James 3:13-18New International Version (NIV) Two Kinds of Wisdom
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
James lays out for us here two kinds of wisdom: one is earthly, unspiritual, demonic even and the other is a wisdom that comes from heaven. Last week, when we talked about the tongue - there was a similar contrast. David Kersten talked about the fire of the Holy Spirit vs. the fire that is ignited by the fires of hell also of the spring of Living Water vs. the well of brackish water from which we can choose our words.
In the dictionary, wisdom is defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” And this isn’t a bad starting point, but what experience? What knowledge? What is good judgment vs. bad judgment? In order for this definition to make sense, we have to have some parameters - a way to further define the terms.
As James says there is a wisdom that is earthly and this wisdom is characterized by selfish ambition and bitter envy. Now that doesn’t sound very wise to me - but if your goal is to be a billionaire or the top in your field or first chair in the orchestra - then these two “virtues” can get you far. Our society looks favorably on people who exhibit these qualities and although we might not consider them wise, they live close to their principles and accomplish their goals. If you want to be an olympic gold-medalist, you have to think primarily of yourself, and you also have to know how you are doing compared to others - the definition for the Greek word translated envy in this passage includes the idea of a contentious rivalry - something that is highlighted regularly in our competitive society. Jeremy talked about this two weeks ago when he was pointing out the ways scholars for centuries have pitted James against Paul.
David Brooks, in his article entitled “The Moral Bucket List”, says that there are “two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues” A eulogy is what someone says about you after you die whereas a resume is written, usually by yourself, to make your accomplishments sound good enough to get the job. Sounds a little like our two types of wisdom. The article goes on to say, “We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”
But even these “eulogy values” can be selfish - if we value what people say about us or how we compare to others - we are still living according to earthly wisdom.
So how do we tap into heavenly wisdom?
Looking to the Old Testament, we find written several times this phrase or a variation of this phrase, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Daniel Goleman, author of the book “Emotional Intelligence,” said, “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves,” or even on our group or organization. For us as Christians, the way that we find this wide horizon is to fear the Lord.
This might sound strange - to fear the Lord - but it doesn’t mean to be afraid of God, but to have a right picture of the power, majesty and magnitude of the God of the Universe. JB Phillips wrote a book many years ago entitled Your God is Too Small and I think this is the beginning of unwise decisions and actions - putting God in some comfortable box or diminishing Him to some good teacher or thinking of Him primarily as our Friend.
One practical way to fear God was introduced by Benedict in the 6th century in his rule for living: “Keep death always before your eyes.” This isn’t meant to be morbid or taken out of the context of a life of faith. Death is a perspective giver, we have to think about what happens next - will we stand before the God of the universe? This gives us a healthy “fear” or awe of Him. Jesus invites us to die every day - “take up [your] cross daily and follow Me.” We see this same idea over and over in Paul’s letters, one example is found in Colossians 3:3 “ For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
We are invited to live an eternal life - this eternal life starts NOW not when we physically die - we are invited to die daily to this earthly existence and live a new life, a different life, a life hidden with Christ in God.
Sometimes taking up our cross daily doesn’t seem often enough. We are bombarded with choices constantly to live as good-newsers or bad-newsers, to live into the reality of the gospel or to give in to the value system of the world. Paul has a further exhortation to “take hold of each and every thought and make it obey Christ.”
C.S. Lewis gives us this illustration: “[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”
I’m gonna get a little mathy on you now. Please don’t panic. I promise to take it slow and explain it so that even if you hate math you can see the connection I am trying to draw.
Let’s say you flip a coin. What are the chances that you get tails? 50/50 - right! So, in theory, if I flip a coin 100 times, how many times will I get tails? 50, correct. What about if I flip it 40 times, how many tails? 20, right! So, what if I flip it 15 times? Not so easy to answer now is it? There is no such thing as 7.5 tails. So what happens in reality, doesn’t always match what the ideal.
This graph shows in orange, the theoretic perfection of half - the 50/50 chance of getting tails when you flip the coin. The blue dots represent what actually happened when I flipped a coin 18 times. Sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I didn’t - in fact it was impossible half of the time.
When experiments are recorded on a graph, scientists look for a pattern to determine future events or to make a conclusion about the success of the experiment. In both of these cases, there is a positive correlation, meaning that the trend is upward. One has a stronger correlation than the other. After the data points are on the graph, you find the “trend line” or the “line of best fit”
All of the points don’t hit the line, but you can see where it is trying to get to or what the trend is.
I just read a book called The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and in the book there is a despicable character. As much as I disliked this character, I had to respect him for one thing: his tenacity and determination to stick to his goals. Now, his goals were horrifying, but they determined his every action and he stayed very close to his own depraved principles. His line of best fit and his actions were aligned but I think it was definitely a negative correlation.
You have to know where you are aiming so that you can know how well the “experiment” is measuring up. I am suggesting this morning that the life of Jesus is our line of best fit. J.B. Phillips, in his book Your God Is Too Small explains it this way: “The truth taught by Jesus Christ is the right way to live. It is ... God Himself explaining in terms that men can readily grasp how life is meant to be lived.” The trend line, the line of perfect fit! Jesus lived a perfect life manifesting all of the properties of wisdom found in our passage this morning. He was “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” And when we embody these characteristics, we come closer to that new life, that kingdom life, that eternal life that Jesus invites us into.
Norvene Vest puts it this way, “How odd that one small act of kindness or indifference has anything to do with eternal life? And yet, once I begin to see it that way, how comforting the sense that there is some continuity between the fact of charity here and whatever life is like there. My hunch grows that it is by these daily acts that I begin to build habits or dispositions which draw me closer to God or take me further away, till one day I shall realize that the Kingdom has already come and I did not know it.”
Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God has come! We can live in it even now and bring it close to those around us.
This seems impossible. And it is! Just like you can’t have 22.5 tails with 50 coin tosses, we cannot live a perfect life. God knows this and He wants to help us! In the beginning of James we were promised “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” And now we know what wisdom is - you can substitute any of these parts of heavenly wisdom: If any of you lacks purity, If any of you lacks peace-loving-ness, if any of you lacks submission, mercy, impartiality, sincerity - ask God and He’ll give it to you without finding fault.
But thinking of Jesus as our line of best fit makes Him into this impossible ideal that we are trying to reach and that’s not good news. So I have another analogy that shows that the power comes from Him and not from us: a tow rope!
If you have never had to use a tow rope on a ski or sledding hill - let me tell you about the first time that I ever used one. Heather Stahnke and I were on a ski trip together when she was a student, so we’re talking over 20 years ago and we were going sledding on a hill that was built as a ski hill, but was just not tall enough and so was converted to a sledding hill. In order to get to the top of this almost ski hill, there was a tow rope. You were supposed to sit in your sled and then grab a hold of the already in motion tow rope just above your shoulders. So we did this, but we were sharing a sled and I’m not sure how, but all of sudden we were being dragged up the hill on our coats and snow-pants while trying to hold on to the sled with our boots. It was quite the sight. I have this short video to show you a tow rope in action.
Video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32LJkeOgRB4
Which calls to mind the verse that says, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” but that’s a whole different sermon.
The tow rope is like the line best fit, but it pulls us along with it! If we stay connected to the source, then we’ll stay on the right track. Even if we fall, we just pick ourselves up and take hold again. The end of the rope holds secure, anchored within the veil and Jesus ever moves us heavenward. Crazy thing is, if we stay connected to the vine, the tow rope, the trend line, the source, we will realize that the kingdom has arrived and we have already started living eternally with God.
Let’s go back to the line of best fit illustration one more time. Here are 3 different experiments, one with positive, one with negative and one with no discernible correlation. What does your life look like? Are your wisdom, decisions, actions and thoughts lining up with the line of best fit life we see demonstrated in the life of Jesus? If so, then you are probably tapping into that eternal life more and more and living into the kingdom. If not, you are probably experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance and pain. If you are all over the map, it might be time to choose. Philippians 1:6 assures us that God, who began the good work within us, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.
I have a couple of humorous illustrations to reinforce this idea:
click here for the video clip (I muted in church!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWnkH7tcnTk
Just hold on! No amount of falls will undo us if we keep getting up. Jesus, ready, stands to rescue you, full of empathy, love and power.
None of us can live a life perfectly pleasing to God - and no matter what our life looks like or has looked like, we can tap into the Holy Spirit power that is transforming us - 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it this way: “... we all, with unveiled faces, continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being transformed into His image from one degree of glory to even more glory...”
I want to leave you with these words from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga: “St. Benedict wasn’t asking us to be morbid when he told us to keep death daily before our eyes. Rather, he was asking us to be wise: know your reality, cherish it, live it fruitfully right this minute, growing in your awareness that Christ is with you in this little here and now, making you ready, and through you making your world ready, for that day when “now” will open out into the “forever” we anticipate joyfully…”
Jude 24-25 To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.