begins, who is wise and understanding among you? The BDAG lexicon defines the usage of wise here as “pertaining to understanding that results in wise attitudes and conduct” (BDAG, Bibleworks). Wisdom is the application of knowledge learned either through instruction or experience and especially tied to biblical knowledge. Every person well-trained in the Scriptures has the potential for becoming nothing more than a smart fool; that is, a person who is learned but who does not or will not put into practice what they know. Foolishness is categorically an issue of choosing to not apply knowledge; the old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while hoping for a different outcome,” would fit under the umbrella of foolishness. Understanding refers to “pertaining to being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge,” (BDAG, Bibleworks). It is referring to the matter of expertise.
We may ask, what exactly is this expertise and wisdom related to? In a more broad sense, it would appear that a person is claiming to be wise and understanding as an identity, and that this identity is found in the context of the church. How would this person be recognized as wise and understanding? It wouldn’t be because they flaunt their intelligence; it would only come, as James points out, in the showing of good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. Wisdom is displayed through the governance of such wisdom in the actions of an individual and their character through the process. Conversely, much like a spring of water sending forth both fresh and bitter water (v. 11) or many of the other similar illustrations used in the prior verses, wisdom is not simply a claim; wisdom is more of an underlying principle giving structure to good character.
But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. Bitterness and selfishness both betray the claim of being wise. Can we be both smart and bitter, an expert on the Christian life and selfish? Yes, but we cannot be wise and be both. This is why I said earlier that such is a smart fool. Fools can be incredibly intelligent and well-versed in the Bible and yet at the same time be incredibly selfish and envious to the point of being bitter. When the church moves away from being doers of the word and becomes hearers only, the outcome is the breeding of educated fools, and such will only thrive in environments where doing is secondary to knowing. Make no doubt about it, that’s where our culture has headed over the years and how the church is being affected for that matter, too.
I don’t feel it would be far-fetched at all to say that the church at Ephesus of Revelation 2:1-7, the church that was very discerning but had lost it’s first love for Jesus Christ, had grown to become discerning fools. “Fool” may sound harsh, but remember that foolishness is what happens when one knows what to do but does not do it. Foolishness, too, is when one has chosen to make primary what is secondary and make secondary what is primary, that being the neglect of one’s heart before God in favor of growing one’s education for their own ends. James says to this inconsistency, “do not boast and lie against the truth.” Don’t brag about being wise when it’s just not true. Church, do not confuse the wise with the foolish.
This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. There are two types of “wisdom” being highlighted, therefore: true wisdom and fake wisdom. True wisdom is the sound application of knowledge, whereas fake wisdom is the posturing of being wise and the swapping of a life governed by wisdom to a life governed by conceitedness. This is the second time in the book of James that he will speak of the demonic; the first time was in James 2:19, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe– and tremble!” The breakdown of James 2:19 is that the demons believe there’s one God (how could they not since they saw him as angels and oppose Him daily?) but they did not submit themselves to him. Satan and all demons are extremely intelligent, and the Bible has never given us reason to think otherwise. Far more intelligent than any of us–but wise? Absolutely not. Anyone functioning like this is functioning with a wisdom that does not come down from above but is earthly, sensual and demonic in nature. Foolishness is demonic because it acts in the same mentality: knowing truth but refusing to either put it into practice or submit to such knowledge and the God who has given it.
For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. The conclusive nature of James’ definition of the wisdom that is earthly, sensual and demonic is that is nothing more than evidence of confusion and evil. A dog is only as free as the length of leash it’s given; so too is a person only as wise as their willingness to put into practice that which they know. The Bible makes clear that the beginning of wisdom starts with the fear of the Lord (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10); conversely, wisdom ends when that fear goes. Fear could be understood not simply as terror (which isn’t crazy to read into that), but also the respect that is part of the fear that governs how one lives. If you fear heights, you will respect walking on the edge of the Grand Canyon. You will fear falling off. You will alter course. If one does not alter course when they are confronted with the knowledge of God, they are living dangerous lives of foolishness though they may proclaim loyalty to God nonetheless.
James ends this line of thought with these words: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” In many ways, this passage is a passage of discernment; in fact, the book of James is filled with lines of reasoning built upon discernment. The wisdom from above, in contrast to the false wisdom of this world, is first pure (referring to holiness), then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield (versus fighting/argumentative), merciful and full of good (spiritual) fruit, impartial to others and without hypocrisy (saying one thing but doing another). Notice that wisdom is not based upon intelligence but rather a disciplined character where one has brought into line their actions with their biblical understanding. Our intelligence may take us far but our character will be our Achille’s heel. Lastly, the fruit of righteousness is sown in a peaceful manner (rather than a contentious, self-seeking manner) by those who make peace. Wisdom is highlighted by character that is reflective of biblical principles, not book smarts or membership tenure in a church.
We must be very careful that we are not simply wise in our own estimation or in the estimation of others who have revised what it means to be wise. Biblical wisdom is the practice of biblical knowledge in good discretion. The passage is not simply calling us to be people who are wise, but also people who are discerning as to what wisdom is. In our day and age alone, for lack of discernment we are shooting ourselves in the foot for identifying what godliness truly looks like and what churches should be pursuant of in character. It is a slippery slope indeed when we begin to exchange any biblical definition for a more suitable, man-made version that hollows out what God has defined.
I would like to additionally add at the end of this devotional a link to a great article by Ligonier Ministries on the issue of discernment here. I believe it could be a great help to you if you have a few minutes to read it as well. Thank you.
May this find you well–
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.