Wisdom From Above Or Below?

Ryan Goodwin


James 3:13 – “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.”


          We begin this section of text with a challenge to all who claim to have wisdom and understanding. James proposes that if there is anybody who would stake a claim in knowledge, that it must be manifested through deeds of righteousness. If we cannot put our knowledge on display through the production of good behavior, then that supposed wisdom and understanding is under question.

“The assertion is here made that true wisdom and expertise will be displayed by the conduct that is exercised. Mere knowledge is not enough, regardless of how extensive. In the Bible the wise man is not simply the person who knows the most. Not only facts but also attitudes are involved. The truly wise man is the conveyor of spiritual truth, and this must be exemplified by a godly life” (Faith That Works, Homer A. Kent, Jr., 128).

          Notice that wisdom and good behavior are inherently linked together by the inspired writer. Often, some of the supposedly wise people of this world find very little practical application for their knowledge, as if wisdom and behavior are very different things. Some believe that humans are divided into two parts – what they know and what they do. Yet God makes it clear that the only way our wisdom can be fruitful is if it is coupled with activities worthy of a truly wise person.

          What is the most accurate gauge of the veracity of our wisdom? Truly, it is the way it stacks up to the test of application. If we have not applied ourselves to good behavior, that is, those deeds of righteousness that follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), then our wisdom is all in vain. We cannot see into another person’s heart, nor can we always tell what thoughts and attitudes occupy his mind. But, for the most part, the undeniable manifestation of godly wisdom is good behavior. Even though some are able to live in hypocrisy and hide their sinful motives under a righteous façade, in general, good deeds come about as a natural expression of the love and piety that occupies a heart.

          But what of unapplied wisdom? Does it benefit that man at all? It is interesting that our society has an entire breed of people who can only be described as permanent thinkers, and never practical doers. So many spend their entire lives studying, pondering, and questioning everything – ever eager to think about grand moral matters but perpetually unwilling to act upon the wisdom they have accrued. There are the college professors who live by the motto “Question everything.” There are the tireless protestors who live for the next opportunity to shout about the latest atrocity. There are the great “thinkers” and scholars of the religious world who can speak numerous languages, quote the works of Calvin, Luther, and the Council of Trent, and replay years of seminary education verbatim, yet have never converted a single person or done more than a trite good deed to be seen by others. These people spend lifetimes acquiring worldly wisdom, sometimes even Godly wisdom, but never take a moment to show it by their good deeds (2 Timothy 3:7). When we consider the words of James, is there any reason why anybody should stay cloistered in a monastery for years at a time, studying, meditating, and gaining unapplied knowledge? Truly, there is nothing profitable about studying all day without ever going into the world and putting their knowledge into practice! From the Lord Himself we have a commission that orders us to “Go… make disciples of all the nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded” (Matthew 28:18-20). Furthermore, Solomon very properly denounces obsessive studying when he says, “My son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This is a direct warning to the perpetual thinkers of the world – life is not enjoyable when knowledge is left unused. Studying all day gets a man nowhere, and it is a pursuit that eats away at the health and welfare of a more balanced person.


James 3:14 – “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.”


          Here we begin to see the manifestation of worldly wisdom. The difference between this kind of knowledge and that of God is that the former is motivated by some very ungodly attitudes. Worldly wisdom stems from jealousy and ambition, greed and avarice. It is the result of one’s desire for self-aggrandizement or superiority. At the center of this kind of wisdom is “self.” It is bitter and vain, and never leads the bearer to the higher plains of Christian erudition. From the text, we see that jealousy and ambition are very volatile substances. While jealousy can be good in certain contexts – even God is jealous in His ultimate wisdom (James 4:5), as was Paul of the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:2) – and ambition can lead us to do great things for the sake of the Gospel, neither of these attitudes is righteous when taken to a sinful extreme. When jealousy is left unchecked, it leads us to covet, lust, feel angry toward a brother, and when ambition becomes motivated by selfishness, it leads us to develop a “cut-throat,” “ends-justify-the-means” posture.

          Do we ever find ourselves confronted by this kind of wisdom? Let us always be aware of the fact that selfishness has a way with infiltrating the ranks of the Lord’s church, disguising itself as sound doctrine. Of the false teachers of the day, Peter writes,

“[They] also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words… Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties… They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse you, having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed…” (2 Peter 2:1-16).

In this scripture, Peter agrees with James in that the primary motive involved in worldly wisdom is selfishness. False teachers are greedy, thus leading them to procure followers for the purpose of power.

          The beginning of this problem is found in the heart, where selfish ambition is planted. It is tempting to seek power in the local church, or become jealous at the success of a fellow Christian. We may find ourselves unsatisfied with the way the elders are leading the flock – the dissatisfaction driving us toward ambition. Truly, friends, the Lord’s church is not the environment for “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” In fact, it has no place anywhere. It is unwelcome, even alien, in the grand design of the Kingdom. The Lord taught us the exact opposite of this, as His example of humble service shows in John 13:5-17. Christ truly states that the one who wishes to be first shall indeed be last, so selfish ambition and jealousy are two things that should be entirely foreign to the Christian heart.

          But worldly wisdom also appears apart from Christians, as the term clearly implies. It is wisdom from the mind of earthly people, carnally motivated and cemented in their conscience. From the words of James, it seems that the chief abuse of the tongue is found in the rivalry between aspiring teachers.

“The bitter and fanatical zeal they felt for their wisdom, coupled with the selfish ambition by which they wanted to get ahead of others, led them to boastful claims of superiority… Here it speaks of the speaker arrogantly claiming to be victorious over someone else in his conveying of ‘wisdom,’ while at the same time displaying the very opposite of the meekness or gentleness that true wisdom possesses” (Kent, 131).

Whether these teachers are of the truth or not is irrelevant. The point is that these attitudes will eventually grow into actions. What begins with simple jealousy often ends up becoming outright cruelty.

          It is sad that so many great thinkers have wasted their energy on ambitious pursuits. Human minds have such grand potential – with it we have the ability to pray to God, teach the Gospel, compose beautiful hymns and psalms, consider and apply the weighty lessons of the Bible – potential that is for both good and ill. In the first century, the most brilliant minds of the time congregated in Athens, where Paul presented his very memorable sermon (Acts 18). Yet many of these people of intelligence scoffed at Paul and went on with their futile speculations about wisdom, philosophy, sophistry, and religious pageantry. John had to deal with brilliant enemies when he wrote his short second letter. He even states that the deceivers are “many” (2 John 7). The apostles had to deal with the worldly wisdom of Pagans, Jewish religious leaders, Ascetics, Stoics, and even false teachers from among their own ranks, such as the Gnostics and the selfish preachers in Philippi (Philippians 1:15-17). Today, worldly wisdom finds its home in the arms of evolution, atheism, liberalism, and denominationalism (among many others). The common link between all of these ideas? Selfishness. Put plain and simply, they can all be traced back to the desire for self-fulfillment, greed, ambition, and the freedom to do and say whatever the human hearts wills. Truly, when selfish ambition and bitter jealousy are the things that motivate us, only evil is the result, just as the next verses exemplify.


James 3:15-16 – “This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”


          The wisdom of the world does not find its source in the wisdom of God, for it is diametrically opposed to that which comes forth from heaven. Human intelligence, unaided by the guidance of God, is worthless, vain, empty, and unfulfilling. When confronted by the teachings of this world, the greatest question that can be asked is whether or not human wisdom has accomplished anything on its own. What is the result of this earthly, natural, and demonic thinking? What is the result of atheism? Is it not the freedom to do what we want, without fear of divine judgment? What is the result of evolution? Is it not the demoralization of humanity, with the intent of debasing the most magnificent creation of God? We can ask the question of all human wisdom – nothing that ever originated in the mind of man has accomplished anything but evil.

          There are three descriptions of worldly wisdom provided by James, the first of which being “earthly.” The fact that something is earthly is not necessarily a bad thing. Our bodies are earthly, as is every human relationship. Marriage is an earthly thing, yet God considers it “holy” (Hebrews 13:4). We live out our days in an earthly fashion, working in the world (1 Corinthians 5:10), eating earthly produce, speaking an earthly language, existing in the confines of earthly time. Problems arise, however, when we start depending on earthly wisdom for guidance in spiritual matters. If our opinions on spiritual and moral matters have originated as a result of earthly thinking, then it is not wisdom from God.

          Similarly, being “natural” is not necessarily a sinful attribute. We very naturally want to be married and produce children, eat good food, preserve our bodies, recreate, and earn a living. When James describes worldly wisdom as natural, he may be referring to the practice of allowing our natural desires to rule our minds and bodies in moral matters. Truly, what is natural is not always right. Though by nature we all desire procreation, the moral code of God does not allow us to mate with whomever we want, at any time. By nature, we seek self-preservation, yet that natural desire must be cast aside if we are to follow the example of Jesus Christ in complete selflessness.

          Finally, James describes worldly wisdom as “demonic,” which likely refers to its source: the devil. Any acumen that sees its source from Satan is sinful, and when we simply follow the wisdom of the world we have made ourselves, by choice, a slave to the temptations of the devil (1 Peter 5:8, 2 Peter 2:19).

          And it is here that we finally see the culmination of worldly wisdom. Where it has taken root and grown to maturity, it produces nothing but disorder and every evil thing. Notice how sin began with an attitude – perhaps just a hint of greed or covetousness – and came to fruition in the form of everything that is evil. As one writer puts it, “Wrong thinking produces wrong living” (Kent, 134). When we allow these feelings to go unabated, they very naturally progress toward strife and spiritual ruin. For Christians, this means that we should never become jealous of one another, for that jealousy may result in a spiritual rift in the congregation. For preachers, we must never allow ourselves to be motivated by ambition, for this may lead us to preach falsehood for the sake of “getting ahead.” After all, why preach the truth when a little bit of half-truth can land an evangelist at a larger, more prosperous congregation that upholds unsound doctrines? Also, let us never cry that James is being too dramatic – jealousy and ambition are just that dangerous!


James 3:17-18 – “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”


          Contrasted so starkly to the wisdom of the world is God’s wisdom, that which pours forth from Heaven to the souls of those who are willing to accept it. What the world considers true wisdom is nothing compared to the insight we gain into deeper spiritual truths. In fact, when earthly knowledge is weighed against God, the weight of the glory of the Gospel overshadows everything else. “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’” (1 Timothy 6:20). It is our duty as Christians to avoid the wisdom of the world, and seek to uphold and practice the glorious Word which has been given to us by God.

          God’s wisdom, according to James, is first “pure.” Before everything else, it is clean, unadulterated, untainted, like purified gold that has had all of the faults removed from it. With the wisdom of Heaven we are dealing with a substance that has no flaws. This means that there are no ulterior motives in the Bible – aside from the salvation of mankind, God has no agenda to push. Can the wisdom of the world say the same thing? Atheism is not pure, for it is defiled in practice because of its own assertions. Liberalism is not pure, for such an ideal is filled with the corruptive practices of selfishness and moral adulteration. All things that stem from jealousy and ambition are the exact opposite of pure!

          “Then peaceable,” which means that the wisdom of God drives no wedges between people except because of their own impiety. God wants peace between all people, and He has envisioned a world like that in the manifestation of the church – a kingdom in which there is no distinction between neither “Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female,” for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). The only reason hatred exists in this world is because God allows mankind to seek his own devices, thus disrupting peace.

          Next, the wisdom of God is “gentle,” similarly stated in 2 Timothy 2:22-26. The servant of God must adhere to all of these qualities in order for heavenly wisdom to make its home in his heart. To be a gentle person is to live as Christ did, in quiet, selfless service. To forgive others, even our enemies. To turn the other cheek. To be diligent in our willingness to love others, stating our exhortations and rebukes with great gentleness and tact. 

          “Reasonable.” This quality is especially encouraging because it shows us that God expects of us only what is reasonable. He never burdens us with a load too great to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13), nor does He demand perfection. On a practical level, God knows that we are human, as the writer says, “The Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). The Lord knows that we will make mistakes, and He is ever willing and able to forgive us when we repent (Joel 2:12-14). In the same way, the heavenly wisdom that we live by needs to work in our lives the same way. We should never judge another person more harshly than we judge ourselves, understanding that we too make mistakes. While we should never back down from speaking the truth on a matter, there needs to be a degree of reasonableness when we speak to other people. Let us always remember that some sinful habits cannot be broken over night, that pride and arrogance can have an affect on all people, that the temptations of another person may be the same that haunt our own lives, and that judgment is valid only when it is coupled with wisdom from the Bible. Be reasonable. If God can forgive, so can we. If God can design a law that every person is capable of obeying, then we should set reasonable and attainable expectations also. If God can change His mind about judgment based on the repentant nature of a person (Jeremiah 18:7-11), then so should we.

          To be “full of mercy and good fruits” is to forgive to the greatest extent possible. It is just as Christ says, “For if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15). The inherent idea in this verse – that many forget – is that we have all sinned, and, therefore, we all need forgiveness! With the mercy comes an abundance of good fruits – merciful people maintain stronger relationships, a healthy love for God, an appreciation for their own forgiveness.

          “Unwavering” refers mostly to the unbending nature of heavenly wisdom. It is the kind of knowledge that does not change with each passing generation, as opposed to worldly wisdom which is dictated by the desire’s of men. Compared to jealousy and ambition, the wisdom of God does not change (Malachi 3:6). It is not that God cannot change His mind about judgments, but that His wisdom never changes. The concepts continue forever, unamended, which leads directly into the last quality, “Without hypocrisy.”

          As we close the lesson, consider the words of the last verse. When we sow righteousness, we will reap the same. We will bear spiritual fruits that will last throughout eternity – fruits that are described in Galatians 5:22-23. Against these fruits, no law can be made. Truly, if we life by heavenly wisdom, we will free ourselves from the law of death, which is the bondage of sin. By living as Christ lived, by manifesting His spirit in our earthly lives, we will live peacefully both here and in the eternal dwellings!