Wednesdays with James
Lesson Twelve: Wise Up!
We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The second theme James discusses has to do with wise behavior in the congregation — we’ve called it “Wise Behavior Makes Peace and Speaks No Evil” (3:1-4:12).
In chapter one, James made the point that the one thing we need from God in times of testing is wisdom, that we can get it from God, and that God is always ready to generously bestow this good gift (1:5). In today’s text, the author describes this divine wisdom, which comes from above — what it looks like and what it doesn’t look like.
Who is wise and discerning among you? Such a person should, by their upright behavior, display their works in the humility of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and contention in your hearts, don’t boast and tell lies against the truth. This isn’t the wisdom that comes from above. It is earthly, merely human, coming from the world of demons. For where there is jealousy and contention, there you will get unruly behavior and every kind of evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from above is first holy, then peaceful, gentle, compliant, filled with mercy and good fruits, unbiased, sincere. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Few conflicts burn as hot as religious conflicts. With various combatants claiming to hold the Truth™ passions get overheated and any compromise is seen as a betrayal of the faith. Stress fractures can turn into wide chasms. Congregations split, and new churches and denominations get formed. Some people even leave the faith (or at least the gathered church) altogether. Folks don’t mind their tongues and reputations get dragged through the mud.
Battles for “truth” are rarely fought with the weapons of wisdom.
We don’t know all the specific issues the congregations reading James’s epistle were facing.
- We do know that his audience was made up of mostly poor folks, suffering under richer merchants and landowners who were taking advantage of them and using the system to keep them down. Some of the believers were attempting to alleviate these pressures by discriminating in favor of the rich.
- We know that unbridled speech was a problem, and that some were eagerly grasping teaching positions, perhaps to advance their own agendas.
- We know that a number of them were focusing on things that led them to neglect the poorest and most vulnerable in the community, and that some were justifying this by defending their level of faith and spirituality. But in James’s eyes they were failing the test and not practicing true religion (1:26-27).
James names it all here for what it is: bitter jealousy, contention, selfish boasting, lying against the truth, unruly behavior, and evil practices. That is the mirror he holds up before them. “You want truth?” James writes, “Here’s the truth.”
If they were truly seeking wisdom from God, he goes on, they would be seeking peace, treating others with gentleness and care, forbearing one another and putting others first. They would be exercising mercy, doing truly good things to benefit one another. They would be speaking honestly and carefully, from hearts of humility and sincerity. They would seek to treat others justly.
In short, they would be peacemakers.
How sad it is that we as people of faith have contributed so much to the stereotype of Christians as a contentious lot, proud, insensitive, rude, and seeking our own way.
Who is wise and discerning among us?
• • •
Wednesdays with James
- Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
- Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
- Lesson Three: The Ongoing Teaching Ministry of Jesus
- Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James (1:1)
- Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life) (1:2-4)
- Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom (1:5-8)
- Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal (1:9-11)
- Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God (1:12-27)
- Lesson Nine: Are You Not Discriminating among Yourselves? (2:1-13)
- Lesson Ten: The Old “Faith & Works” Debate — Completely Unnecessary (2:14-26)
- Lesson Eleven: Stressed-out Speech Sinks Ships (3:1-12)