Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 2:1-11; James 3:13-18; Ecclesiastes 3:16-22; Jeremiah 11-12
James here contrasts two forms of wisdom. Wisdom is often associated with knowledge and understanding, but these are just a part of God’s wisdom. James has a broader view of wisdom that is visible in people’s lives. One leads to humility of heart, honesty in speech and good conduct, the other to pride, conflict and disorder. The life lived according to God’s wisdom is attractive, in part because of the peace that characterises people’s relationships.
James contrasts God’s wisdom with one characterised by jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, dishonesty and strife. This is earthly wisdom, but its ultimate origin is demonic (v. 15). Ironically, the focus here is on doing best for oneself. We are told that if we don’t look out for ourselves, no one else will. So, we see what others have, we want that, and we do what it takes to get it. We step on others, distort the truth, discredit others, thinking this is what it takes to find the good life.
Godly wisdom is very different. Yet even as Christians, if we look honestly at ourselves, we see such thinking creeping in. In the last section, James declared that those who praise God as their Father should not use their tongues to cut down others made in the image of God. We must first recognise when we have thoughts and desires that arise from worldly wisdom. Then we should reflect on how these contrast with God’s wisdom.
The wisdom of God is first of all pure (v. 17), which refers to the spiritual, ethical and behavioural perfection that only God exhibits fully. To be pure is to mirror the character of God, to act as he would act. When faced with decisions, we should consider whether our actions image those of God, or reflect the selfish wisdom of the world. James then provides several attributes of God’s wisdom, starting with peace-loving. Peace, or shalom, is not just a lack of conflict, but a state of wholeness and well-being. Shalom is intertwined with truth, honesty, righteousness and justice, and is closely linked with the character of God (Psalm 34:14; Zechariah 8:16-19).
God’s wisdom is also considerate, which is closely related to justice. It means to take into account the needs of others, especially when in positions of power. Submissive here is not the usual Greek word, but is being open to the reasons and arguments that others make: to be willing to take others’ input. Mercy is compassion and kindness towards others, which leads to the fruit of helping others. Someone who is impartial is not judgemental of others or prejudiced. And being sincere means all this arises honestly from the heart, without hypocrisy.
Such a way of life would lead to peace, unity and depth in our relationships. But the standard is high, impossibly high. God knows that. In the next chapter, James notes that we are all drawn to the wisdom of the world, but instead we should draw near to God (James 4:7-8). We learn God’s wisdom within a vibrant relationship with him, knowing we are not perfect. Hence, we must reflect on the forgiveness he grants us based on the work of Christ. The wisdom of the world says we must proudly lift ourselves us; the wisdom of God says that as we honestly humble ourselves before God, he will lift us up (4:10). As we learn to do this, we will become more wise and our hearts and actions will be transformed by God as he works in and through us.