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. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. (James 3:13-16, NLT)
James’ primary point in this section of chapter 3 is that wisdom is demonstrated in the works it produces. The NIV begins verse 13 with a question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” This serves as a challenge more than a question, revealing that the culture of his audience contained some people who claimed to possess spiritual wisdom and understanding who in fact, did not.
True wisdom is characterized by two markers: the good works it produces and the spirit of humility with which those works are conducted. His insistence on good works recalls his previous claim that faith without works is dead. In other words, wisdom is more identifiable by the way we live than it is by the way we think or speak. This “quiet faith” is not bashful faith. It is humble, rejecting the need for credit or congratulations.
Sometimes concepts are more easily defined and understood through contrast as well as comparison. James’ writing style is no different, pointing to markers that help the reader understand the characteristics of what true wisdom does not consist.
The first is jealousy. While jealousy in the Bible is used on occasion as a positive virtue, its boundaries are narrow. Appropriate jealousy is reserved for God’s love for his people who are often prone to idolatry (cf. Exodus 20:5). Human jealousy is tricky, as it often results in envy.
Perhaps this explanation will make this more clear. If an author writes a book and has it copyrighted, they will protect and fight to guard their material from those who would use it for personal gain. The same can be said for patent owners and others who hold forms of intellectual property. They rightfully own the material or the concepts, and therefore are entitled to protect what is theirs. That is an example of good jealousy.
But much of what we call jealousy is actually envy, which is the desire for something that someone else possesses. If you want something someone else possesses, you tread a slippery slope toward criticism and self promotion, which is the second marker.
Selfishness, or selfish ambition, is a word picture that refers to the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. James is pointing toward those who pride themselves in their own wisdom and understanding who are, in reality, displaying an envious partisanship that is the opposite of the humility of genuine wisdom.
James’ conclusion is clear. This kind of wisdom is not from God, and the result is disorder and evil.
So again, “Who among you is wise?”
We live in a culture that values information and intelligence. I once read a statistic which reported that all information doubles every two years. We have more access to knowledge today than at any time in world history. We know a lot of stuff, and we know that we know a lot of stuff. But is all of this knowledge making us better Christians and citizens?
Knowledge is knowing what we know, while humble wisdom acknowledges what we don’t know and pursues the answers to the questions in hopes of discovering even better questions. The greatest enemy we have in our pursuit of wisdom is not ignorance. It’s certainty. Certainty settles for what we have galvanized in our own minds and closes the door to listening and understanding. There’s nothing wrong with not having all of the answers. The problem lies in thinking we do.