True and False Wisdom

James 3:13-18

The Recording of this Sermon can be found HERE for the next few months. Public safety advisory … the recording includes a hymn after the sermon which you should only listen to if you don’t mind the booming voice of a rather croaky pastor :))


We continue our study of the Epistle of James – that very practical letter, written by James the brother of Jesus to Jewish Christians from the church of Jerusalem, which James essentially pastored. These were Christians who had been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution and who were now living in many different parts of the region.

James is a letter from a loving, mature Christian pastor … written to teach his disciples how to live faithfully in the face of the persecution and poverty that inevitably came because they were essentially religious refugees.

Way back in chapter 1:5 James has addressed the fact that often when we face adversity as Christians, we don’t really know how to handle it. In that verse he teaches that if we find ourselves in a difficulty and we don’t know how to live in the midst of it or how to overcome it, we should ask God for wisdom, and it will be given to us. He even goes on in 1:18-27 to teach them (and us) how to listen for God’s word of wisdom.

But what is wisdom? What does that wisdom look like? How will we know it when it comes?

These are vital questions to consider because being in a painfully difficult situation can really be confusing. We can be paralysed … what some have called analysis paralysis. We are so scared to take a wrong turn that we just freeze like a deer in the headlights. So we hesitate and vacillate and feel as though we cannot recognise God’s wisdom.

So what is wisdom? The Cambridge dictionary defines wisdom as “the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments”. That’s a good one. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. It is being able to take the facts of the situation we face and figure out how best to behave and to live in the light of the facts. To be wise is to be able discern the right course of action. And Biblically-speaking, God gives us that ability when we ask for it. God longs for us to seek wisdom and to obey that wisdom. The book of Proverbs is filled with this truth. Over and over it shows us how it is always best to walk in wisdom and to pursue good, Godly decisions.

Now, as I’ve said before, James is a very practical book. It is about real life discipleship … and in it James is very much in touch with the realities of Christian living. In today’s passage we see how well he understands our struggles. He identifies that it is never as simple as just wanting to be wise … because he warns us, his readers, that there is both a HEAVENLY wisdom AND what he calls an EARTHLY wisdom. We might say that there is a TRUE wisdom and a FALSE wisdom … a GODLY wisdom and a DEVILISH wisdom.

Our passage today contrasts these two forms of wisdom, in order to empower us to know them when we see them and to inspire us to abandon the false, earthly wisdom and to pursue the true, heavenly wisdom in every way.

So let’s dig in to our verses deeply today. We will follow James’ teaching contrasting these two forms of wisdom. To do that we’ll first start at the heart of the matter and identify:

  1. The motivation for each; then
  2. The characteristics of each; and finally
  3. The results of each form.


Take a look at v.14, and then we will read it in comparison to v.17.

“If you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” (v.14) “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure …”

Right there we have the heart of the contrast between TRUE and FALSE wisdom. James points out that wisdom starts in the heart of  person. And the heart of a person is the seat of our deepest motivation. This calls for us to slice open our deepest inner motivations and recognise that if our deepest heart motivation in a given situation is self-centred … if my decision-making process is all about the desire to make my own life better or easier or more successful than the next person … I will be operating in false wisdom … earthly wisdom … wisdom from below rather than from above. False wisdom harbours bitter envy and selfish ambition in the heart, says James. It is found when a person is motivated by a ME FIRST attitude … an attitude that resents the success of others and looks to push oneself forward and gain the advantage at all costs.

You see, when our heart looks like that, how can we ever make decisions in godly wisdom? Would Jesus have been able to know and do the will of God which entailed laying His life down on the cross if he had been guided by a wisdom based on selfish ambition and bitter, self-centred envy? Never! And neither will we. If that is our inner heart motivation, the bitter centre of our lives will infect all of our lives and every decision we make.

So James says, “If that is your heart, ‘do not boast about it or deny the truth.’” If we look inside our hearts today with all honesty and recognise that in truth the core of our motivation is our own interests and selfish ambitions, our response should be to admit it honestly … to not be proud of it, but rather repentant … and then we ought to ask God to create in us a new heart.

Now that new heart is at the heart of true wisdom (pardon the pun). The inner motive for true wisdom, James implies in v.17 is purity. “Wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure.” This reminds us of Jesus saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)

When we are pursuing Godly wisdom, our hearts need to be pure in the desire to please God. Remember that Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). That “fear of the Lord” essentially means the sole desire (he desire above all other desires) to please God. Having a pure heart means having a heart that longs to know and do the will of God above all because above all other desires is the desire to please God.

SO can you see the absolutely contrasting motivations for these two forms of wisdom? False wisdom is in essence decision-making based on a ME 1st attitude of selfish ambition and desire for our own comfort or success.

True wisdom is in essence decision-making based on a desperate desire to discern the will of God in order to please God and walk in purity before Him.

What kind of wisdom are you pursuing?

So those are the opposing motivations of false and true wisdom. But we cannot stop there. Our human sinfulness means that we often do not even know our own hearts properly. We often battle to identify, let alone admit, our truly deepest motives. And even when we do have the purest motives, and our hearts are sincere … our decision-making can still lack godly wisdom. We can be sincere … but we can be sincerely wrong … and make sincerely foolish and ungodly decisions.

So James 3 moves beyond motive and helps us to discern true and false wisdom by highlighting their characteristics too.


James is quite blunt when it comes to false wisdom in v.15. He says that such “wisdom” is “earthly, unspiritual and of the devil.” One can tell when a person is living in false wisdom because the essence of their outward living will be:

  • Earthly: They will be materialistic … pursuing the satisfaction of their earthly, material desires. There actions are earthly minded with no consideration for the higher things of God.
  • Unspiritual: This word can be translated as “sensual”. They live in a way that pursues their own physical desires and impulses, and pays zero attention to the desires of God for them.
  • Of the devil: The word is directly translated as “demoniacal”. It’s the only place in the Bible where the word for a demon is used as an adjective; i.e. to describe a quality of a person. A person living in false wisdom is pursuing a rival agenda to the agenda of God. They think they are fulfilling their own desires … not recognising the devil’s power of temptation

By contrast when a person is living out a pure, true, godly wisdom from above, it is also always going to show in the way they live. Like James says in v. 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. Godly wisdom is not some mystical quality reserved for the guru on the mountaintop. It is a quality lived out in the cut and thrust of everyday living.

The outward life of a person living in godly wisdom is listed in verse 17:

  • Peace-loving: A wise person is seeking to live in a way that leads to peace, and their actions will bring people closer to being at peace with each other and God.
  • Considerate: A wise person really does seek the highest best of others and also makes allowance for their weaknesses and failings. They are not harsh and unmoving.
  • Submissive: Likewise, a wise person is described as submissive in the NIV. The Greek word is quite rich in meaning and means being teachable and willing to obey the will of God immediately. But at a more human-relationships level it means being willing to listen and understand others.
  • Full of mercy and good fruit: This is such a beautiful quality. A wise person is compassionate towards the despair and need of others, even when they have brought that situation on themselves.
  • Impartial: A wise person has sound judgment. The word here strictly means unwavering and undivided. They are able to make up their mind and stick to it. There are those who think that it is a virtue to never make up one’s mind about anything … to suspend judgment. But godly wisdom is based on a deep knowledge of the will of God and a deep commitment to obeying it. So when it becomes clear that a course of action is the godly one, the person of wisdom will set their face to obey.
  • Sincere: The last characteristic is sincerity. Godly wisdom does not operate in the field of hypocrisy. A person of godly wisdom is who they are and who they say they are. They are solid and trustworthy and dependable as a rock because their lives are directed by eternal truth … not just sometimes but at every opportunity.

Which kind of wisdom are you operating in?


Finally, James also offers us a glimpse at the results of living both by false and true wisdom. He wants to inspire us to pursue godly wisdom.

In v.16 he makes it clear that when a person is living in false wisdom … when they are motivated by their own selfish, envious desires and ambitions and live that motivation out in lives that are materialistic, sensual and unspiritual there will always be disorder and every evil practice.

Disorder! Rather than bringing people together in peaceful harmony, ungodly wisdom pushes people apart and messes up their relationships. Instead of producing peace it produces fighting and strife. It destroys love, peace and human unity and fellowship.

What is more, because it is not intent on pursing God, false wisdom will lead one in to immorality and sin – “every evil practice”.

True wisdom on the other hand … wisdom that is heavenly … has an outcome that is described in v.18. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

When one is given the grace to live in godly wisdom, the outcome of one’s decisions and lifestyle will be the cultivation of a climate where peace and righteousness flourish. Your life will lead to the healing of relationships both between people and between people and God. Your life will increase in attitudes, words and behaviours that are deeply pleasing to God and which therefore reflect God’s beauty more perfectly in the world around you.

One will be characterised by what James calls, in v.14, “a good life”, with “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

Remember that Romans 12 says that God’s will for us is good, pleasing and perfect.

Joel Osteen wrote a book called: “Your Best Life Now”. I’m afraid it may have focussed far too much on the “best” of an earthly, sensual, materialistic “best life” of health and wealth.

Scripture is clear that the BEST life we can possibly live is a life fully pleasing to God … even when the path of that life leads down a very difficult and winding road of self-sacrifice and humility.

Friends, in a nutshell, if we follow godly wisdom, our lives will be well-pleasing to God. Our lives lived in godly wisdom will bring great delight to the heart of God.

And God WILL give us grace to do this … because it is His desire for us. But He invites us to seek this wisdom. He calls us to value this wisdom immensely. He calls us also not to ignore godly wisdom … not to give in to temptation and live simply by human wisdom or understanding … but to rely on the Spirit of Wisdom.


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