September 19, 2021
A young musician was substituting for the principal clarinet in the Chicago Symphony. Wanting to make a good impression, she prepared her music carefully, memorized all the hard passages, and when the time came to take her place for her first rehearsal, she played her heart out, dramatically moving with the music and waving her clarinet expressively as she played.
When there was a pause in the rehearsal, she smiled at the player sitting next to her. But he frowned at her, and said, “we don’t do that here.” In the Chicago Symphony, the focus is on the music, not the drama.
We’ve been working our way through the book of James, and I’ve mentioned before that this book, even though it comes in the form of a letter, really has more in common with Old Testament Wisdom literature than Paul’s letters to the early church. James has encouraged us to accept all people without showing favoritism to the rich. He’s taught us to listen first and speak second, and when we do speak, to mind our tongues.
This is all part of becoming more like Jesus, that process we call discipleship. As we work our faith, our faith begins to work in us, and our focus is more and more on Jesus, not the drama.
In today’s passage, James gets to the very heart of his message. He asks a really important question: why settle for worldly wisdom, when your life can be guided by heavenly wisdom?
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. …
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. – James 3:13 -4:3, 7-11a
My first husband liked to scuba dive and spearfish. These are great sports if you live near the ocean. We lived in southeast Kansas. The only bodies of water available for scuba diving and spear fishing were old strip mining pits, and the only fish you could legally spearfish were carp.
Carp are bottom-feeders. They eat muck. They taste like muck. It doesn’t take much imagination to rearrange the letters in “carp” to come up with another word that fully describes their flavor. And they are full of tiny bones, so they are difficult to eat. It doesn’t really matter how you cook them, they are still going to taste like carp, and you will always have a little pile of bones on the edge of your plate when you finish the meal.
So why did we keep settling for mining pit carp, when we could have been fishing for river trout or lake bass? James asks a similar question in today’s passage: why settle for worldly wisdom, when your life can be guided by heavenly wisdom?
Sometimes, we don’t even realize we are settling for carp. We think we are eating good fish, and we can’t figure out why it tastes so bad. Think of the times in your life you have settled for less than God intended for you. Maybe you have taken the easy way out when faced with a choice, or maybe you’ve struggled to have your work recognized, and you felt hurt when your efforts to serve have gone unnoticed.
It seemed like what you were doing was good and worthwhile work, but you found no satisfaction in it. Things just didn’t go the way you wanted them to go, and you couldn’t figure out why you were fighting so hard and getting so little return. You thought you were eating good fish, but you kept finding carp bones in your teeth.
You might tell yourself it really doesn’t matter much; you don’t mind the taste of carp. But when it comes to living out our call to follow Jesus, the wisdom we choose matters a great deal. Allowing worldly wisdom to seduce us away from heavenly wisdom can have dire consequences for us, and cause spiritual harm to those we have been called to serve. As servants of Christ, we need to be able to tell the difference between God’s wisdom and our own, so that we can let God’s wisdom guide our speech and actions, and so we can avoid becoming a stumbling block for others.
So, how can you tell when there’s carp on your plate? How can you know when you are being guided by heavenly wisdom instead of earthly wisdom? James identifies several characteristics that will help us recognize the difference between heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom, and he gives some clear examples of the evidence we can look for to make sure we are depending on wisdom from God.
Teachers know the best way to teach a concept, or idea, is to give lots of examples identifying the concept’s critical attributes. We need positive examples, to establish what the concept is, and we also need negative examples to learn what the concept is not. The concept of musicianship, for example, includes the critical attribute of focusing on the music, not the drama.
James is a good teacher. He wants us to follow heavenly wisdom, and he gives us both positive and negative examples of critical attributes we can recognize in our own speech and conduct, so we can determine when heavenly wisdom is guiding us.
These critical attributes are signs of character. Our job, as followers of Jesus, is to put on the character of Christ. That requires basing all our thoughts, words, and actions on heavenly wisdom, just like Jesus.
First of all, James tells us that heavenly wisdom is pure, and last of all, it is sincere, or “without a trace of hypocrisy.” These bookends of purity and sincerity frame the list of positive characteristics James gives us.
Purity of heart is easy to spot. The world might call spiritual purity being naïve or gullible, and some might even try to take advantage of this. But remember that purity is a mark of wisdom, just as sincerity is. There is no guile or deceit in heavenly wisdom. It is transparent and honest. Heavenly wisdom always tells the unvarnished truth.
Sandwiched in between purity and sincerity, James lists characteristics that are very closely related: peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial… that last one must have been referring to the problem James addressed back in chapter two, where the wealthy were being treated with favoritism in the early church, and the poor were being ignored.
For James, the primary attribute of heavenly wisdom is being at peace with others, because he restates this idea in verse 18: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
But let’s be clear about something here. The kind of peace James encourages us to make is not what author Tod Bolsinger calls “peace-mongering.” [In chapter 13 of Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger quotes Ed Friedman on p. 179, describing how peace-mongers can sabotage change efforts.]
A peace-monger simply tries to keep everyone happy by avoiding conflict. A peace monger actually prevents true peace from developing, because conflicts never are allowed to surface, let alone get resolved. They continue to simmer, and those unresolved conflicts can’t fit between the bookends of purity and sincerity. The harvest of righteousness never gets to ripen.
Righteousness is something we don’t talk about much outside of church. We think of God’s righteousness as being holy and perfect. We don’t always think about the ‘harvest of righteousness’ available to us as human beings.
When James uses the word righteousness, he’s talking about justice, goodness, or being made right. Those who make true peace will receive justice and goodness. They will be made right with God and with others.
And that points out what all these characteristics of heavenly wisdom hold in common: They describe how we are to interact with others. The focus is outward, considering the other’s need with personal humility, acting and speaking in love.
To make sure we get the point, James gives us some negative examples, as he lists the characteristics of earthly wisdom: selfish ambition, bitter envy, boasting, denying the truth. Just as heavenly wisdom results in peace, James tells us that earthly wisdom results in disorder ‘and every evil practice’. Such chaos is the exact opposite of peace.
But notice what earthly wisdom’s characteristics hold in common: selfish ambition, envy, boasting, and lying – these are all inward-focused tendencies. Instead of being all about another’s need and well-being, earthly wisdom is all about me. My needs, my desires.
Isaiah 5:21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” They depend on earthly wisdom. They discover they have been eating carp.
We want to be guided by heavenly wisdom as we strive to live out our call as Christians, but let me remind you that our call is to some form of ministry, and ministry always means ministry for someone else. Will we benefit personally? Certainly! But our own good is not what we look for when we seek heavenly wisdom. It is the good of others that drives us.
This lesson from James about heavenly wisdom falls in between two passages on taming the tongue. James points out that governing our speech, so the things we say show compassion and mercy instead of pride and envy, is one of the primary ways we demonstrate heavenly wisdom at work in our lives.
Heavenly wisdom isn’t something to acquire and keep to ourselves as some special secret knowledge. Its purpose is to help us as we speak and act, teach and encourage, ministering in Christ’s name to those he died to save. Heavenly wisdom’s greatest purpose is to show love.
The big question, however, is this: how do we get such heavenly wisdom? The answer is found in the pages of the Bible. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we read in the psalms and proverbs. (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10)
James repeats this idea a little later in his letter, when he says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8).
When it comes to living out our lives as followers of Jesus, the wisdom we choose to follow matters a great deal. Heavenly wisdom can only guide us when we submit ourselves completely to God and draw near to him.
Sometimes, we don’t even realize we are settling for earthly wisdom. We can’t figure out why our lives are still in chaos, why we still struggle with fear and anxiety. We don’t see that the choices we’ve made – even though they might seem “wise” to us – are based on human standards of self-centeredness, instead of God’s standard of heavenly righteousness.
And that reminds me of something I read a while back. The author wrote that unresolved pain is often at the heart of what he called an “implosion of character,” because pain, by its nature, is selfish.
Think about that for a moment. When you hurt, that’s all you can think about. If you bump your elbow, all thoughts of caring for others go out the window. When you are in pain, your attention is focused completely on yourself.
Pain is selfish. Unresolved pain leads to – what were those characteristics of earthly wisdom James gave us? – selfish ambition, bitter envy, disorder and every evil practice. When you find yourself focusing on your own pain, chances are good you are depending on earthly wisdom, instead of wisdom from above. Chances are good your unresolved pain is preventing you from experiencing the fullness of God’s love.
God knows something about pain, and God knows how to resolve it. Jesus carried our pain when he died on the cross. He held our pain, ignoring his own, because he loves us. That’s what love is: carrying another’s pain instead of focusing on your own.
When we surrender our pain to Christ, we begin to be healed, and made whole. Only then can we let go of our earthly wisdom, the wisdom that focuses all our attention on ourselves. Only then can we begin to experience the kind of wisdom that comes from heaven; wisdom that is first of all pure; then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
When you submit to God and resist the devil, the devil will flee from you. When you draw near to God, God will draw near to you, take away your pain, and fill you with peace, true peace.