Last week we saw that everyone struggles with sin and James highlighted one area in particular that is a struggle – taming the tongue. He wrote as an encouragement and reminder that we all face this struggle together.
It has been said that the eyes are the gateway to the soul. If that is true, then the mouth is the exit turnstile. What we say is a reflection of who we are. Sometimes we say some pretty wise things and other times we say some really stupid things. Just as we learned last week, the fact that we say stupid things shouldn’t be a shock to us. We obviously need to limit the negative things that come out of our mouth but that isn’t even the real problem.
The real problem is that a lot of people say stupid things and don’t realize that they are stupid. This is on par with people who sin and don’t realize it but maybe even worse. People who say stupid things often think that they are wise.
We’ve all been in a situation where we hear something that we know is downright wrong. Sometimes it’s a case of a person just getting confused and getting their facts mixed up. Sometimes it is a willful bending of the facts – also called a lie. But many other times people are just wrong. They aren’t confused and they aren’t lying, they just are completely wrong.
This is what James goes on to talk about in chapter 3. A number of people believe that they are wise when in fact they are fools because their so called wisdom is man’s wisdom and not God’s.
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.
We go back to the idea of good deeds once again. A wise person is going to show their wisdom in their life by the way they act. But there’s a new wrinkle added here that hasn’t been mentioned before and it’s important in our discussion of deeds.
Good deeds are to be done in humility. A humble person is one who does not expect or want attention for the deeds that they do. You probably know some humble people and you probably know some prideful people as well. Because a Christian doesn’t automatically make you humble and likewise there are some very humble non-Christians. I know a man who did a lot of work for the church and contributed a lot of money as well. And he told me on several occasions how much money he contributed or how many hours he spent working on some project.
The idea of humility goes against the concept of earning one’s salvation. Humility means that you don’t want recognition. Obviously God is going to see the good deeds that you do even if no one else does but deeds done to earn one’s salvation wouldn’t be humble deeds.
You go to work every week and you expect a paycheck for the work you do. You do your job and you work hard. You don’t cause problems for other people and you don’t care who gets the credit because your pay is the same regardless. Being a good worker isn’t the same as being a humble one. A humble one is one who doesn’t expect anything in return for their work but does it anyway.
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.
What does this look like within the church? “I’ve done this job for five years and that pastor hasn’t ever stopped to thank me!” It is expecting something in return for your hard work, whether that is a pat on the back or to be paraded in front of everyone for your many contributions or even your name upon a plaque for your donation.
James says that the wise will do good deeds but here he clarifies that this kind of wisdom is not from God. Earthly wisdom is looking for ways to get ahead and get recognition. If you want good publicity, do good deeds. Now, I know that there are people in Hollywood and big name athletes who really care about the people in Africa and helping inner city schools but every time I hear about someone donating a million dollars to something, I can’t help but think that this is a publicity stunt. You don’t have to trumpet the fact that you did something great unless you are openly calling for other people to step up to help the cause as well.
Now, just because you want to get recognition for something doesn’t mean that you don’t truly care about the cause but using your contribution for recognition is what earthly wisdom says to do. Truly generous people are the ones that you never hear about because no one knows that they are doing it.
A few years ago I got to hear Rick Warren speak down at Liberty University. This was at the height of the popularity of “The Purpose Driven Life.” At the time there had been over 20 million copies sold. He talked about how unexpected the success from the book was and how he and his wife had to make a decision with what to do with the money.
They decided on a few things. First of all, they weren’t going to change their lifestyle at all. They weren’t going to buy a new car or house. Then they decided that they were going to give back all of the money that he had been paid by the church in his 25 years there. Next he and his wife set up five foundations for various causes. And finally he decided to do what he referred to as reverse tithing. He would give away 90% of his money and live off of 10%.
Now, one might think that Rick Warren was doing all of this for recognition. He certainly wasn’t telling everyone that they should be giving away 90% of what they made. But I strongly believe that he was really just telling a story about how God had blessed him tremendously and how he had chosen to share that blessing and he wanted others to give generously.
The story doesn’t stop there though. During this conference there was a hurricane coming ashore in Florida. The conference is big a draws in vendors from around the country. One of the vendors got word from home that his house had been destroyed in the hurricane. He would be returning to his family after that night. Jerry Falwell encouraged everyone to visit the vendor and buy out his stuff so that he didn’t have to take anything home.
Without any hesitation, Rick Warren asked that his speaking fee be given to the vendor before he left for home. I don’t know what the actual amount was but I know for a fact that conferences this size that would bring in a big name like Rick Warren might pay out $25,000 for a week. And he was willing to give that up without a second thought. He also did it quietly. It was Jerry Falwell who had announced the gift afterwards, not Rick Warren.
So, there’s the difference between giving with man’s wisdom in mind and giving with God’s wisdom. But what is wisdom actually? James gives us a picture of God’s wisdom.
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.
It might be an over generalization but God’s wisdom is full of good qualities. It is a contrast to man’s wisdom which is looking out for its best interests even while doing good. These qualities are against our sinful nature.
It is no surprise that the wisdom that comes from heaven is similar to the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
God is the source of all of these things. As Christians we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us but we know that just having the Spirit doesn’t automatically give us these things. Just like actual fruit, the seeds have to be planted. They have to be tended to and nurtured and eventually they will grow.
It is the same way with wisdom. Proverbs tells us all about wisdom but a key verse to remember is Proverbs 9:10.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
Fear doesn’t mean that we are scared of God. In this sense it means that we show reverence to Him. It is the same kind of fear that we might show towards a police officer. We aren’t scared of them (unless we’ve done something that we should be arrested for) but if we get pulled over or deal with the police in some other way, we also aren’t going to want to do something that is going to give them reason to arrest us or fine us.
Tying our verse in Proverbs to everything else that we’ve looked at today, we see that wisdom starts when we revere God. This means that what we do is out of love for Him. Good deeds don’t come with the intention of being rewarded or even receiving a pat on the back. They are done with humility and often without the knowledge of anyone else that it even takes place.
On the other hand, there is man’s wisdom. Man’s wisdom says that you can earn your place in heaven by being good. It also says that as long as you’re being good, you may as well get all the credit you can for it. People should respect you more for all of the good deeds that you do. Your name should be in the paper for your charitable works and it should be on a plaque any time that you make a donation somewhere.
In the end, man’s wisdom leads to fulfillment on earth. Those who want acknowledgement and adulation here on earth will receive it but they won’t get it in heaven because their work was done for self. Those who pursue heavenly wisdom are going to receive their reward in heaven.