Two Kinds of Wisdom


James 3:13-18

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

I grew up in a family where everyone (except maybe my dad) felt a pathological need to be right. One way this showed itself at our house was the location of the World Book Encyclopedias. (Encyclopedias are books where people found answers to things before Google). We kept them within reach of the kitchen table, because often while we were eating supper we would get into an argument about some bit of trivia, and we would reach for the encyclopedias to settle the argument.

There is nothing wrong with being knowledgeable. Scripture praises things like knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The book of Proverbs is devoted to it. But not all wisdom and knowledge are the same. Not all wisdom and knowledge are good.

The Apostle James distinguishes wisdom from wisdom by its product. God’s wisdom, the kind that comes from heaven, produces a good life and humble deeds. It turns out people who are pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, and sincere. The other kind, which James says is earthly, unspiritual, and of the devil  produces bitter envy, selfish ambition, disorder, and every evil practice.

Can we tell the two apart before we start dealing with their consequences? Law enforcement officers who specialize in crimes involving counterfeit money say that the best way to recognize a counterfeit is not to study counterfeits. It is to become as familiar as you can with the real thing. Then the counterfeits will stick out like a sore thumb. More important than studying the devil’s counterfeit wisdom is becoming familiar with God’s true wisdom. Too much interest in the occult tends to draw people in to it. Better to be familiar with true worship and true religion, and the occult will be obvious enough when we see it.

For true wisdom we need to read and know the Scriptures more and more. But even true knowledge about God and his word can be used in a way that produces “envy and selfish ambition, where you find disorder and every evil practice.” Paul once warned his friends in Corinth,, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” Knowledge, even Bible knowledge, without love makes us proud. Without love taking and forming and applying all our knowledge, it can never be “the wisdom that comes from heaven.”

Love happens where faith happens. The best way to recognize true wisdom is to know and trust the one who is wisdom itself. Again, Paul tells the Corinthians, “Christ Jesus…has become for us wisdom from God–that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” The man hanging on the cross may look foolish to the world, but his perfect life wraps me in a righteousness that all my genius and cleverness would never have thought of. All my brilliant plans to achieve holiness would have had me bathing myself in so much spiritual mud, but his blood simply and purely cleanses my dirty record and makes my heart look pristine. There is no clever business model we could follow to pay off the debt of sin we owed and restore our credit with God, but Christ has made himself our payment, and “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.”

God’s love to us in Jesus makes us wise. Wisdom in practice looks just like that love.

Left photo by CC BY-SA 3.0,

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