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Worldly vs. Godly Wisdom

Today, we are jumping back into the book of James, which I’m very much looking forward to. I’m praying that God will teach and mold us in the coming weeks as we continue through James. We’ll see topics like a divided heart, condemning others, the danger of wealth, patience, endurance, telling the truth, prayer, and loving correction. All of these James addresses, and I know God we will be enriched as we seek truth and submit our hearts and lives to him more and more.

James 3 is where we will be today, and we will be taking a few questions near the end of our time, so feel free to respond to the text that will go out about 11:10am. If you’re not on that, the instructions to get on are right behind me. James 3:13-18.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 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. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.


I just love how he starts this text. It’s almost like a bit of a challenge. Just as a reminder, he’s writing this to a group of Jewish Christian house churches outside of Palestine. So he’s almost saying this as a challenge to the congregation: “Church, who is wise and understanding among you? Show that wisdom by your good conduct!” Another translation is “Show it by your good life, in the works that true wisdom produces.” That word good can also be translated “beautiful.” James is saying show how beautiful is the life of true wisdom.

By his conduct let him show his wisdom, or by his good life, let him reveal his wisdom. In other words, James is saying that true wisdom 1st of all, produces works, it produces obedience. And 2ndly, true wisdom is humble. This sets the stage for everything that James is about to say about worldly vs. Godly wisdom. That’s what he’s getting at in this passage.

But, before we jump in to the outline here, we have to ask ourselves, What is wisdom? Is there an easy way to define it? Some of you have probably heard wisdom defined in comparison to knowledge: Wisdom is knowledge applied, or knowledge lived out. That’s actually a pretty good representation of how the New Testament uses the word wisdom. Maybe a bit more detailed, and I think this is worth writing down: Wisdom is knowing how to live for the glory of God in a fallen world. The question is not just what, but how. It’s discerning God’s will and then actually doing it. That’s another really short way to put it.

So when you need advice, you don’t just go to someone with a whole bunch of knowledge. Usually, it’s best to go to someone who is wise, someone who not only knows about something, but knows what that something looks like in real life. Not that they themselves had to go through exactly what I’m going through, but that this person is able to take the knowledge they have about life and truth and godliness and translate that into everyday life. That’s wisdom.

The question, of course, is, how do we know the difference between true and false wisdom? Worldly vs. Godly wisdom? That’s the question that James answers by comparing for us, worldly vs. Godly wisdom. So, as you can see in your sermon notes, we’ll see the origin, the motivation, and the effects of first, worldly and then, Godly wisdom. The origin, motivation, and effects of each. We’ll start with worldly wisdom:


Worldly Wisdom

Origin: hell (15).

Where does worldly wisdom come from? Look at verse 15. Writing about having bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in their hearts, he says in verse 15: “This is not wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” James doesn’t exactly give it to us gently, does he? No!

He’s not messing around. His goal is clarity, and getting to the point, and the point is that worldly wisdom, which is really just perceived wisdom, is not just worldly wisdom, as in it’s just not the best. James says here that it is demonic! Worldly wisdom is hostile to Godly wisdom!

The go-to example that just so clearly gives us the comparison between worldly and Godly wisdom is the serpent in Genesis chapter 3. God had commanded Adam and Eve very clearly that they could eat of any tree of the garden except this one tree. And in Genesis 3:1 and following, the serpent, who we know to be Satan, said to the woman:

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden.’? And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desire to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

From the beginning, the Devil has been the Father of lies, manipulating, coercing, and straight-up lying, like he did here to Eve. This is how we know that any wisdom that does not come from God ultimately comes from the enemy, or at least it’s the kind of wisdom that the enemy has. James says this so-called “wisdom” is earthly, meaning temporary. The benefits of worldly wisdom are short-lived.  Then he says it’s unspiritual, which is a really neat word here. The King James translates it “sensual,” some of your Bibles might say “natural.” Basically, “unspiritual” means it comes from the part of us where our feelings and our own reasoning calls the shots! “Unspiritual,” meaning whatever we ourselves feel or think is best, as opposed to what God thinks or feels is best.

That is such an important thing to realize. Worldly wisdom comes from within us. Within our feelings, and within our own minds. And it’s a wisdom that trust in our own feelings and in our own minds. That’s how it is like that of the enemy. It’s just like children who are convinced that they can eat 100 pieces of candy and not get sick. Getting sick isn’t even on their radar. But we know, and it’s difficult to help them see that we know, even if they don’t. It’s not that different for adults. We think we know it’s best to follow our hearts in all things. And God’s saying, “hey, don’t merely follow your heart, but it’s deceitful all else (Jer. 17:9). So this wisdom is unspiritual, it’s from us. And then lastly, as we’ve mentioned, James calls this worldly wisdom “demonic.”

So, we see the origin of worldly wisdom, now the motivation of worldly wisdom. What’s the ultimate goal and motivation for worldly wisdom?!


Motivation: self-centered ambition (14).

Verse 14: “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 from above.” For worldly wisdom, the ultimate goal, the ultimate person or thing in mind is ourselves. We have ourselves in mind to the point where bitter jealousy takes over. We’re envious, so we criticize others because it makes us look better.

“Selfish ambition.” This is strong language. What, really, determines what you do? How you live your life? Worldly wisdom will tell you to do whatever is best for you! Number one! Yours truly! In fact, if you step back and think about it for a moment, it’s not just that this worldly wisdom isn’t the best: “You have a better option, which is Godly wisdom.” No. This isn’t just a lesser option. Worldly wisdom will call us to the exact opposite of what Jesus has called us to. Luke 9:23- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Following Jesus means that I DENY myself. I can’t think of something more opposite of selfish ambition. Me having as the primary goal in my life doing what I think is best for me, what will bring me the most personal benefit. It brings me back again to how Eve responded to the serpent. Genesis 3:6, again: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.”

What was she thinking about that entire time?! Herself! Good for food, a delight to the eyes (it looked delicious), and even that it would make her wise! All of this benefit for her and her husband very quickly became more important than that fact that God had commanded them not to eat of that tree. Do you see? What’s the motivation, the goal, behind worldly wisdom, trusting in our own reasoning and desires and feelings? It’s ourselves. We are the center.

Selfish ambition is so opposite of true wisdom, truly knowing what to do with our lives, that James says, if that’s you, don’t pretend to be wise! He says, “don’t be false to the truth!” And the TRUTH is you’re not actually wise at all. And in case you were wondering if James was done with his strong words about worldly wisdom, look at verse 16. These are some of the effects of worldly wisdom: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” The effects of worldly wisdom, in your notes. The effects:


Effects: Disorder and evil (16).

That may sound extreme, but just think about it. Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, where we all just look out for ourselves, even if we’re pretending to care about others, and pretending to deny ourselves like Jesus called us to, if our hearts are filled with selfish ambition, disorder and evil will be present.

This type of mentality is damaging in our families and in our churches. Looking out for yourself first, putting your own interests before others, does that make a good father? Or mother? Does it make a good elder or deacon, or just member of the body? No, in fact, it likely will cause serious issues. To quote one writer, he says, “Such wisdom (this worldly wisdom, not true wisdom) produces anger, bitterness, resentment, divisions, and divorce. Such wisdom robs us of love, intimacy, trust, fellowship, and harmony with others.”

Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is completely different. Why? Well, first, because of the origin of Godly wisdom. Guess what the origin of Godly wisdom is?


Godly Wisdom  

Origin: God (17)

We see it right there in verse 17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” This is probably the most important, and I also think the most applicable truth in this text. Where does true wisdom, come from? It comes from God.

And maybe that seems like an easy question us to answer. But I want us to think about the implications of this. If wisdom comes from God. If knowing how to live for the glory of God in a fallen world, if that comes from God, then finding true wisdom comes from knowing God. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Just think about this: fear is our natural response to what? It’s our natural response to the One who has made himself known to us!

When we see God accurately, He becomes our ultimate authority, the One whom we most respect, and revere, and even fear. When we know Him as He truly is, the great glorious God of the universe that also loves us as a perfect Heavenly Father loves His children, when we see him like that, we have the most foundational part of wisdom right there. Why? Because truly understanding and believing that about God will reshape our lives. It recalibrates our priorities. Seeing God as he truly is, is the beginning of seeing all things like God sees them, which is the heart of where true wisdom is found.

This is at least part of how I understand Proverbs 3:6. “In all your ways acknowledge him” (literally, know him), and then what happens when we do that? “And he will make your paths straight.” Knowing God as he is is the heart of wisdom. If you want to be wise, get to know God. It truly is as simple as that. If you want to know how to live for God’s glory in very specific situations that maybe the Bible doesn’t directly address, get to know God.

I realize this may not seem like the most profound thing, but is it not so easy to go to God with specific questions and never go to Him with a desire to know him fully? I’ll be the first one to say that when you have a specific question, go to the Word! Google it! “Bible verse about anxiety.”  “Bible verse about grief.” Whatever! Please do that! But, also, don’t forget that God is not like Google. He’s not just there to give you answers and give you what YOU feel like you need in the moment. That’s where even in our relationship with God we can become selfish and ambitious and more focused on ourselves and what we feel and think we need from Him, as opposed to knowing all of Him, and learning to obey all that He has commanded.

If you remember back to the beginning of this series, we spent a week on what it means to ask God for wisdom. And I just want to point out that James 1:5 doesn’t say, “If any of you lacks an answer, let him ask God, who gives generously.” Or, “If any of you needs a little pick-me-up, let him ask God.” I’m not saying those are bad things. When you feel you need these things, PLEASE go to Word. Please! I do! BUT, also realize you need the Word more than just when you feel like you need the Word. We need God far more than simply when we feel and determine that we need God. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously.”

This relationship that we have with God, having been reconciled to Him because of Jesus Christ and what he did by dying on the Cross and raising again, bearing our sin and shame, rising again defeating death and declaring victory on our behalf. This remarkable reconciliation was not so that we could have an occasional conversation, or occasional time where we really rely on Him, or occasional time where we rest in His arms. This remarkable reconciliation with God in Christ was because God showed us our absolute lostness and blindness without Him!

It’s not just that God becomes A new source for wisdom and truth; it’s that he is the only source for wisdom and truth and knowing how to live in light of being His child. We don’t come to Him like we’re business partners who mutually benefit from our limited relationship. We come to him like children who rely on Him for everything. We come to him with the attitude of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:7-9:

“Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

Like Solomon, we come to God saying, “Who is able to live for your glory, in real obedience, in the midst of this fallen world, where sin and temptation abound. Lord, give us discerning hearts, give us wisdom that only you can give, because you are the source of truth and knowledge and wisdom.” And that child-like humility and dependence becomes our motivation. In your notes, the motivation for Godly wisdom, why we seek it out:


Motivation: God-centered humility (13, 17)

If you remember, the motivation for worldly wisdom was self-centered ambition. The motivation for Godly wisdom, however, is God-centered humility. This really takes us back to verse 13, with James kind-of framing the conversation. He describes the wisdom that proves itself to be from God as wisdom that results in obedience, or works. It’s also wisdom that is characterized by humility. Those are the two things he brings up.

He uses the phrase “meekness of wisdom.” Now, meekness is not weakness at all. It’s a self-denying gentleness. That’s what meekness is. In the day and age in which James is writing, meekness and humility are considered by the Greeks to be servility! Just weakness, associated with slavery, even. But Jesus didn’t see it that way. He saw this as the true result of understanding who God is!

Doesn’t that just kind-of make sense? Just fall into place? The heart of the Gospel is an understanding that we were unworthy before God on our own, and we’ve been reconciled only through the atoning work of Christ. With that comes an inevitable humility! Or at least it should be inevitable. An incredible God-centeredness and God-reliance, including in how we deal with other people. And this is where we get to what this true wisdom ends up looking like in our lives. The Effects of Godly wisdom:


Effects: Peace and Good Fruits (17-18)

Verse 17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure,” meaning holy, true, Christlike, there’s moral purity to this wisdom. Then, it’s “peaceable, gentle, open to reason (that doesn’t mean we’re easily persuaded, but that we don’t assume we have it all figured out), then it says “full of mercy and good fruits, impartial (which really means straightforward or unwavering) and sincere.” That last one’s my favoriate– on top of all of this about how we treat the people around us, especially in the Church, it all should be real and sincere, from the heart.

Why does Godly wisdom manifest itself like this? Why is it pure, and peaceable and gentle and sincere? Why?! Why do we treat others like this? Because of how God has treated us. Motyer says it best: “We are ready to forgive as he has forgiven us, ready to welcome as he has welcomed us, ready to be to them in all things what he has proved himself to us. Furthermore, all this must come from the heart: this is not a face we wear for the occasion, but a nature which we display in our deeds.”

The wisdom that James advocates for here won’t cause disorder and sin, selfishness in the marriage and family, trivial dramas in the church or among friends and co-workers. Wisdom that comes from God, that comes from an active pursuit of Godliness and a desire to live for His glory in all things, and comes from reliance solely upon Him for our self-worth and sustenance, THAT kind of wisdom will result in a “harvest of righteousness,” that’s what verse 18 says. That kind of wisdom will result in true obedience to God and truly living our lives in such a way that we see things the way God sees them. Don’t you want that?

Ultimately, this wisdom, this pure, Godly wisdom brings about that which is pleasing to God, and also what is good for the people of God. This isn’t just what pleases God, this is what is good for us! And this peace that James so strongly emphasizes here at the end is not peace at the expense of truth. “Unity and peace above all!” Verse 17 very clearly said that Godly wisdom is FIRST pure, holy. So this peace is not at all just a happy-go-lucky pretend-like-nothing-is-wrong kind-of peace. In fact, this peace comes about because the truth is evident. God’s truth is evident. But that translates into the church as well.

We see and know each other’s faults and sins and pasts and failures, and yet we come together because we’re all seeking wisdom from God. We come together because we’re all relying on Him like children. That’s why we’re called brothers and sisters. We come together because we’re all fighting the flesh that still tries to pull us back into self-centered ambition, ego, just focusing on ourselves, the fleshly desires that lie to us like they lied to Adam and Eve and caused them to rely on their own feelings and reasoning instead of God’s.

Peace characterizes the body of Christ, or at least it should, because God has reconciled the two parties that could not possibly have been farther apart, us and Him, and that reconciliation is so dramatic and spectacular that Godly wisdom tells us that our tiny differences that we fight over are often laughable.

Instead of letting worldly wisdom determine what we do, we give ourselves to the Word of God, where we find Godly wisdom. Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. He’s the one who gives wisdom. Ask for it, seek it with all of your heart.