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.
Many people know that I am currently studying Philosophy at a local university here in Brazil. This has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, as I have broadened my knowledge and had many great interactions with professors and fellow-students alike.
But as a Christian in a secular university context, there are a few truths that I always have to keep in mind. Someday I’ll write an article (or series of articles) about these, but for today’s purpose, here is one of them: many of the philosophers were raging hypocrites. Rousseau, who had much to say about child rearing and education, left his five (!) children in public orphanages. Marx, who railed mightily against the evils of capitalism, lived off the generosity of the son of an industrialist. For this reason, among others, I have James 3:15 written on the inside cover of my class notes. It’s a helpful reminder.
Yet James doesn’t have such philosophers in mind in this text. Not really. Remember that James is writing to believers, about believers. His entire modus operandi is to get Christians to act like Christians. It’s true, the word rendered “wise” is “sophos“, from whence “philosophy“, and James uses it three times in this section. But James has his sights set squarely on Jerusalem, not Athens. His target are those within the local church who claim to be knowledgeable in the things of Christ, yet whose actions do not correspond to their vaunted biblical prowess. Let’s look at what he says about them.
A question of motives.
Of course the problem is not one of having too much wisdom or understanding. A believer can never have too much of those. Rather, it is our motive in obtaining them. It is quite possible, in our acquisition of biblical knowledge, to be motivated by “bitter envy and self-seeking.”
Praise is a terribly destructive drug. I have seen people transformed from humble servants to envious forces of destruction within a local church, in part because they took to heart the compliments heaped upon them by the brethren. Once a believer has convinced themselves that they are somehow indispensable to a local church, anyone else who begins to receive the same kind of praise will be seen as a threat.
Perhaps the reason this rings so true with me is because I have often seen the seeds of this sin germinating and sending out roots deep into my own heart. As someone who has actually gone to school to obtain more Bible knowledge, it is oh-so-very tempting to weaponize said knowledge against those whom my carnal heart sees as some sort of a threat.
A moment of introspection.
James enjoins the believer to be honest with himself or herself. Take a moment, reflect, and tell the truth about your motives for obtaining knowledge. Do you want to serve God better, or are you interested in tearing someone else down. Are you going to edify the brethren, or start a “discernment blog”.
Know who you’re working for.
Once again, James pulls exactly zero punches as he drives home his point. If your Sunday School ministry, position as deacon, Bible college studies, etc are motivated by envy or selfish ambition, James has some very bad news for you. You’ve been assimilated. You’ve gone over to the Dark Side. You’re working for the bad guys now. Your vaunted wisdom has been turned, and now you’re on the payroll of the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
This thought – the possibility that I might be being used of Satan to sow seeds of destruction within the Church – should cause every Christian to take periodic stock of their motivations in service.
Some concluding thoughts.
First, notice that at no point does James indicate that we should cease in our quest for wisdom and understanding. This is a trap many people fall in to, in many areas of the Christian life. “I’m not giving with the right motives, so I stopped giving.” (I actually had someone tell me this!) No…don’t stop doing what Scripture tells you to do. Take care of the motives (repent!), and keep doing what you are supposed to be doing.
Second, this whole study brings up a question: Is there any room for ambition in the Christian life? For an answer, I will refer you to an outstanding post by my Dad on that very subject.
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