Faith Works: Choose Wisely – sermon on James 3:13-18

September 23, 2018

We’ve been working our way through the book of James this month, and I mentioned to you last week 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, bringing us to spiritual maturity. 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? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
(James 3:13-18, NIV)

It just makes sense to choose heavenly wisdom over earthly wisdom, doesn’t it? I mean, who would rather live in evil disorder when you could have peace and mercy? And yet, we keep making that earthly choice instead of the heavenly one, time after time. I know I do.

I can sympathize with Peter. One minute, he’s telling Jesus that he will follow him anywhere, even to death, and the next minute he’s denying that he even knows Jesus. One minute I’m asking God for heavenly wisdom, and the next minute I’m feeling envious of someone else, or I’m patting myself on the back for something God did. I keep asking for heavenly wisdom, but when it comes down to it, many of my decisions are based on earthly wisdom instead.

Why is this? Can I not tell the difference between what God says matters, and what the world around me says is important? How can you know when you are being guided by heavenly wisdom instead of earthly wisdom?

Teachers work hard to help students remember – and use – the skills and concepts required to master what they are learning. The best way to teach a skill is to coach the student carefully until the skill is performed correctly once, then supervise repeated practice until the skill is mastered.

But to learn a concept or idea, we need lots of examples to identify the concept’s critical attributes, or characteristics. We need positive examples, to establish what the concept is, and we also need negative examples to learn what the concept is not.

James is a good teacher, so he 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 – both positive and negative characteristics in our speech and conduct – to make sure we are depending on wisdom from God.

These characteristics 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. 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: peace-loving, considerate, submissive, 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 focus of heavenly wisdom is being at peace with others, because he restates this idea in verse 18: peacemakers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of righteousness.

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 spread peace around 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.

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.

Our youth are figuring this out as they plan to minister to you in the form of raking leaves. This isn’t a fundraiser (you’ll get to experience that soon), but a way for our teenagers to learn how to serve without expecting anything in return. You can sign up in the hallway to have them come rake your leaves, or do some other light yard work as the weather changes.

Raking leaves may not seem like a big deal, but think about this: when in your life have you been most self-absorbed, and least likely to even think about someone else’s needs, let alone want to do something to meet those needs? For most of us, it’s when we were teenagers.

During adolescence, the human body and brain changes more than it does any other time, except from birth to two years of age. Part of that process involves differentiating the self from parents and peers. It involves figuring out our own personal identity. By definition, then, being a teenager means being self-absorbed.

So when a bunch of teenagers decides to rake leaves for others, that’s significant. It’s a shift from depending on earthly wisdom – which constantly asks, “how am I doing?” – to operating under heavenly wisdom, which asks, “how are you doing?”

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.

Psalm 141:3 says, “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.” And, as we heard last week, Jesus admonishes us to remember, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10)

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 draw upon matters a great deal. It’s only when we submit ourselves completely to God and draw near to him, that heavenly wisdom can guide us.

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.

Allowing worldly wisdom to seduce us away from heavenly wisdom can have dire consequences for us, and cause great spiritual harm to others who look to our example. We’ve seen this over and over again in recent months, as the moral failing of individuals and whole organizations, including pastors and churches, has been uncovered. A lot of pain has come to the surface.

And that reminds me of something I read this week. 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.[1]

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 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 peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

When we submit to God and resist the devil, the devil will flee from you. The devil will run away from you in fear. When you draw near to God, he will draw near to you, take away your pain, and fill you with peace.

[1] Carey Nieuwhof, https://careynieuwhof.com/5-signs-your-character-is-slowly-imploding/

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