James 3:13-18 NLT
“If you are wise and understand God’s ways, live a life of steady goodness so that only good deeds will pour forth. And if you don’t brag about the good you do, then you will be truly wise! But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your hearts, don’t brag about being wise. That is the worst kind of lie. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and motivated by the Devil. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no partiality and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of goodness.”
The New Testament letter of James provides instruction on becoming spiritually mature (1:2-4 provides a thesis for the letter). In this section James contrasts the “wisdom” of a worldly person versus the wisdom of a spiritual person.
The “wisdom” of the world involves boasting and twisting the truth to make yourself appear to be something that you are not. Deep down in the heart actions are motivated by selfish ambition, jealousy and envy: How will this make me look? What will people think about me? How can I make people think I am better than her? How can I attract more attention than him? Why can’t I have what they have?
The wisdom that comes from God is first of all, pure. That means it is genuine, the real deal. It means the motivation deep down in the heart is unmixed, it is totally about God. Pure means completely sincere. It is not one eye on God and one straining to see how people react. God’s wisdom is not two-faced, it’s pure. And then there is the emphasis of God’s wisdom being gentle, considerate, and peace-loving.
The contrast is obvious. How do you determine if you are maturing in Christ or not? One way is to look at your heart and your motivations. What “wisdom” is controlling your life? Does you life look more like the worldly wise or spiritual wise?
It is at this point that, I am convinced, we make a big mistake. We decide we want to be spiritually wise and so we begin making a checklist of all that James has mentioned in this passage, both positive and negative: envy, selfish ambition, jealousy, purity, consideration, gentleness, etc. And then we try to force ourselves to live in a way where we can check the appropriate boxes.
That’s the mistake. James is not suggesting that we force these qualities on ourselves from the outside in. In fact, if you look closely at verse 13 you will see that James links theology and spiritual wisdom: “If you are wise and understand God’s ways. . . .” Instead of making checklists and forcing behavior, James suggests that we come to know God and understand his ways. That’s theology. And when we understand God’s ways, a holy life will emerge.
Once again I am reminded that theology must come before ethics. And once again I am driven to my knees in worship in order to know this God deeper and deeper. When I love God with all my heart, my lifestyle will follow.