James 3:13-18 5.09.21
Imagine I have the power to give three gifts, and that I am going to ask you to choose one. Which would you select:
Let me ask the children: would you prefer to have a teacher who knows a lot, who can solve problems, or who is so clever, he can do all kinds of things?
It’s a hard choice isn’t it? Knowledge is good, so is intelligence and so is cleverness. They are all great gifts from God. If you had even a bit of any of those gifts, you’d be rich.
However, there is one other quality that is bigger than all of them. It is the one thing that makes knowledge, intelligence and cleverness really sweet and prevents them from becoming dark and destructive.
What is it, do you think – this really big one?
It is what God calls wisdom, in Old and New Testaments.
Without godly wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and cleverness can be quite ugly, but they are powerful and sweet.
We can recognise knowledge, intelligence and cleverness fairly quickly when we see them, but we’re not so good at recognising that for what it is. So let’s use James 3:13-18 to help us.
‘Practical’? We often use that word to describe the person who can sew a quilt or fix a car. It is the opposite of the person who just thinks deep thoughts, or engages in theories.
When I say wisdom is practical, I mean that it works in practice. It changes the way you live. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (v13). God answers that it is the man who “By his good conduct … shows his works in the meekness of wisdom”.
Godly wisdom isn’t about deep thoughts or wise words, as valuable as both are. It is about how you live. James has been showing us that real faith is like that – it works out in practice.
Wisdom is not about being able to answer the questions on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, or topping your maths class, or being able fix a car, or even being a smart dealer in shares.
The book of Proverbs gives us pictures of real wisdom. The wise man works hard, doesn’t trust in stuff, steers clear of adultery, speaks words that do good, honours his parents, keeps his word, care for the needy, and keeps God’s commandments. Wisdom is all about how you live. It is very, very practical.
The man who sleeps around, cheats others out of money, and ignores the living God may be seen as a smart investor, or a clever person, but by God’s definition, he is not wise but a fool.
As James describes how wisdom works out in practice, he uses a string of words which only work in relation to other people. He speaks about the way I use my knowledge or intelligence or cleverness for others and not for myself.
He speaks of “the meekness of wisdom” (v13b), or the way in which wisdom serves others, not me.
Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on an island off Venezuela. He is clever, intelligent and knowledgeable as he lives and works and establishes a life for himself for the 28 years he is there.
When Crusoe is alone, ‘meekness’ – having a heart to serve others – was not necessary. Once he meets Friday, whom he released from a group of cannibals who had come ashore for a feast, all that changed. As a Christian, he now needs to use his cleverness and intelligence and knowledge wisely in service to another.
If he doesn’t have it, Friday will be only a slave, a nobody, someone he can control by his superior knowledge and skill. The result will be what James calls in verse 14 as bitter jealousy, selfish ambition and untruthful boasting. We know what that looks like:
You may be smart, but you’re not wise. Let’s call that kind of attitude for what it is. It’s the kind of cleverness that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic”. It’s not from heaven but from hell. It’s not being like Jesus, but like Satan.
A heart like that doesn’t enrich people and build up the church of Jesus. On the contrary … it results in “disorder and every vile practice” (v16b).
We all know that’s what happens.
Let’s turn it around positively, as James does. What would it look like if I was wise? I would look like verse 17.
Maybe they are all the parts of what James mean by the first word, pure. It sounds so much like the heart and attitude and commitment of the Lord Jesus himself, doesn’t it?
Do you see how wisdom isn’t what happens when you sit alone with your book, or wrap yourself up in seclusion with your hobby? It’s all about how we relate to other people. Godly wisdom is always relational.
Real wisdom shows in acts of meek service and words that enrich others … in casual conversations, in small group meetings, in phone calls, when you are doing a Covid walk with a friend, at family gatherings and when we are church together … as you use your talents, your humour, your spare time and everything else.
You don’t need meek wisdom when it’s only you, but once Man Friday comes along, you need it in huge quantities.
God loves this kind of wisdom … wisdom that works out in life today and tomorrow and the next day … in using what you have for the sake of others.
Some people think the Book of James is a just a collection of morals about being a nice person. Actually, it is a deeply spiritual book.
Back in 1:5 James had asked “Does any of you lack wisdom?” Go and get it. Where? In a university course? Like your eye colour, does it come with your genes? Is there a book somewhere “10 Easy Steps to Being Wise”? No.
Where do you get it? God says: “ask God and it will be given.”
Does that mean that knowledge, intelligence and cleverness are not God’s gifts? Of course they are. In God’s common grace they are given to people who do not know Jesus as much as to those who do. We thank him for the mechanic who can fix the car, the author writes great books, and the researcher who develops a vaccine for a virus.
Wisdom is special. It is supernatural in a way those other gifts are not. James says in verse 15 that it “comes down from above”. That’s the same word that Jesus used when he told Nicodemus that he had to be born “from above”. Wisdom is as much a supernatural gift as the inward change of the new birth, of regeneration.
It is a work that has to be done from the inside out. That’s why we can say it is a supernaturally given gift, not a natural one. It must be done in what James refers to in verse 14 as the heart, where it needs to transform “jealousy and selfish ambition.”
We pray and then sit and wait? No. We connect with the same means that God uses to regenerate us – Peter says that we were born again “by the living Word of God” (1 Peter 1:24).
King David says “How I love your law (your Word). It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies.” (Psalm 119:97,98).
Just as the Word of God works supernaturally in us to create new birth, it works within us to create godly wisdom.
Stay away from the Word of God, and you will never be wise. Feed on this Word and you are putting yourself exactly in the right place for practical, relational, supernatural wisdom. It’s the way God has planned for things to work.
That’s why I need to hear good sermons … and be in a Bible study group … and be reading and meditating on the Bible every day because apart from God’s gift of wisdom, I’ll just end up with a bunch of knowledge, or some clever way with words. I want more than that. You need more than that from me.
Friends, there is a kind of wisdom that people out there love and will admire in you. It is not the kind of wisdom that God admires and loves to give. It’s not the kind that displays God’s power, and blesses other people deeply.
Do you want the kind of wisdom that is from heaven, or are you happy with the kind that fits better in hell? Really want it? So that you ask for it … and then put yourself in the very supernatural place where God creates and nurtures it?
Ex-Labor senator Grahame Richardson writes an occasional column in The Australian newspaper. It is almost always worth reading, in my view. On Friday he wrote in praise of John Howard, one of his political opponents. In the article, he said “nothing beats experience” and that “knowledge will always be king in politics”.
That may be true in politics, but it is not true in the church of Jesus. Godly wisdom trumps both experience and knowledge and harnesses them for good in service to others.
If we want to see purity and unity and reasonableness and mercy and impartiality, and a deep sweetness among us and between us, this is what we need.
Your experience and your knowledge are certain to be limited, or you may have much of each, but it’s not what the rest of us need most from God through you.
We need your practical, relational, supernaturally-given wisdom that sweetens our lives and makes your experience and knowledge really valuable.
Will you be praying for it and putting yourself in the place God uses to give it?
The rest of us can be thankful for you, but we’ll be all the more thankful when you live “in the meekness of wisdom”.
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