The Truly Wise Make Peace
James 3:13 – 4:10
Opening Prayer: Heavenly Father, I stand here having prepared an arrangement of mere words upon a few pages. I pray for your grace to flow through them, so that we might see you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more faithfully. Amen.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” With that question, James launches into a lengthy discussion about two very different kinds of wisdom. These opposing types of wisdom represent two very different sets of values and ways of living that both claim to be wise. Apparently, there was disagreement amongst James’ readers as to what constituted wise living. So, James comes along and emphatically states that there are ultimately only two kinds of wisdom. The one we’ll call earthly wisdom. And the other heavenly wisdom.
So in this portion of his epistle, James first makes a side-by-side comparison of these two kinds of wisdom in order to prove that they are polar opposites. Once he’s proven their incompatibility with each other, he goes on to say that we cannot dabble in both. We must choose either earthly wisdom or heavenly wisdom. Then finally, James concludes his discussion by telling us how we can go about acquiring heavenly wisdom.
In keeping with the outline of this passage, this morning I simply have three parts to my sermon. First, I want to unpack James’ description of earthly wisdom and allow it to critique our present reality. Next, I want to unpack James’ description of heavenly wisdom in hopes that it will forever shape your understanding of the Christian life. And finally, I want to reflect upon James’ instructions for how to go about acquiring heavenly wisdom.
Let’s dive into the text. So in this passage, James proves that these two kinds of wisdom are polar opposites by comparing the origin, characteristics and results of each. Where does each kind of wisdom originate from? What sort of character traits do they cultivate? And what are the results or effects of such wisdom?
Origin of Earthly Wisdom: So let’s start with earthly wisdom, the not-so-good kind of wisdom … the one that claims to be wise, but is actually pure folly. James says its origin is “not from above”. Rather, it is “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic” in origin.
Characteristics of Earthly Wisdom: And sprinkled throughout this passage we find a list of character traits that James says are cultivated in people shaped by earthly wisdom. Earthly wisdom fills us with “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” (14). We become filled with self-indulgent cravings (4:1). James also writes that earthly wisdom fosters discontentment (4:2), lust (4:2) and covetous desires (4:2). These are the character traits that earthly wisdom cultivates in us.
Results of Earthly Wisdom: Finally, check out what James says are the results of earthly wisdom? Such wisdom results in “confusion” and “every kind of wickedness” (3:16). And then in chapter 4, James says that earthly wisdom leads to “war” (4:1,2) and “fights”, and “murder” (4:2). Now, some English translations of this passage try to soften James’ language. Instead of “wars” they say “conflicts” and instead of “fights” they say disputes, as if James was simply describing verbal bickering. But the Greek clearly says that earthly wisdom results in “war,” “violent fights,” and “murder”.
You know, there’s a temptation to brush aside James’ remarks and disregard them as mere exaggeration. I mean, after all, we may crave the good life, we may buy far more than we need, but we don’t actually kill in order to maintain our lavish lifestyle, right!
Yet in reality, James’ words have never been more true. They prophetically speak a truth our generation tries to ignore.
Today, the average American consumes twice as much as 50 years ago. We are sick with affluenza. This sickness causes us to always crave more. So we shop, buy, consume, throw away … shop, buy, consume, throw away … shop, buy, consume, throw away at an ever-increasing pace. We pray for our nation’s economy to experience never-ending growth, yet we forget that unlimited economic growth relies upon two factors: unlimited greed (which we possess) and unlimited raw materials (which we do not possess).
If everyone on the planet consumed at the same rate as the average American, we would need an estimated five planet earths to sustainably support such a lifestyle. And the sad reality is … global human consumption has already extended far beyond a sustainable level. Our planet’s natural resources are quickly being depleted.
James’ teaching on the end result of earthly wisdom has shaken me to the core. You know, I say I care deeply about working for peace in this world. But as I’ve reflected on James’ words, I’ve sensed God saying to me, “Jason, if you truly want to be a peacemaker, then you will have to waste less, spend less, use less, and ultimately want less.” In a world where people are so quick to throw stuff away in order to buy the latest version, peacemakers will buy used whenever possible. When the food we eat travels an average of 1500 miles from the farm to the table, peacemakers will prioritize locally grown products. It use to be that economies prospered when the land and people prospered. But today, economies prosper through the exploitation of land and people. In such a world, peacemakers must strive to only buy products that were produced by fairly paid workers in environmentally sustainable ways.
James was correct when he wrote that the end result of our greedy overconsumption is fighting and killing and war. No longer can we live the lifestyle of earthly wisdom and pretend its end result is avoidable! James’ words strip the blinders from our eyes and force us to stare into the mess we have created.
By the time my five-year-old daughter enters high school, do you know what is predicted to be the #1 cause of war in our world today? Most wars will not be caused by terrorism or religious extremism. By 2025, just ten years from now, the U.N. and the United States both predict the primary cause of war will be caused by groups fighting to gain access to water. Water!
Did you know that one of the biggest barriers to peace between Israelis and Palestinians is the fact that Israel currently controls the water in that region. During my trip to the Holy Land this past February, I can still vividly remember visiting with a Palestinian Christian farmer named Aman. Aman’s family has owned a plot of farmland for generations, and she had all the necessary legal documents to prove it. Despite this, over the past two decades, large Israeli settlements have been slowly surrounding Aman’s farm and encroaching upon her land. Life has become very hard for Aman and her family. The well they use to water their crops has been dry for months. Yet, as I looked out upon the Israeli settlements, I could see multiple swimming pools filled to the brim with water.
Even in the midst of such injustice, Aman modeled a way of life that looks entirely different than the ways of earthly wisdom. She spoke unwaveringly of her commitment to love all people, including her Israeli neighbors. In fact, at the entrance to her farm there hangs a sign which reads, “We refuse to be enemies.” This is not mere lip-service. It would be easy for Aman to allow enmity to take root in her heart.
Thankfully, Aman is filled with a very different kind of wisdom. One that originates from a very different source. And it develops an entirely different set of character traits in us. And it has a very different effect on the world around us. So let’s look at James’ description of this second kind of wisdom.
Origin of Heavenly Wisdom: For starters, James says it originates “from above” (3:17). In other words, it is heavenly, spiritual and divine in origin … the exact opposite of earthly wisdom.
Characteristics of Heavenly Wisdom: And check out the characteristics James says are the mark of heavenly wisdom. Verse 17: The wisdom from above is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”
Here we find the list of character traits that James says is always present in the life of a person filled with heavenly wisdom. This list deserves our careful consideration, for it succinctly summarizes the character traits God longs to cultivate in each of us!
So for starters, check out how there is actually an order to this list. James says heavenly wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable, and so on”. Heavenly wisdom is first and foremost pure. It flows from one source and one source alone, God. It is purely tapped into God. When you connect a hose to a spigot, water flows from it. When you are connected to God, a deep concern for the wellbeing of others will flow from your life. That’s why James wrote earlier in his epistle, “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” First and foremost, heavenly wisdom is pure. It is solely tapped into God, and from this Source flows a deep concern for the wellbeing of humanity.
“Then,” says James, “heavenly wisdom is peaceable.” One of my new favorite authors is a farmer from Kentucky named Wendell Berry. In an essay of his on overconsumption, he defined being peaceable this way: “Being peaceable is not passive. It is the ability to act to resolve conflict without violence. … Peaceableness is practical, for it offers the only escape from the logic of retribution. It is the only way by which we can cease to look to war for peace.” Heavenly wisdom is committed to the advancement of peace through the use of peaceful means.
Heavenly wisdom, James says, is also gentle. It is not harsh or abrasive or violent.
Next, James writes, it is “willing to yield”. The Greek word used here means one is open to persuasion. This does not mean a person filled with heavenly wisdom is easily persuaded in the sense that they are gullible or naïve. Rather it means they’re not stuck in their ways. They are open to reason. They are willing to adopt a position that differs from their current stance, given sufficient reason or evidence. In other words, you can go to a truly wise person and trust that they will genuinely listen and consider what you have to say.
Next James writes that heavenly wisdom is “full of mercy.” Since it’s full, that means there is no room for anything else. Every square inch of a truly wise person is filled with mercy. The spirit of this world is one of retribution. The base ethic of humanity is to give people what we perceive they deserve. Praise for praise. Curse for curse. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Life for life. But those filled with heavenly wisdom ascend above the spirit of this world. Their treatment of others is not determined by what they think the other person deserves. That’s not the way of heavenly wisdom. If you have heavenly wisdom, then you are guided by mercy. And that means: no matter what others do to you, you treat them in ways that promote their restoration, healing and wholeness.
Heavenly wisdom is also “full of good works.” In other words, it is far more than mere pity which may or may not lead to action. Heavenly wisdom is also impartial. It shows no favoritism. It treats all with equal respect. And finally, heavenly wisdom is without hypocrisy. It is genuine and sincere.
Results of Heavenly Wisdom: That … is the list of character traits God longs to develop in each of us. And oh how the world would be a better place if more Christians embraced this vision of heavenly wisdom! For you see, this kind of wisdom produces results that are very different than those produced by earthly wisdom. In verse 18, James states that heavenly wisdom results in “a harvest of righteousness [being] sown in peace by those who make peace.”
This is the effect Christians are to have in the world! Christians are to be peacemakers who use peaceable means to bring about a harvest of righteousness! Being a peacemaker is the default Christian vocation. Now, it’s important for you to know that the Greek word translated here as “righteousness” actually means far more than just this. The Greek word is dikaiosune … a harvest of dikaiosune. Dikaiosune is about seeing everything restored and made right. It’s about everything coming into conformity with the will of God. It’s about seeing people living in right relationship with God, each other and creation. When any one of these relationships moves towards restoration, dikaiosune is advancing. It’s difficult to find a single English word that fully encapsulates this concept. That’s why some English translations of this passage have James saying, “a harvest of righteousness,” while others read “a harvest of justice.” Really it’s best to say both. “A harvest of justice and righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” And that last phrase, “those who make peace,” it actually uses a grammatical form of Greek that denotes continuous action. Something that is constantly being done. So this phrase is literally saying that a harvest is being sown by those who are making and making and making and making peace. They are not just occasional peacemakers. They are constantly engaged in peacemaking.
That, my friends, is James’ beautiful and profound description of the origin, characteristics and result of heavenly wisdom. It is his succinct summary of how God intends for Christians to live. And thankfully, James doesn’t just tell us what heavenly wisdom is like. He also shows us how to go about getting it. James tells us how to go about acquiring heavenly wisdom:
“Therefore, submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into sadness. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
I don’t know if you’re like me, but I get hopelessly confused when I try cooking a recipe that has more than two steps. That’s why my sister once bought me a cookbook entitled, “A man, a can, a plan.” It contains simple recipes that even I can follow. In fact, these recipes contain no words! It just shows a picture of a can of beans, a plus sign, a picture of a can of Hormel chili, an equal sign and then a picture of the finished product, gourmet chili. That’s my kind of cookbook!
At first glance, James instructions seem incredibly complicated. His list contains ten steps for how to acquire heavenly wisdom. Submit, draw near, resist, cleanse, lament, mourn, weep, and so on. But really James’ instructions all boil down to two steps: Draw near to God and resist the Devil. Everything else simply describes how to go about doing those two things. And why are these the two steps for acquiring heavenly wisdom? Well, ultimately, when we resist the devil that means we are forsaking the source of earthly wisdom. And when we draw near to God, we are choosing to tap into the source of heavenly wisdom. That, James says, is how you acquire heavenly wisdom and that’s how you sustain its cultivation in your life.
You know, back when I was in high school, I had a lot of free time. Let’s just say my parents never had to worry about me dating anyone. It may have had something to do with the hair. I mean, look at those pristine arches in my bangs. I was like a walking advertisement for McDonalds!
Since I wasn’t exactly the most popular kid in school, I had lots of free time. And this abundance of free time proved to actually be a blessing in disguise. I began to take my faith very seriously. In keeping with James’ advice, I fervently tried to submit to God and resist the Devil. I spent countless hours reading my Bible and praying. Yet my sincere attempts to draw near to God never produced in me the kind of heavenly wisdom that James describes. So these past few weeks, I’ve found myself asking: Why was that? Are James’ instructions for acquiring heavenly wisdom really enough? In other words, is drawing near to God and resisting the devil really all it takes to cultivate this kind of heavenly wisdom in us? After all, millions of Christians are sincerely submitting to God and resisting the Devil, yet peacemaking is completely off their radar.
As I’ve sat with this question, I finally realized that drawing near to God actually involves two tasks, and similarly resisting the devil also involves two tasks. For you see, we must draw near and we must resist. But we must also strive to ensure that it is God to whom we are drawing near and the Devil that we are resisting. If our view of evil is selective and partial, then there will be many evils we will not resist. And if our conception of God is wrong or simply incomplete, it will not be the true fullness of God that we are drawing near to. In high school, my concept of God was not wrong; it was just incomplete. I had no idea that God is a peacemaking God. That Jesus came on a peacemaking mission. And without this conception of God, I never realized that God desired to shape me into a peacemaker.
But by the end of college, I considered myself enlightened. I finally realized God was in the peacemaking business. So I dove headfirst into the task of cultivating shalom in places where it is painfully absent. I moved to inner-city Philadelphia and later to a rough part of Los Angeles, and I gave my all to the task of sowing the seeds of peace. But I did not invest enough time into maintaining my connection to the Source of heavenly wisdom. Oh to be sure, I continued to spend a little time each day reading Scripture and praying to God. But day after day after day, I was pouring out far more than I was being filled with. I foolishly equated knowing what heavenly wisdom looks like with being able to produce and sustain such wise living in myself. And I did sow the seeds of peace … for a little while. But when the burnout hit, and the compassion fatigue took over, I became irritable, not peaceable. Harsh, not gentle. Judgmental, not merciful. Only then did I realize that knowing what heavenly wisdom looks like is not enough to cultivate it in one’s life. I had neglected James’ advice. I had failed to invest enough time in the task of maintaining a connection to the Source and Giver of heavenly wisdom.
Thankfully, James doesn’t just tell us what heavenly wisdom looks like. He also tells us how we can acquire and sustain this kind of wise living.
Friends, today I want to encourage you to allow James’ description of heavenly wisdom to shape your understanding of the Christian life. Ask God to cultivate in your life the list of character traits that James says are always the mark of heavenly wisdom. Ask God to mold you into the kind of person who is pure-hearted, peaceable, gentle, able to be reasoned with, full of mercy and good works, impartial and sincere. Embrace the central Christian vocation of peacemaking. Our world desperately needs a group of people who will sow the seeds of peace so that, instead of war and fighting and murder, there might be a harvest of justice and righteousness.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, help us collectively as a church to become a people shaped and transformed by your heavenly wisdom. Grow this kind of wise living in us. And sustain this kind of wise living in us, so that we might be your agents of peace in this world. Amen. Go in peace.