The letter of James, full of practical and proverbial wisdom, appears in the context of a factious struggle between wealthy and impoverished members of James’ faith community.
The tension between the rich and the poor pervades the epistle and is one of the central themes that the letter addresses. James encourages the community of faith to recognize God’s preference for the poor (James 2:5), the spirituality of a life of benevolence and inclusion (James 1:27; 2:8-9), the practicalities of living under the will of God rather than the drive for wealth (James 4:13-18), and the godliness of paying fair wages as well as the hideousness of hoarded wealth (James 5:1-6).
When James, then, asks the question that titles this post he is asking more than simply “who are the good people among you?” It is about finding some solid footing in the midst of an economic and power divide. It is about rooting oneself in the kind of wisdom that bears the likeness of God rather than the brokenness of humanity. It is also, it seems, about leadership in the midst of communal disorder and bitterness.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” Both “wise” and “understanding” are words that described skilled and expert people. They were persons invested with knowledge; they were scientifically versed. They were, as these terms were used among Greek philosophers, the scholars. They were the people in-the-know and with the know-how.
James’ question might be something like, who should be the teachers of this community? Who is worth following and imitating? Who should mentor us?
But James immediately twists the language away from any kind of ancient educated scholarship (those lovers of wisdom, the philosophers) toward a lifestyle characterized by the fruits of God’s Spirit.
Wisdom shows up in a changed life; it shows up in transformation. What characterizes this life? It is those who show their good works out of a good lifestyle (conduct, way of life) that is characterized by wisdom’s meekness or humility. James prefers a person with life-shaping wisdom rather than an academician. Wisdom is not what you know but how you live.
“Knowledge is proud that she knows so much;
Wisdom is humble that she knows no more.”
But there is another kind of wisdom. Its roots, deeply planted in the heart, are envy and selfish ambition. “Selfish ambition” is the word used for political partisanship. It describes people who hold or seek positions of power for their own ends or interests.
This bitter envy and selfish ambition are the two character traits that lead to the negative consequences below: disorder and vile (useless) practices. These two traits wreck havoc in a community, a marriage, a partnership, a leadership. They destroy us from the inside—insidious heart problems that lie hidden beneath the outward boast and lie. Something is broken deep inside.
Sometimes we hear that zeal (even a bitter zeal that goes after what it wants even if someone else has it) and ambition (even if it means that we have to walk on a few people to get there) are laudable qualities. They are what make a “good worker”—they produce a good work ethic. Actually, they produces a workaholic.
The workaholic does not work for the sake of helping the community, the family or the church. That is a boastful lie. Sometimes the workaholic does not even know it. Having lived with the lie for so long, workaholics are deceived by their own protestations that it is for family, community or church. The workaholic works because of what lies deep in the heart—an ambition, a need for approval, an envy of what others have, a desire for the accolades that others receive, a greed for money, etc.
When people live out of envy and selfishness, it creates an “unruly” or unmanagable life. This word sometimes refers to seditious violence. It is disorder and confusion; it is a violent upheaval. An “unruly” tongue (3:8) leads to an “unruly life” that arises out of selfish and envious hearts. And it results is “evil practice.” This is the kind of evil that is cheap, trivial, worthless. It is meaningless and without real value. It is cruel and heartless. It is ultimately useless and self-serving.
There is, however, an alternative lifestyle. It arises out of the wisdom “from above”—it is pure, peaceable, gentle, submissive (yielding to others), full of mercy and good fruits, without vacillating (genuine), and without hypocrisy (sincere). It begins with purity (spiritual integrity) and yields attitudes and characteristics that connect with others as we live submissively, mercifully and peacefully with others. It is an integrated character—a wholeness that is genuine, sincere, merciful, submissive, gentle and peaceful in relation to others—that displays good fruits (or the good deeds of 3:13).
This person, shaped by divine wisdom, sows peace and harvests peace. They are peacemakers (Matthew 5:9); they are called the children of God.
Two wisdoms—two lifestyles. One from below, and the other from above. The wisdom from below is earthy, sensual and demonic. It is earthy—it is its own reward. It is sensual—it feels natural. It is demonic—it participates in unruly powers. The “wisdom” of envy and selfishness is shaped by earthly rewards, humanistic impulses and demonic powers. It creates disorder; it creates brokenness. It appears good. It even sounds good at times. But that life is a lie—a lie to ourselves, to our families, to our communities.
Two lifestyles—one choice. Do we seek to live out of humble meekness or do we live out of envious ambition? What is in our heart? Who are we? Which “wisdom” energizes our life, values and loves?
Earlier in the letter, James counseled his community to seek wisdom from God. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” he wrote, “you should ask God who gives generously to all without finding faulty” (James 1:5). The gift of wisdom comes “from above” (James 1:17).
But our asking is often tainted. We ask in doubt. We ask out of selfish ambition. We ask in envy. We ask because it is about us. And we stay in our busyness and our busyness feeds our ambition and envy. We are then caught in a vicious cycle of superficial spirituality: we ask, but we ask “with wrong motives” (James 4:3). We are too busy to focus, too busy to seek God’s wisdom, too busy to pray. We have too much to do, too many places to go, and too little time to do it.
What we need is for God to fill our hearts with his wisdom. We need time to pray, meditate, confess and listen. We need time to be alone with God and to be with others in intimate conversation about our hearts. We need to rid ourselves of the idol of busyness and find our value, worth and love in the one who loved us.
“Who are the wise and understanding among you?” They are not necessarily the educated, the wealthy, the powerful. They are the quiet lives of wisdom lived out in good deeds moved by a gentle humility. Whether rich or poor, whether powerful or oppressed, the skill we want is the skill to live as peacemakers in a world of conflict.