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. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. James 3:17-18
“Life is hard. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” We chuckle at that because we all know it’s true. Some people claim John Wayne said those words. I don’t know if the Duke did or didn’t (the line doesn’t appear in any of his movies), but it sounds like something he could have said.
“Life is hard. It’s harder when you’re stupid.”
Let’s flip that statement around into something positive:
“Life is hard, but it’s easier when you have God’s wisdom.”
That’s better, isn’t it? And it’s just as true as the first statement. Our problem is, we don’t know how to find the wisdom we need. That’s where the little book of James comes in handy. He started his letter with a wonderful promise:
“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking” (James 1:5 NLT).
I love that phrase: “Ask our generous God.” That’s good news for all of us. If you need wisdom, ask for it! That’s all you have to do. The hardest part is admitting you need God’s help. If you are ready to say, “Lord, I’ve made a mess of things,” he’s ready and willing to help you out.
“Life is hard, but it’s easier when you have God’s wisdom.”
Remember that knowledge and wisdom aren’t the same. Knowledge refers to the accumulation of facts. Wisdom gives you understanding of what the facts mean. You could be the smartest person in the world and still be a fool. Anyone can gain knowledge, but only God can give you wisdom.
What does God’s wisdom look like? How do we know it when we see it? James 3:17-18 gives us seven marks of God’s wisdom:
“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. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”
Let’s look at the seven marks of God’s wisdom and see how we measure up.
1. It is Pure
“Wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure.”
Because God is pure, everything that comes from him is pure. The word means “free from moral stain.” Let me illustrate. Earlier this week I spent a few hot hours power washing the deck in our backyard. I rented a power washer at Home Depot and decided to give it a try. That’s when the surprises started. With nothing more than air pressure forcing the water out at 1400 PSI, the power washer stripped away 15 years of grime, gunk, mildew, mold and dirt. As I was power washing from one plank to another, the thought came that all of us are like an old wooden deck. We carry layers of bitterness, frustration, doubt and despair that cling to the soul and produce a kind of discoloration that normal washing will not remove.
All of us are an old wooden deck
That very day I talked with Chris Fabry on Moody Radio about the hidden sin of envy. I told him that in 45 years of ministry, only a handful of people had ever admitted to me they struggle with “the green monster.” We will confess almost any sin before we will confess envy or jealousy because it makes us look so small. Some sins are harder to deal with than others. Envy leads to bitterness that hardens into malice that becomes a jaundice of the soul. Like the 15 years of gunk on our deck, that spiritual jaundice is hard to remove.
We all need the “power washing” of the Holy Spirit from time to time. We need the Holy Spirit to take the Word of God and wash us clean from the inside out.
Purity comes first because without it, nothing else on this list matters. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). That’s not just theory; that’s how life actually works. When your heart is pure, you will see God. When your heart is cluttered with wrong attitudes and evil notions, you will see everything but God.
Purity comes first!
James lists purity first because this is where wisdom begins.
Purity puts you out of step with the world. If that’s okay with you, then we can think together about the rest of this list. But if you need the world’s approval, you are already out of step with God and the door of wisdom is closed to you.
How much do you want to be pure?
2. It is Peace-Loving
“Wisdom that comes from heaven is . . . peace-loving.”
Some people don’t want to get along.
They would rather fight than talk. They yell when they should listen. They never give an inch because they think they are always right. They aren’t concerned about finding a middle ground because “it’s my way or the highway.” They are peace-breakers, not peacemakers.
The Greek word translated “peaceable” speaks to our attitude in times of conflict. James has already (3:14-16) warned us about a kind of “wisdom” that is earthly, unspiritual and devilish. That sort of “wisdom” brings chaos wherever it goes. But God’s wisdom is different. When wisdom from above fills your life, you will be an agent for healing and reconciliation.
Some people are like a human tornado
A “peace-loving” person brings peace with him when he enters the room. He’s the opposite of the human tornado who wreaks havoc in every situation. Because he is at peace with God, he is at peace within himself, and he brings an atmosphere of peace with him. Solomon offers us an important word of wisdom at this point:
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Prov. 14:30).
We must turn away from violence, bitterness, provocation, hatred and animosity. Maybe some of us have “rotten bones” because we are filled with envy. But it doesn’t have to be that way
3. It is Gentle
“Wisdom that comes from heaven is . . . considerate.”
This quality is hard to capture in only one English word. It means gentle, non-combative, not quarrelsome, not easily annoyed. You discover this aspect of wisdom when you are under the gun, when tempers are short, when you are worn out, when the demands of life overwhelm you, and when you seem to be swimming in a pool of hungry piranhas.
If you have to shout, you lose
How do you respond under pressure?
If you have to shout, you lose.
If you have to threaten, you lose.
Someone said it this way: “If you lose your cool, you can’t win. If you keep your cool, you can’t lose.”
You need this kind of wisdom when . . .
Traffic backs up on the freeway.
Someone cuts you off.
Someone cuts in line.
Someone starts yelling at you
Matthew Arnold called this quality “sweet reasonableness.” We need it when dealing with difficult people. We need it when dealing with Christians who sin and with friends who disappoint us. We desperately need it when we have trouble with rebellious children.
If we got what we deserved, we would all end up in hell
If you believe in Jesus, you can be gentle because he has been gentle with you. Aren’t you glad God does not deal with us according to our iniquities?
“He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve” (Psalm 103:10 NLT).
If we got what we deserved, we would all end up in hell. Because we have received mercy, we can show mercy to others.
Remember what Jesus has done for you. Then go and do likewise.
4. It is Persuadable
“Wisdom that comes from heaven is . . . submissive.”
This quality may be easier to see if we flip it around. Earthly wisdom is arrogant and stubborn. It refuses to listen and has no desire to hear anyone else’s opinion. A man like this dominates every discussion, uses sarcasm to put others down, and demands to be the center of attention in every room he enters. He attacks anyone who attacks him because he masks a fragile ego with his terrible temper and his penchant for threats. He is the master of the put-down and the king of the clever one-liner.
Can you disagree agreeably?
God’s wisdom looks nothing like that. The Greek word means “easy to persuade.” A person with this quality listens carefully because they want to know the truth. Don’t mistake this for being a pushover or a man of no conviction. A persuadable person holds deep convictions without feeling the need to parade them or to constantly argue about them. He listens to others with whom he disagrees because he believes everyone has something to teach him.
Can you disagree agreeably?
Can you discuss your deep convictions without losing your temper?
Can you listen kindly to someone who holds another position?
My friends, we desperately need a revival of kindness in our land. It begins with listening more and talking less.
5. It is Merciful
“Wisdom that comes from heaven . . . is full of mercy and good fruit.”
We often blame others for their problems.
What a difference it makes to walk a mile in their shoes.
Mercy is more than a feeling. Mercy sees a need and then meets that need. That’s why he adds “full of good fruit.” Sympathy is good, but only if it moves you to action.
“You bring a knife, and I’ll bring a gun”
We live in an unmerciful world where vengeance is the watchword. If someone hits you, you hit back twice as hard. If someone hurts your family, you make sure to teach them a lesson. Sometimes it’s said this way: “You bring a knife, and I’ll bring a gun. You send one to the hospital; I’ll send one to the morgue.”
But God calls us to a higher standard.
Because of God’s great mercy, he sent his Son to die on the cross for us. What if God had said, “I’m sorry about you going to hell, but I can’t do anything about it. I hope it works out okay for you”?
Do unto others as God has done unto you
Here’s a simple definition of mercy: Do unto others as God has done unto you. Think back across the last 12 months. How has God treated you? Has God blessed you? Then bless others. Has God forgiven you? Then forgive others. Has God lifted you up when you were down? Then lift others up when they are down. Has God overlooked your faults? Then overlook the faults of others.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “mercy” was sometimes translated as “lovely” or “beautiful.” Here is a quality that will make you beautiful to others. I call this Hope for the Homely. Show mercy and people will think you are beautiful!
6. It is Impartial
“Wisdom that comes from heaven . . . is impartial.”
This particular Greek word is used only here in the New Testament. It means holding firm to the same standard at all times. Such a person is free from prejudice and favoritism. Sometimes you see a baseball umpire who has an unusual strike zone. Maybe he gives the pitcher a few extra inches on the outside of the plate, so pitches that might normally be called balls are called strikes. Managers don’t mind as long as the umpire is consistent. If his strike zone is the same no matter who is batting or who is pitching, if both sides get the same calls, then you can say the umpire is impartial. He’s not favoring one team over the other.
Applied to the spiritual life, it means you tell the truth the first time. You don’t change your story depending on the audience. You don’t treat one group better than another group. You are the same in public and in private.
Tell the truth the first time
I read about a certain man who died recently. At the funeral one of his friends said something like this: “I knew him for fifty years, and he was the same honest man at the end as he was at the beginning.” It’s hard to think of a finer compliment.
7. It is Sincere
“Wisdom that comes from heaven . . . is sincere.”
The final phrase means “without hypocrisy.” It originally meant “not playing a part,” referring to the ancient Greek plays where an actor would wear a mask while pretending to be someone else. One actor might play several different parts in the same play by putting on different masks.
That’s fine in theater, but it is deadly in real life.
“He is a man without guile”
To be “without hypocrisy” means what you see is what you get. You’re not two-faced. When you speak, people don’t have to ask, “I wonder what he really meant?” I still remember hearing one of my Greek professors in seminary speak about Dr. John Walvoord, who was then the president of Dallas Seminary. He said, “You never have to wonder what Dr. Walvoord really means or if he’s trying to send you a double message. He is a man without guile.” That statement has stayed with me over the years because he’s the only man I’ve ever heard described in those terms.
Verse 18 explains what happens when we live according to God’s wisdom: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”
Anger produces a harvest.
So does peace.
But they are not the same. Anger produces a harvest of violence and hatred, while peace yields a bountiful harvest of righteousness. Of mercy and love. Of kindness and forgiveness. Of healing and reconciliation.
If we sow discord, we reap a harvest of hatred.
If we sow peace, we reap a harvest of righteousness.
Living this way is not easy because peacemakers are often misunderstood. Sometimes they are attacked by both sides. You’ll rarely win applause from the world because the world loves a good fight. Controversy sells! Bad news always crowds out good news. But this is still the best way to live because it comes with God’s approval.
Do not read this sermon and think, “I need to try harder.” That’s not the point. Remember that verse 17 says this wisdom is “from above.” That means you can’t work it up by trying hard. Living like this demands the grace of God. If he doesn’t help us, we’ll descend into a dark pit of violence, greed, hatred, malice and backbiting.
We need God’s grace!
James gives us a key when he uses the word “seed.” Every day parents sow seeds through the steady toil of raising their children. Missionaries in distant lands sow seeds of love as they share Christ with others. We sow seeds of peace when we spend time in prayer instead of firing off an angry email. We sow seeds by greeting others with a smile. We sow seeds by loving our enemies and doing good to them. We sow seeds of peace when we decide not to pass along a salacious rumor. We sow seeds of peace when we decide not to argue politics 24 hours a day. And in a very deep sense, we sow seeds of peace by being faithful to God over the long haul.
I met a man who pastors a church in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. He has just celebrated thirty years with his congregation. As he and his wife talked, I could see the joy on their faces. Thirty years is a long time in any church. Certainly they have gone through hard times and faced periods of opposition. But my friend has “stayed by the stuff” week in and week out, working for the Lord, teaching God’s Word, preparing sermons, visiting the sick, and sharing Christ with whoever will listen to him. He and his wife shared a story of a church discipline case that involved marital unfaithfulness. Eventually he had to tell the congregation what had happened. The woman was willing to listen, but the man was not. After a long time had passed, the man came back to the Lord and back to the church. “It was a miracle of God,” the pastor said.
If we ask for wisdom, God will give it to us
It all takes time. You plant and you water and then you wait. It may take a long time and there will be some tears, but Psalm 126:6 (ESV) is still true:
“He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.”
If we hope to do anything useful in this world, we need God’s wisdom. The good news is, if we ask for wisdom, God will not hold back. James 1:5 promises God will give wisdom to anyone who asks for it. We ought to pray like this:
Lord, make me hungry for a pure heart.
Lord, help me be a peacemaker, not a peace-breaker.
Lord, give me grace to reply gently when I feel like blowing my top.
Lord, deliver me from feeling like I always need to defend myself.
Lord, open my eyes to see the hurting people who need my help.
Lord, set me free from partiality and favoritism.
Lord, make me a person whose life is an open book.
Lord, use me to plant seeds that will reap a great harvest for you.
May the Lord give us heavenly wisdom because we can’t live without it! Amen.