Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. (James 3:13-15)
The contrast between worldly and godly wisdom is highlighted in these verses. As part of the context of the problems associated with the tongue, James clearly identifies the source of conflicting lifestyles. Underlying this is a reminder that we must carefully choose what information we accept or defend. Argumentation will continue to build tension in the subject through the end of the chapter with a full discovery of the intent at the beginning of chapter four.
But for the moment, consider with me the ideas of James 4:13-15.
As stated yesterday, a wise person will use faith to find the path of righteous living when he faces the decisions of life. He will meekly accept the Word of God and choose to apply it to his life in specific and intentional applications. This is how faith seeks godly wisdom from a heart that respects and loves God.
James 3:15 tells us that those who do not meekly accept the Word of God and make decisions from it actually make decisions based on information that is earthly, sensual, and even demonic. No other options exist. If the information is not from God, then it is from what is earthly, sensual, or demonic.
These three words are a “progression”
“Earthly” does not necessarily imply a lack of morality. It simply means that the wisdom is based on the world and how things work within it. Remember that even if something seems morally acceptable, that does not mean it is “spiritually positive”. That is, it may not lead you into sin, but it will never lead you to godliness. An easy example is using the wisdom of this world to restore an old car. That is certainly a kind of wisdom, but the act of building a car will do nothing to get you to heaven. The goal of godly wisdom is to find and do the things that will build your relationship with God by building your faith and those spiritual activities God identifies as beneficial to us.
After earthly wisdom James revealed a wisdom that is sensual. In modern English, this word has come to focus on sexual desire, but think of it in broader light. It means “natural” and is actually from a word that involves the word “spirit”. “Spiritual” is a poor translation because it implies a form of godly behavior. This is a word that speaks to the desires and motives within a person. Where earthly wisdom seeks to meet needs from the perspective of wisdom in the processes of nature, this word addresses wisdom from the perspective of the emotions and desires associated with our needs. If we merely react to life’s challenges and decisions with “gut instinct” and emotional zeal, we will find ways to live, but those ways will almost certainly lead us to sin and error.
And then James tells us about “demonic wisdom”. This shows the activity of demons. I don’t know what more to say about this except that these are obviously arguments and ideas that are direct appeals to sin. From this we find “doctrines of demons” that Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 4:1.
The Source of This Earthly, Sensual, and Demonic Wisdom
We read that the information or wisdom that these three categories represent comes from a heart of “bitter envy” and “self-seeking”. The word “envy” means literally “zeal” and it can have either a positive or negative implication. Using the word “bitter” with it, ties it to the “bitter” water in the illustration found in verse 11. And that illustration further relates to speaking curses or speaking evil. Even further, all of these relate to the men who would need to be prohibited from becoming teachers in the church (3:1). This is saying that because people are eagerly self-seeking, they employ wisdom that is either earthly, sensual, or demonic.
Think about that.
Someone who has evil zeal and who is self-seeking is someone who zealously pursues his own agenda instead of God’s path of righteousness. The fact that James can seem to be talking about such people in the church illustrates just what was happening in the church at large in that period of history. There were a lot of men teaching in the church who were not teaching the facts of what God wanted the people to choose to do. They were teaching about things they zealously wanted others to believe and obey. A perfect example (and likely what James had in mind) is the issue of circumcision and other ideas related the to Law of Moses. But regardless of what the specific doctrines were, James makes it clear that to insist upon instructing others to make decisions other than what God has prescribed in the Bible is, at its core, zealously self-seeking.
Obviously, the application points toward self examination. James calls us to notice the two options for wisdom: godly and ungodly. While some of the decisions we make may be spiritually “neutral”, those decisions do not qualify us to possess godly wisdom.
How To Restore a Car And Increase Faith
In the illustration above, I identified the spiritually neutral wisdom required to restore a car. You probably objected and pointed out that the person could be building the car to use in a godly endeavor, and that, my friends, is exactly the point of this discussion. For whatever reason, if a man decides that he must restore a car, he can choose to fulfill that need using a worldly wisdom, but what if he could see more? What if his decision could be more? Is it possible to decide a path to meeting his need for restoring a car that will build his faith and improve his relationship with God?
Depending on the need he is fulfilling, a pathway could be found if he is energetic, ambitious, and creative enough to seek it. For example, suppose he is restoring a car because he has a need to create and the need to feel a sense of accomplishment. Because of this need, he has always chosen to restore cars. Isn’t it possible to choose to restore the car in order to share it with others and be a help to those in need? Isn’t it possible to fill that creative need by building something else that would be beneficial for someone in need? He would be fulfilling his needs and building a life of faith at the same time. He would be employing godly wisdom in choosing the best path possible.
Suppose he needed to restore his car so that he could use it to go to work and provide for his family. Isn’t taking care of his family a godly endeavor? He has already chosen a path of godly wisdom because it will allow him to meet his needs and build his faith and relationship with God.
Are you starting to see the picture?
Is it sinful for a man to restore a car? Probably not. That’s not the point. I’m making a positive point that if we want to increase faith and build a life that both grows closer to righteousness and develops godly wisdom, we have unlimited opportunities before us each day. The person who can develop a life of godly wisdom in making decisions of righteousness is the very person I want teaching me in a Bible class. Those practical, everyday life decisions produce godliness.
It’s time to stop thinking negatively and start thinking positively. The negative thought is, “We need teachers who will teach us how to avoid sin.” Surely we need those people. But more than that, we need people who can teach us how to take everyday life and grow more godly by the decisions we make.
Well, this is a tall order indeed.
What kind of decisions are you making today? Are you creative, ambitious, and determined enough to find ways to develop your faith within the confines of your daily decisions?
If you are reading this and think that following this would revolutionize your life, you are correct! Paul said in Romans 12:2 (in the English Standard Version),
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
See you tomorrow!