We live in a day and age where wisdom is sold everywhere. We have books to teach us The Secret, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and how to Think and Grow Rich. We have celebrity gurus like Deepak Chopra, Suze Orman, Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle, Dr. Phil, and Joel Osteen. We have thousands of television programs, radio shows, and blogs.
It seems like everyone has a plan we can follow to get ahead in the world. But with so many competing and contradictory plans being offered, we need to ask the question James asks in chapter 3: Who is wise and understanding among you?
That’s a great question, but the answer will depend on the kind of wisdom we are looking for. James says there is more than one kind:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, don’t sin against the truth by boasting of your wisdom. Such “wisdom” does not come down from above, but is earthbound, unspiritual, and demonic. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.
James mentions two kinds of wisdom. One is anothen, “from above.” Verse 13 says it is demonstrated when we do good works in a spirit of humility. Our humility is an acknowledgment of the fact that we do not have it within us to attain godly wisdom. We submit to God and obey his instructions. We are gentle with others because God is gentle with us and we are to reflect his nature. Colossians 3:12–13 has a good description of wisdom from above: “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another–forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
This is what wisdom from above looks like in our day to day life. It is active and lovingly engaged with others. Sadly, this wisdom comes in a distant second to the kind of wisdom James describes as epigeios, “earthbound.” This is the wisdom we’ve heard since we were kids. It says, “first and foremost, look out for #1. You live in a dog-eat-dog world, so don’t be caught in Milk-Bone underwear. Do whatever it takes to get ahead and stay ahead.”
Sound familiar? We grow up learning Earthly Economics 101: there are lots of people in the world and a limited amount of stuff, so amass as much stuff as possible. Advanced studies in this kind of wisdom teach us how to get the edge on everyone else and win the rat race. We get enough money and prestige to be satisfied, and for many of us that is enough. But, as that great theologian, Lily Tomlin, once noted: even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
James is saying the same thing–it’s a race no one can win. Earthbound wisdom forces us to adopt attitudes and practices that will create envy and selfish ambition in us. It forces us to see the people around us as competition, or even adversaries. Everyone grabbing for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie. What the world calls wisdom is sourced in hell, not in heaven, and when we go down that path we miss out on the life God offers us. James defines this pseudo-wisdom with three terms that are the direct opposites of true wisdom:
It is “earthbound” (unable to move beyond human reasoning)
It is “unspiritual” (focused on nourishing the flesh)
It is “demonic” (diamoniodes, “pertaining to demons”)
These are the forces that fuel envy and selfish ambition. James is warning us to be careful how we climb the ladder of success. We don’t want to invest our life in climbing to the top, only to discover the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. Earthbound wisdom might fatten your bank account and allow you to have your way with others, but James is right: ultimately it leads to disorder and wickedness of every kind.
Next: We’ll look at one of earthbound wisdom’s favorite targets: our relationships.