(James 3:13-17, NASB) Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 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. 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.
The letter of James is the closest thing the New Testament has to wisdom literature. Much of the book has an earthy, practicality about it. Sometimes when you’re reading the letter of James, it can feel like Biblical proverbs printed on fortune cookie slips and that James has somehow quilted together a letter out them. James—brother by blood to Jesus—leader of the Jerusalem church—is a man whose every thought seems to bleed wisdom.
James is someone soaked in the robust wisdom tradition of the Hebrew scriptures. What we call the Old Testament has several wildly different books that fall into this category of “wisdom.” You’ve got the practical collection of guidance—bookended by poetry—in the Proverbs. But then we’ve also got surprisingly (almost shockingly) different other voices in the wisdom collection. We’ve got some borderline Nihilistic reflections called Ecclesiastes as well as some steamy erotic poetry in Song of Songs, and then the grand, tragic opera we call the book of Job.
For dozens of centuries, these four books have circled around the perimeter of wisdom—triangulating around it—approaching the mystery from four very different angles. What is wisdom? How does one acquire—or enter into—it? What does a life of wisdom look like?
The ancient Israelites called it “chokhmah.” In their tradition, it meant something more than just “head smarts.” That’s what we typically think of when we think of wisdom. In ancient Israel, wisdom was bigger than the brain. In the Hebrew scriptures, “wisdom” is about 1) insight into the holy mystery of life and 2) skill to navigate every circumstance. Wisdom meant the ability “to live in light of how things are” (John Goldingay).
But neither one of those is directly related to “smarts.” It’s like any skill or craft or art. Someone gives you insight into the engine, the furnace, the technology, the instrument—here are the basics, here’s what you need to know, this is what is possible, this is what isn’t possible… and then we practice the skill or the art. Scripture offers us a similar lesson in regard to wisdom—holding before us the skill of living—the art of living.
In life, there are a whole lot of basics—a lot of simple cause-and-effect—and the Proverbs serves that up for us in spades. “If you do this, then that will happen.” But there’s also a whole lot of times that simple cause-and-effect doesn’t work. Life is also filled with frustration and futility—and Ecclesiastes sets that before us. Get ready for things to feel like vapor. And then the fire, the passion, the bodily ache for being completed—and Song of Songs holds that before us—teasing us with the reality that Divine Wisdom is pursuing is us… and will catch us. And then—deeper than anything—we can comprehend, this life is a profound mystery, and the book of Job throws us headlong into it asking us what our response—what our posture—before this mystery will be.
That’s the circle around the perimeter of wisdom: cause-and-effect, frustrating futility, pulsing love, difficult mystery.
I guess I point this out to say that when James talks about wisdom here, he had soaked in—marinated in—a really rich tradition. He had done more reflecting and praying about wisdom than most of us have. Because let’s get real—the nature of wisdom is not something that most of us think about very much. How many lunch conversations did you have this week talking about it. The popular imagination of our culture does NOT have a very rich tradition for thinking about wisdom.
Most of the time, when we hear of “wisdom,” we think of it as a synonym for the perceptive, the brainy, the clever. Wisdom means someone super smart; we think of someone like Sherlock Holmes.
I would be surprised if there was anyone in the room or watching at home who didn’t know of the world-famous detective of Baker Street. I’ve read only a little of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but I love me some Sherlock Holmes. Whether they’ve turned him into a doctor named House, or whether it’s Robert Downey Jr in steampunk London, or—my favorite—Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s modern retelling. It doesn’t matter, I love him.
And all of those modern adaptions have turned up the volume on something hinted at in the original stories… that Sherlock Holmes is a tortured soul. Yes—he’s brilliant—he’s brainy—he’s perceptive and clever—but his life is an absolute wreck. He’s self-obsessed, self-indulgent, and self-destructive. Having a relationship with him are nearly impossible because he’s an arrogant know-it-all. For him it’s the game—that game that’s afoot!—that matters, and helping others or helping the world happens almost by accident.
He’s a character we all love for his smarts but Sherlock is almost a walking embodiment of verses 14-16: He’s arrogant—ambitious—and zealous (that’s the Greek behind “jealous”). In other words, he’s centered on himself, unwaveringly determined to satisfy his desire, and lives with a fierce-kind-of-harshness. Whatever we see this kind of person—whenever we ARE this kind of person—we’re not living in wisdom. James calls it earthly, and natural (meaning, like the “natural world,” almost animalistic), and devilish or demonic. In verse 16 he calls this kind of living “disordered.” It’s discombobulated—it’s not the way things are meant to be.
But even we wouldn’t like Sherlock Holmes in real life most of us like him on the screen because unparalleled mental acuity. He sees what we miss. He can recognize the significance in what most of us think insignificant. On first pass of entering a room, we didn’t care a thing about the mud on boots in the corner or the tobacco stains on lamp shade. But Sherlock shows us how important they are. He’s following clues that we just didn’t recognize. He sees details that we didn’t care about but now—suddenly—those details matter a great deal.
So in the next ten minutes or so I want us to pull out our magnifying glass—put on our Sherlock caps for a moment—and try to follow three clues in this passage. We read the passage on first pass and we don’t care about a word or a phrase but they matter a great deal. The first is something we THINK we DON’T care about—but we really actually do. The second is something that James’s ancient culture ACTUALLY didn’t care about, and we often miss. The third is something that we THINK we DO care about but we actually—tragically—don’t. But maybe we can. And maybe we will.
And in true Sherlock Holmes fashion, we’ll work our way backwards through the text.
First what we THINK we don’t care about—but really we do.
The passage ends (v17) by promising that “dikaiosune” will grow for those who peacefully work for peace. The most common English translation for dikaiosune is the word “righteousness.” The only problem with this translation is that it doesn’t connect with us on almost any level. The only time we use the word “righteous” in day-to-day conversation is when we use the word as a bad thing. We might call a person “self-righteous”—meaning they think of themselves as better than other people. Listen to the news, listen to podcasts, listen to conversations at the coffee shop, and very few of us are saying that we can’t wait for righteousness to grow like fruit or like a harvest.
We hear James’s punchline here—that divine wisdom will lead to a fruit called righteousness—and we respond like my 3 year-old daughter does: “I don’t like that tastes.” Have you tried it? “No.” Do you know what it is? “No. I just don’t like it.”
This word—dikaiosune—righteousness—is a word for things being in right relationship. Like when a bone is broken—it’s out of place—it’s discombobulated—and then someone takes the broken pieces and puts them together. Suddenly the bone is “righteous.” The bone has been “set right.” When a relationship has been broken and then someone apologizes and things are put back together… the relationship has been set right—its “righteousness” or right-ness has been restored.
We THINK we don’t care about righteousness, but it’s actually what all of us are aching for most deeply. Things to be set right. For members of our family to be in right relationship. For people of different races to be in right relationship. (The word “justice” is another way to translate dikaiosune.) For our bodies to NOT be compromised, by a virus for example, and every part be in right relationship with all the other parts. For our head to hit the pillow at night and to know that we’re not in conflict with ourselves in whatever area of life. For the pieces to all come together and heaven and earth become one.
We’re all famished for righteousness and don’t recognize it.
That’s one of the hardest things about parenting is helping your kids
recognize what they’re feeling. Sometimes their stomachs hurt and they cry. That feeling you’re feeling is called “hunger.” What all of us are starving for… is righteousness: for all things to be set right.
And James says that righteousness grows like a harvest or fruit or food by the work of those who peacefully work for peace (v18). Things don’t get set right by accident; righteousness grows because of the work of peacemakers.
Which raises an incredible practical question for all of us: Am I pursuing peace? Am I known as a peacemaker at work? In my family? In our city—in our country—are we known as people who will peacefully speak out against injustices like abortion or racism for the sake of real peace—real shalom—real flourishing? The world is starving for righteousness, and the work of peacemakers is how the world eats.
The second overlooked detail—the second clue—was something that ancient culture didn’t care about. We’re still working our way back, as James describes two things that people call wisdom… selfish Sherlock-wisdom and something else. In verse 17 he describes it with words like pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable (or obedient), merciful and unwavering and integrated—like, the opposite of hypocrisy. He’s just unpacking what he introduced in verse 13:
(v13b) Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom…
That phrase would have struck his ancient audience as completely absurd. The Greco-Roman culture shaped by Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus did NOT care about “gentleness” or “meekness.” Humility was NOT a virtue in the ancient world. It wasn’t praised by Athenian ethicists or extolled by Roman senators. Strong—powerful—tenacious—that’s what you wanted to be. Those who didn’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps—who were meek or gentle or humble—were probably going to get trampled under boots. Every single one of us have grown up in a world shaped by the Christian revolution of humility so it’s easy to forget that in the ancient world, might made right.
That is not, however, what a peculiar group of people in the first century believed. And it’s not what one of their leaders believed. We know that—like, with certainty—because we’re reading his mail. According to the end of verse 14, he thinks the life of arrogance to actually be a lie—a lie against the truth. Arrogance is not a lie with your words… it’s a lie with your life.
James is asking people in that culture:
(v13) Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.
You think you’re wise? You think you’ve got understanding? Show me. Not with power, not with might, not by pulling up own your bootstraps. Show me with your “kales anastrophe”—your beautiful life.
The word kalos literally means good or pleasing or excellent or beautiful. And the world anastrophe refers to everything someone does—their way of living—we might say lifestyle. Here it gets translated as “good behavior.” (Which sounds like how you get out of prison.) Other translations say “good conduct,” but I don’t think that’s any more compelling. James is saying that we show the world will see true divine wisdom when we live a beautiful life.
That’s what he’s telling them to do. Live a beautiful life. Live the good life. Do the deeds—literally “do the works”—of the good life. It’s the same language as faith and works from chapter 2. The good life is calling you… it’s waiting to be lived out—waiting to be “worked out.”
And this brings us to our final clue and ultimately to the table. Most of us THINK we care about the good life but if give one ounce of seriousness to James’s words here, what we’re caring about isn’t the good life. All our obsession with the latests trends, the next gadget, and traveling where we want, and getting more followers on social media, and keeping up with the Joneses… none of that is the good life.
We THINK we care about is the good life, but what we REALLY care about is the influential life—or the popular life—or the comfortable life—the self-centered, self-actualized life—but it’s NOT the good life. Most of us don’t want the good life. What we want is the “me-life.” The good life—the beautiful life—the best possible kind of life—is NOT the me-life. NOT the life of accumulating more or trying to stay ahead, or securing a custom-built life tailored to our design.
This is where Sherlock Holmes gets the life of wisdom wrong. Wisdom is NOT about our ability to deduce information; wisdom is about our willingness to donate ourselves.
Most of us don’t want the good life because the good life means a giving life. James is telling us—if we want wisdom—to show the world the good life by seeking the good of others. And the good news is we’re already there. We’ve just got to embrace it. If you’re an employee, you can serve around you—giving is the good life. If you’re a spouse, then you’re living with someone you get to support—giving is the good life. If you’re a parent, you’re already sacrificing for your children—giving is the good life. If you’re a human being, every day you’re surrounded by people whom you can reach out to and help and love and lift up.
Even as I’m talking, we’re all thinking: “Yeah, that’s just a consolation prize for the people who don’t have private jets.” And to this we say “NO.” Those things are distractions. World-famous comedian Jim Carrey once said:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Most of us have to spend a fair amount of time chasing false-wisdom before we can embrace true-wisdom. And we know what true wisdom looks like—we know what the best possible life looks like—because God has come among us. Where the tradition of the Old Testament circles divine wisdom—triangulates around it—tries to get at the mystery—the documents of the New Testament testify to the fact that wisdom has walked among us.
Remember that wisdom isn’t only about practical skills of navigating life but it’s also about insight into the divine mystery of life. And James has had the ultimate insight into wisdom because Wisdom itself became James’s brother. Life itself has become one of us. Wisdom literally (v17) came from above. James can tell us to be peaceable and gentle and obedient and merciful and unwavering and integrated because that’s what God is like—that’s what Jesus is like. James wants us to follow his brother because his brother’s life shows us the best possible kind of life—the good life—the life of wisdom.
The question is “Do I want the good life?” Because God is the Great Peacemaker and wants to give it to us.
God comes and sets us right—he resets the bones of our soul—he make us “righteous.” God wants to gives us life—so we can be alive. God wants to give us his life—because that’s the only life out there. God wants to be giving so we can be living. Wants us to live for others because that’s how we find ourselves. So we can love others so deeply we’d be willing to die for them. Because that’s the kind of life that walks out of the grave.
Accept no substitutes. Believe no distractions. It’s the best possible life.
God is the Great Peacemaker is growing the fruit we all hunger for—giving the life we all thirst for—and this table is where we eat.