The Right Perspective
You know, it’s pretty cool to watch how God works. Now, I’ll grant you that’s pretty much a blanket statement that could be applied to just about anything so let me give you some context. I made the plan to preach through James about a year ago. When I set my preaching calendar, I didn’t have any idea when things like the Honduras Team leaving or Graduate Recognition Sunday would be. Nonetheless, by God’s manifold grace, He knew what was going on and so as it happened, we came to James 2:14-26 the same day as our commissioning service. Today He’s done it again. As we pause to recognize the hard work of these graduates, our passage in James is intensely relevant for their current place of life.
Allow me to be even more specific if you would. This summer is my ten-year high school reunion. I know some of you still think I just graduated before I came out here, but I really am almost thirty. (And I know that still only makes almost half some of your ages and younger than some of your grandchildren, but I’ll get there.) It was in fact the third time I graduated before God moved Lisa and me here. This is to say that I’m not so far from the experience you are currently living, grads. And when I think back to the times I have graduated (I had to keep doing it because it wouldn’t take—I kept going back and they kept sending me back out), when I set aside the excitement and nervousness, there was one thing I hungered for: wisdom. Wisdom for what to do next. Wisdom for how to go about searching for a job. Wisdom for honoring God at this next stage of my life. Wisdom to simply make it through the next day as an adult and moving further and further from the protective umbrella of my parents’ immediate authority. I needed and in fact wanted wisdom.
Now, I have been very blessed in my life to have had a number of sources to whom I could turn for wisdom and encouragement at each of these stages. And from what I know of just about every one of our graduates’ stories, you do too. But, there is one source of wisdom that trumps all of these others. I don’t mean this in the sense that it contradicts them, but rather in the sense that it is the first and truest source of wisdom. This would, of course, be the Bible. The Bible is a fount of wisdom and if used properly, will keep us on the path God has set before us to follow. But, if we’re honest, in spite of having this awesome source of wisdom at our fingertips, we still struggle with knowing exactly when we are operating on God’s wisdom and when we are operating on the world’s. Thankfully, the Bible is not silent on even this point and in the next few verses of James he gives us a guide for determining the difference. Let’s take a look at these words, I’ll unpack a couple of points for you, and then I’ll get you out of here.
If you have your Bibles this morning, open them to James 3 and we’ll finish off the chapter this morning. I’ll start reading at v. 13 if you want to follow along with me. “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” So what we have here is a description of what wisdom looks like when it is drawn from the wrong source, and what it looks like when it is drawn from the right one. Let’s talk about these for a few minutes and then I want to give you a principle that you can use to help tell the difference.
James begins with a question: who is wise and understanding among you? In other words, show me the person who is doing this wisdom thing right and I will tell you what she’s like. Fitting with some of the themes we have addressed already in the letter (especially the issue of faith and works), James argues that this wise person is known by what he does. And not simply what he does, but how he does it: “in the meekness of wisdom.” Now, that’s kind of a weird phrasing. Other translations use instead of meekness “gentleness” or “humility.” The idea is that the person acting with wisdom demonstrates it through good deeds done humbly. Well, what does it mean to be humble in wisdom? Perhaps most people will answer that by saying something about not being a Mr. Smarty-Pants with your wisdom, but I don’t think that’s what James is getting at. Instead, the person who is humble in wisdom recognizes the source of his wisdom—most notably, it isn’t him.
You see, we live in a world that carries a great deal of confusion regarding the nature of wisdom. Some people will equate wisdom with a kind of “street smarts.” In other words, the person knows how to get by on the streets, successfully working within the system to get what she wants. This kind of wisdom is often contrasted with book smarts. Folks who pride themselves as being street smart or road tested look with scorn on those who haven’t spent much time in the “real” world, who have instead spent most of their time locked away learning from books. There’s only so much learning that can come from books they argue. To get any further you have to go out and do it. And there’s some truth to this mindset, but we must also acknowledge that a large segment of our culture views as wise those who spend most of their time in ivoried institutions and have lots of letters to put after their name. Because they have spent so much time studying and learning they must be wise. Still others would argue that wisdom comes with age. This interpretation of wisdom runs along the same lines as the street smarts crowd, but is a bit different. These folks look impatiently at young folks like our graduates and deride their few experiences as lightweight in the face of what stands before them as they age. Still another group looks with contempt at folks many years their senior because wisdom for them requires a fresh perspective on things. This can only be truly possessed in one’s youth. And while there’s at least a grain of truth in all of these culturally-conditioned understandings of wisdom, there is a problem endemic in all of them: they all focus on the wrong source. They all come at wisdom with the wrong perspective.
All of these different views of wisdom as well as others we haven’t talked about but which lie in the same vein come at wisdom by looking in a mirror. Wisdom is unquestionably a virtue in our culture. Nearly all of us want to at least appear virtuous. As a result, we take a look at our lives, pronounce ourselves wise, and back up this pronouncement by appealing to whatever our current slate of life experiences are. The problem here is that wisdom of this nature has no foundation other than ourselves and we don’t make a good foundation. As a result, this kind of presumed wisdom constantly goes back and forth between two extremes. It either looks to someone else we count as even more wise than ourselves (often because they have even more of our kind of life experiences) and wants what he has. This wanting though goes beyond simple desire for similitude to the point of angrily coveting it. It’s not fair that they have more wisdom. We should have access to it as well. James calls this bitter jealousy. The other extreme is claiming that we alone are wise in this world and striving all the time to maintain such an appearance. We want all the wisdom for ourselves because then we can accurately claim that we are better than the poor foolish people around us. James calls this selfish ambition. And let’s face a truth for a minute: we all struggle with these extremes. Trying to deny that isn’t going to help us in any way. James says that the best thing the person living at one of these extremes can do is to be honest about it. “Do not boast and be false to the truth.” Looking in a mirror for wisdom isn’t going to get us there. And denying that we’re looking is going to keep us lost.
Neither of these are the way to go when it comes to living a life of wisdom. James tells us that they are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. In other words, they are the result of modes of thought indigenous to this planet—that is, they are not of God. They are the result of a life not under the Spirit’s leadership. And they are ultimately demonic in orientation—that is, they are how demons think. Now, that’s a pretty extreme statement, but think about it for just a minute. What was some of the reasoning the serpent used to tempt Eve in the Garden? He led her into a frame of mind to jealousy want what was rightfully God’s and at the same time to want all the powers of God for herself. These two modes of thought are at the root of every kind of evil imaginable. Think about it. What’s at the root of most crimes people commit? They want what someone else has. They look in the mirror, see themselves as the measure of things, and if satisfied with this want everyone to know about it or if not want to take what someone else who seems wiser has and make it their own. Graduates: as you prepare for the next part of your journey through this life, this is a place in which you will need to guard your heart and mind carefully. If your desired vocation is primarily about making a certain living so that you can have a certain amount of stuff so everyone will see how great you are, you are in for a rude awakening when you run into the walls of reality. You are looking in the mirror for guidance, but the reflection there won’t carry you very far. There is a better way to live a life of wisdom. There is a better place to look for wisdom. The mirror doesn’t have what we seek. Instead, James offers us another way: look up. The wisdom in the mirror cycles between bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, but the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. Doesn’t that sound better? That sounds like real wisdom to me. That sounds like a good and perfect gift coming down from the Father of lights in whom there is no shadow due to turning. Indeed, here is our principle for how to know what kind of wisdom you are using: real wisdom looks up, not in a mirror.
Let me unpack this list of characteristics for you. I want to do this because it might be easy to take what I’ve said about looking up for wisdom instead of in a mirror and argue that if we’ve simply asked God what to do in a situation we can go on as we please. Or perhaps, if we are looking to God for wisdom (in other words, spending time praying about what He wants us to do in a given situation) it doesn’t much matter what our life looks like. This is, of course, false to the extreme. This wisdom from above plays itself out in our actions. Keep in mind what James aid at the beginning of this little section: the person who is wise and understanding will demonstrate as much by good works. James gives us the list of the characteristics of wisdom from above so that we can distinguish it from imposters because there is only one wisdom that is truly from above. Real wisdom looks up, not in a mirror.
And this real wisdom is first pure, James tells us. This word pure carries a lot of weight to it. It means this wisdom is undefiled from the world. After all, being friends with the world means being an enemy of God. Pure does not, however, simply carry this meaning. It also bears a sense of being single-minded in pursuit of God. In other words, someone operating on wisdom from above is going to be the same godly person in every situation she faces. This is a moral, intellectual, and spiritual purity from which all the other traits here follow. Grads, if you want your lives from this point forward to be guided by the wisdom of God, you need to be absolutely consistent with the character of Christ. This wisdom is also peaceable which is a word that means more than simply the absence of conflict. It refers to a person in whom the serenity and wholeness of God is the controlling feature. And if our characters are not free from sin and set in submission to the image of Christ this peace will not be an option before us. The person operating on wisdom from above carries no stress or worry. Grads, if you find yourself heading down a path which you are walking with a great deal of fear and trembling, this is a good clue that you need to put the brakes on for a minute and evaluate the wisdom that has led you into such a situation. Perhaps you have been following your own lead instead of God’s. Real wisdom looks up, not in a mirror.
Finishing off the list, this wisdom from above is gentle. A gentle person is one who has the ability to not insist on his “rights” in a situation where he has been wronged. Such a person is able to trust that God will one day make all things right and can wait patiently for that day to come without injuring others to get his way in the short term. In this, the person operating on wisdom from above is open to reason or is submissive. This is in direct contradiction to the selfish ambition of the wisdom found in the mirror. The result of this openness to reason or submissiveness will be a person who is full of mercy and good fruits. Finally, the wisdom from above is impartial and sincere. We have already talked about the great dishonor involved in partiality, or favoritism. And another way to understand sincerity would be that such a person is totally without hypocrisy. Such a person is absolutely consistent to his stated confessions. All of this will lead to an atmosphere of peace around the one who uses this wisdom from above resulting in an abundance of righteousness—being rightly related to God and those around us. Real wisdom looks up, not in a mirror.
So grads, and congregation, as you prepare to leave here today to embark on the next phase of the journey of your life, make sure you are tapped into the wisdom that truly has what it takes to get you there. Our culture teaches that we should look inside ourselves to know what we should do in a given situation, but this search will lead us astray every time. Let me give you some of the most hope-filled advice I know: you don’t have what it takes. There, now you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re going to be enough for the challenges before you. You’re not. But your heavenly Father is. He has all the wisdom you need and He’s willing to share with anyone who asks—James already told us as much. So get out from in front of the mirror and go out to enjoy the life God has in mind for you. It will be abundant beyond your wildest dreams. The journey will be tough, but if you stick with it, it will be good. And when you are riding with the right wisdom, it will be smooth. Real wisdom looks up, not in a mirror.