13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. – James 3:13-18 ESV
Back in chapter one, James encouraged his readers to seek wisdom from God.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. – James 1:5 ESV
And he added that God is the source of all good gifts.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17 ESV
Through their relationship with Jesus Christ, the Christians to whom James wrote enjoyed access to the indwelling Spirit of God and the life-transforming truth of the gospel. According to James, a Christ follower is to be characterized by obedience to the word of God. It’s not enough to hear it; you have to live it out in everyday life.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT
And James pointed out that a person who claims to be spiritual but fails to control their tongue is practicing a hypocritical and powerless form of religion.
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT
James described the tongue as a powerful and virtually uncontrollable source of destruction – even within the body of Christ. With his lips, a believer can declare his faith in Christ and then turn around and spread vicious rumors about a fellow Christ-follower. Ironically, the same tongue could be used to glorify God and vilify other believers.
Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:9-10 NLT
Now James explains how to determine whether you are operating according to godly wisdom and displaying an understanding of God’s will and ways. It’s all in how we behave. Our outward actions reveal whether we are walking in step with the Spirit of God. The things we say and do are the most accurate barometers of our spiritual health. They provide irrefutable evidence of the condition of our hearts. That’s why James demands that Christ-followers put the wisdom of God into practice through humble obedience to His will.
If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. – James 3:13 NLT
The apostle Paul stressed the non-negotiable nature of the Spirit’s involvement when it comes to living a godly and honorable life.
So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT
And Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides us with the power to tame the tongue and produce the fruit of righteousness.
…the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23 NLT
The Spirit is a God-given source of wisdom and supernatural strength, and His primary role is to guide and empower believers as they navigate the sometimes difficult path from salvation to future glorification. And Paul would have us remember that the Spirit wants to influence every area of the believer’s life – from his attitudes and actions to the words that come out of his mouth.
Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. – Galatians 5:25-26 NLT
And James points out how easy it is to try and mask our lack of godliness through deceit and lies. When we fail to live in obedience to the Spirit, our lives inevitably produce a whole range of destructive deeds and Paul provides a shocking but incomplete list of them in his letter to the Galatians.
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT
We’re either living in step with the Spirit of God or giving in to the desires of our own sinful natures. And it’s fairly easy to determine which path we have chosen based on the “fruit” our lives produce. That’s why James warns against attempting to cover up our godless lifestyle through lies and deceit.
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. – James 3:14-15 ESV
When the wrong fruit appears in our lives, we’re tempted to cover it up by portraying ourselves as super saints and spiritual rock stars. We posture and pretend, trying to convince others of our superior spirituality. But all the while, we are living a lie. Yet we end up excusing and justifying our behavior and, in doing so, we display a form of wisdom that is anything but godly. Driven by selfish ambition and jealousy, we rationalize our behavior and promote a brand of wisdom that comes from the enemy and not God.
Jesus gave a perfect example of this self-righteous but self-deceiving kind of wisdom when He told the following parable to His disciples.
Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 NLT
The Pharisee was self-deceived. He wrongly viewed himself as spiritually superior and worthy of God’s praise. But Jesus declared him to be a self-righteous and pretentious hypocrite whose pride left him unjustified before God. He had lived this lie for so long that he eventually believed it to be true. He went home believing he was fully accepted before God, but he was wrong.
You can attempt to disguise the jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart but, in time, it always makes itself known. And James states that “wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind” (James 3:16 NLT). In other words, those two traits are never alone. They’re always accompanied by other, equally disturbing “fruit” that produce death rather than life.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. – James 3:17 ESV
God’s wisdom, which is available upon request, is capable of producing a host of outcomes that positively impact the life of the recipient and all those around him. It produces a desire for peace rather than jealousy and strife. In place of self-promotion, it displays a heartfelt concern for the well-being of others. It is reasonable rather than contentious and confrontational. It manifests itself in mercy toward others and produces fruit that is for their benefit. Godly wisdom allows no room for favoritism or partiality. It fosters unity and encourages an atmosphere of humility and selfless service to others.
James’ point is clear. Those who seek the wisdom of God will receive it. And when they avail themselves of it and live in obedience to it, it will produce a harvest of righteousness. The wisdom from above is fruitful but it must be cultivated by those whom God has chosen as His caretakers. If we obey His Word and live in keeping with His Spirit’s guidance, we will “plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18 NLT).
The apostle Paul reiterates this promise of fruitfulness when we choose to avail ourselves of God’s wisdom. But the choice is ours and we must make it every day of our lives.
You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:7-10 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.