‘The Wisdom from Above’ – James 3:13-4:12 – February 24th, 2019

Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.

Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously?

But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says:

“God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”

Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

Let’s pray.


To paraphrase the eminent theologian, “Larry the Cable Guy”: Sin is like “having a dream that you’re drinking the world’s biggest Margarita” – which none of us would ever do, I know – “and then waking up to find salt around the edges of the toilet lid.” Sin is exhausting long after it’s thrilling. Because the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” that James talks about might “come naturally to us,” but it’s also painful.

James says, “Whoever is wise and understanding among you should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness.” And that’s an interesting phrase: You should show your works by “good conduct” and “wisdom’s gentleness.” I think somewhere, deep in ourselves, we’re desperate to be wise, and to be around people who are wise. There’s something in us that’s just desperate for “wisdom’s gentleness.”

It reminds me of a man I lived down the street from growing up, named Rick Carey. He was my physics teacher as a junior, and he’d gone to my church my entire life. He played Jesus in every single “Passion Play” we’d ever done, so everyone and their mom knew about Rick Carey.

But I didn’t get to know him until I was a senior. Because that year, my friend Seth Borkowski – which is a fake name I made up to protect the not so innocent – told me his parents were getting a divorce. His mom had discovered that his dad, Jeff, was having an affair, and when she confronted him about it, instead of doing any of the groveling, and excuse-making that you see in TV shows, he said, “The reason I’ve been cheating on you is that you aren’t young enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough, and she is.”

So Jeff moved in with his mistress, and the rest was history. Except it wasn’t, because the next time I saw him, he was sitting alone at his Seth’s wedding. Because the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” that used to thrill him had nothing for him in the long run. To quote the eminent theologian, Taylor Swift, “Sin is a nightmare dressed like a daydream.”

But after Seth’s dad left, Rick Carey, who had just retired as the physics teacher, essentially adopted him. He said, “Why don’t you start coming with me to the gym every morning.” So my friend started getting up at the crack of dawn and heading to meet Rick Carey to work out for hours on end. And then he started going to his house after school. And then they started reading books together, and studying the Bible together; and then Seth started going to more and more family gatherings with the Careys, so he started to become a part of Rick’s family. Nothing in the world will replace the family that you’re born into, that you hope holds together, but Rick became a kind of surrogate father when Seth’s biological father couldn’t see past his own “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.”

And it made a universe of difference, because the presence of somebody driven towards “good conduct” by “wisdom’s gentleness” gave Seth an anchor. And that’s one of the reasons that this Seth and I are no longer members in a particularly vulgar metal band called “Cannibal Catfish” – that was a thing that happened at one point; there are recordings, I might show them to you – and instead, today, Seth’s a deacon at his church, he just got married, and he’s discipling other young men who are going through the same sort of things he went through, with that same “gentleness” and “wisdom” that Rick Carey once poured into him.

Because James says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.” And like James says in chapter 1, “Any of us who are lacking this wisdom can ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to us.”

Because almost nobody is like Rick Carey. The people “whose works can be seen in their good conduct working through wisdom’s gentleness” are rare. But they don’t have to be. God’s not watching from on high, wincing at our lack of wisdom. He’s not “tallying up” each instance of ungentleness, just waiting to “call us to account” for each one.

James says it’s quite the opposite; that “God gives to all generously and without criticizing”; He’s eager to “sew the fruit of righteousness” and “peaceableness” in us, that we would “reap wisdom’s gentleness.”

And that’s not something I would ever think to ask for. Right? It’s not even on my radar. Like, when I first became a Christian, I would pray for things like “boldness,” I’d pray for “The Courage to ‘Stand Up for Jesus’,” or I’d pray for the ability to recite large sections of scripture from memory (which is good), or I’d pray that God would make me into someone who can “turn every single conversation into a gospel conversation.”

Because those are the kinds of things that are held up as virtuous in our particular cultural moment. And those things are virtuous. Those are important. But we need more than that. According to James, the gentleness into which “the wisdom from above” will shape us is the thing that will set us free from our addiction to “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.”

So James says “Why are there wars and strife among you? Because of the cravings at war within you. Because you desire and do not have, so you murder and covet but cannot obtain.” And I don’t think that James is wearing the “anti-war activist” hat, here; I don’t think he’d object to liberating the concentration camps.

Because almost everyone agrees there’s a difference between a just war and an unjust war. Except for the Roman empire, under whom James and the Jewish Christians he was writing to were “occupied subjects.” For Rome, there really wasn’t a difference between a “just war” and an “unjust war.”

Rome had exactly one criterion regarding what separated justifiable and unjustifiable war, and that was profitability: What did they gain? When you laid it out in an Excel spreadsheet, did the math bode well for you? Most of our high school history text books were filled with limp euphemisms that blunt the really horrifying realities of what it was like to live as a resident of the empire if you weren’t “wealthy” or “well-connected.”

The Empire paid for itself on the backs of subsistence farmers.” It wasn’t taxing “surplus,” it was taxing livelihood. They weren’t taking food out of your “storehouse,” they were taking it out of your mouth.

So when Rome needed money, they conquered one of the loosely-confederated nation-states nearby, or they’d put out a “census” of all the people at a fee that would annoy the average citizen and eviscerate the average sharecropper, or subsistence farmer, or merchant, or carpenter.

And those were realities James and his audience of Jewish Christians couldn’t ignore, because they woke up to them every day. They were staring them in the face at all times, because among those vanquished by Rome’s “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” were the Jewish people.

Rome was not the first Empire to conquer them, but they were the ones currently occupying them, and so every aspect of your life, as a Jewish Christian in the first century, was shaped by the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” of the Roman empire, and it was illustrated most vividly by the fact that you couldn’t turn a street corner without running into a soldier whose one job was to make sure you stay in your place.

But James says “What causes wars and strife among you?” And it’s a rhetorical question, because he immediately follows it up with “Isn’t it the cravings ‘at war within you’?” And that’s another way of saying “The call is coming from inside the house.”

So the Jewish Christians are victims of an empire that does not care about them, will not let them go, is not going to help them, and only values them t the extent that they can use them as a “human grocery store” from whom to draft soldiers and exact unbearably high taxes.

So if you posed the question to a group of first century Jews or Christians, “What causes wars and strife among you?” an eager fella from the back row might raise his hands and say, “Rome!” and James would say, “Wrong, mostly.”

Because Rome was a serious problem, but James is going for a different “jugular,” here. He says “Isn’t your primary problem that your own cravings are at war within yourselves?” “So you want, but you don’t have, so you kill for it.” That’s like saying, “The empire is inside you, just as much as it’s outside you.” It’s like saying, “There’s an evil empire in your heart-of-hearts, and it plunders everybody around it because it wants and doesn’t have.”

That’s about the most cold-blooded thing you could say to a Jewish Christian living in the empire: That you are like your oppressors in ways you haven’t noticed, because you didn’t want to notice, because you share something terrifying with them –   

That same “upside-down-ness” that makes your oppressor oppress you will make you do things that terrify you – or should terrify you – and maybe it already has, and if you don’t repent of your “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition,” you will forever occupy what amounts to a lower rung on the same ladder that Rome occupies.

And you don’t want to. Because God’s dousing that ladder with gasoline and then tossing a pack of Ohio Blue Tip matches onto it. And he should. Because that’s not a ladder that ought to exist. 

And in a situation like that, it could be tempting to resist the world by using the world’s methods. And it’s important that you don’t do that. Because if Satan can’t bait you into joining into the evils around you, the next best thing is to radicalize you against the evils of the world in a way that makes you every bit as worldly as they are.

But the wisdom from above that James is talking about never joins into the world’s cruelty, or the world’s brutality. As usual, you can understand the things that James writes about best when you hold them up alongside the things his brother Jesus did.

For example – in what is now known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus preached to a group of occupied Jewish peasant farmers, and his audience was filled with people who, legally, any Roman soldier could grab, confiscate away from his farm, and then force to carry his “military gear” for up to a mile down the road.

By law, they could only make you carry their pack for a mile, and then they had to send you home. But that was not a “benevolent” law. It was basic economics: There’s no point in having an conquered nation of peasant farmers that you can confiscate for free labor if they all die of exhaustion within a few years.

So the law limited the distance they could carry your military gear to one mile so that the Jews wouldn’t just all die, thus rendering them of no economic value to the empire.

And so Jesus says “When someone makes you carry their pack a mile down the road, carry it two miles.” That’s not “pure benevolence,” either.

Because “Going The Extra Mile,” as a general rule, is a good thing, and you should do it. But when you “Go The Extra Mile” for someone, you’re trying to help them in ways they might not have had the courage to ask you. You’re trying to bless them.

But when Jesus said “Go The Extra Mile” for these Roman soldiers, it wasn’t exactly a “blessing.” Because Rome took their Free Labor Peasant Farmer Work Force so seriously that anyone who threatened to cause their labor force to dwindle could be punished with death.

That means that if any soldier forces, or even allows, you to carry their pack for more than a mile, they could land the death penalty. So by carrying their pack an extra mile, you’re putting their life in danger.

And if you’re a peasant farmer, and a Soldier confiscates you from your family farm and makes you carry his military gear for a mile, then at the end of the mile, instead of giving his pack back to him, Jesus says “Just keep on carrying it a second mile while you’re at it.”  

And it’s not because he wants the soldier to die – although you might want the soldier to die. It’s because now you’ve put the soldier in a situation in which he has to ask you for his gear back.

And when you ignore him and keep going, he has to demand his gear back.

And when you ignore him again and keep going, he has to chase after you – and he’s starting to look kind of stupid.

And then, when you ignore him yet again and keep going, he has to start begging you for his gear back.

Because now his life is in danger, because now his life is in the hands of somebody he confiscated from their field and forced to perform free labor. “Going The Extra Mile” turned the tables on Rome in ways that rioting in Jerusalem didn’t.

Because as more and more Jews began resisting their occupiers by “Going The Extra Mile,” eventually it became more trouble than it was worth to kidnap them and steal their labor. The “risk factor” began to outweigh even the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” of the soldiers who used to steal them from their land and force them to carry their packs.

So this is a bit of that “Wisdom From Above” that James talks about, that fundamentally changed the situation in which his listeners found themselves.

While extremist groups like “the Zealots,” “the Sicarii” tried to resist Rome using the world’s methods – through violent retaliation, stockpiling weaponry and gathering up homegrown militias – the Jewish Christians under James would resist Rome without harming anyone.

And while the Zealots, and other extremist groups, dwindled as they lost more and more recruits in one violent uprising after another, the Jewish Christians under the influence of James put a spoke in the wheel of Rome’s economy by resisting them with a wisdom that was “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, and good fruits,” in such a way that it became less and less “economically sound” to directly repress them.

The Zealots wanted to resist the oppression of the world by adapting themselves to the world’s methods, to the world’s cruelty, to the world’s brutality. But unlike the “Zealots,” the Jewish Christians refused to simply be a “lower rung” on the same ladder as Rome: James says, “friendship with the world is hostility towards God.” “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes the Lord’s enemy.”

But the “wisdom from above” draws a “line in the sand” between the love of God and the cruelty of the world.

So you’ll draw a “line in the sand” between yourself and that “spirit of unbelief” that’s at work in our culture that says that “People are only as valuable as they are productive,” that says “The difference between a person and a non-person is in whether or not they’re wanted.”

And that’s obviously at work in the ‘live-birth abortion bills’ that were passed in New York, and narrowly struck-down in Virginia, but it’s not contained to that one issue. So we need a “wisdom from above” that “draws a hard line in the sand” between the cruelty that passes for wisdom in our culture and the true wisdom that comes from God, which is “first pure, and then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.” Because according to James, “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy.”

And there’s good news, because God is more merciful than we could ever have imagined.

James says that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And on the face of it, that might sound like bad news for the “proud,” right? We just talked about how God “resisted the pride [of Rome]” by “giving grace to the humble” in the person of Jesus Christ, who climbed on top of the “Mount” and told a crowd of disaffected Jewish farmers exactly how to resist Rome like God resisted Rome – and over the long-haul it toppled Rome’s economy.

But when “God resists the proud,” that can also be good news for the proud. Last time I saw Jeff Borkowski, he was sitting at a table alone at his son’s wedding while his ex-wife and his children ate together at the “family table,” but that doesn’t have to be the way that Jeff Borkowski’s story ends.

A few months ago, I read a “human interest” article about a guy who gave a sermon at his church. He was a “layman,” but it was a special occasion – because it was the 10-year anniversary of the day he remarried his wife in that same sanctuary after having divorced her for one of her friends. So he opened his Bible to the book of Hosea and introduced himself to anyone who didn’t already know him.

He walked through the story of how God told the prophet Hosea to go “marry a loose woman” named Gomer, and then to “stick with her throughout her years of unfaithfulness.”

So after Hosea married her, things go exactly the way that you’d expect, and every time Hosea comes home from working the field, he finds her with a different man than the day before.

And she starts to gamble all his money away and neglect their children. And eventually he comes home and he doesn’t find her at all because she’s gone so deeply into debt that her “loan sharks” threw her in the back of their van and put her to work at the brothel as an indentured servant. So Hosea goes home, gathers up every cent he’s got, and buys her. And he brings her home, and puts her to bed, and says, “You safe, now, and you’re home.”

And after this guy finished the story of Hosea, he talked about how after his own divorce, the Lord worked in both of them, sanding down their pride and softening their hearts toward himself and towards each other.

So one day his wife asked him to meet for coffee, so they met for coffee. And then she invited him again, and then again. And “coffee” started turning into fully-fledged dates. And then “dating” turned into going to church together. And after learning to trust each other again over the course of a few very slow, very deliberate years, they married each other all over again.

Because “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble,” and the God we meet in Jesus Christ is eager to transform the proud into the humble. So James says, “Submit to God, but resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” “Drawing near to God, and He will draw near to you.”

Like James says in chapter 1, “If any of us lacks ‘the wisdom that comes from above,’ we should ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to us.” So Jeff Borkowski doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life sitting with his head in his hands because he threw his family to the dogs; the “wisdom of the world” will make you a victim of your own foolishness, but “the God who gives generously to all without criticizing” is eager to give generously to you, and to me, and to Jeff Borkowski.

He’s eager to “soften our hearts toward himself and each other” with “a wisdom that comes from above.” And that wisdom will cut through our foolishness, and our cruelty, and our selfishness, and our unbelief. And it’s usually a painful process – where James says “our laughter turns into mourning and our joy turns into sorrow” – but it’s also a fruitful process, in which James says we “humble ourselves before the Lord and He exalts us.” God will make Rick Careys out of Jeff Borkowskis.

And as always, I want to speak directly to anyone who hasn’t thrown themselves on the mercy of Jesus: James says that “there is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and destroy,” and God is going to do one of those things to you. A few weeks back, we said “The opposite of hell isn’t heaven, it’s holiness.” Jeff Borkowski’s hell is being Jeff Borkowski. And he’s either going to be rescued from the fire of his own unholiness by responding in faith to the mercy we find in Jesus Christ, or he’s going to spend an eternity locked up with all the cruelest, coldest parts of himself.

But the “lawgiver and judge” that James is talking about is out to save, not destroy. Like John 3:17, Jesus says, “I didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it,” God gives generously to all without even criticizing. When you surrender yourself to Jesus, he doesn’t flog you for the years you spent as a scoundrel.

He invites you into his house to take off your shoes and sit at his table. So if you recognized yourself in Jeff Borkowski, if you’ve been stumbling around, drunk on the wisdom of the world, I’ll be waiting for you at the altar. It’s not magic. It’s just an altar. But you can come talk to me while we’re singing. Or you can flag me down afterward. I’d love to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of God, to be adopted into God’s family, forgiven of your sins, and given a “wisdom that comes from above.”

Let’s pray.

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