34. Earthly Wisdom

Meditations in James: 34 : Earthly Wisdom

Jas 3:14-16     But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

Deception is a strange thing.  Here, for instance, is a ‘wise’ man.  He is a business man.  He spends all hours at work.  He makes phone calls and he talks with his employees and he plans and schemes and makes profit.  He is an ambitious man and he pushes out the boundaries of his company and takes over some smaller companies.  He builds a new head office and people marvel at his business acumen.  He builds bigger and bigger.  He has a veritable empire. Along the way he sees his competitors and is envious of their activities. He plots and plans and schemes and takes them over, takes what he wants from their businesses (strips their assets) and then casts them aside.  He holds big parties, he meets with the media, and he boasts of his great accomplishments.  He laughs at the thought of God.  He has three houses, a large yacht, a Lear jet, and homes abroad.  He has everything, and then he dies.  In death he finds himself standing before God and realises he is standing in tattered rags and that he has nothing. When asked what right has he to be there, he realises before the openness of God, that he has no answer, he has nothing.  This story is exactly what Jesus described in his parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:15-21).  He starts it with the words,a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (v.15) and finishes it with, This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God (v.21).

We might have thought the man in the story was a wise man, storing up material prosperity, but James thinks otherwise.   Note each of the characteristics of this man as described: if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. These are the characteristics of the world.  These are what the world accepts and even applauds.  These are thing things the world expects from the great and the glorious.  Listen next time when a great entrepreneur, or a pop star, or great politician is on TV.   Listen to their words and observe the characteristics of them.  They think they are wise because, after all, they have arrived haven’t they?  But arrived where?  At a place of spiritual poverty!

Observe James’ description of this sort of ‘wisdom’ that the world applauds: Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. This is not wisdom or the way that comes from God.  This is actually not wisdom at all.  True wisdom only comes from God.  This ‘wisdom’ (which is no wisdom!) is earthly; it has its origins in the selfish, self-centred, godless minds of people who care nothing for God and are only concerned for themselves.  They are unspiritual; there is a complete absence of anything spiritual in their lives.  Their spirit is dead; there is no movement in respect of God.  They are deaf to His words to them and their heart has no concern for Him. They are in fact energized and motivated by the devil.  Now that is strong language you may think, but that is what James says – and so does John: We know that …. the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19).  If you do not surrender your life to God, then you are left in the hands of the Lord’s chastising angel, Satan, and he plays on the sinful desires in each unregenerate person, driving them onwards to bigger and better things with their ‘worldly wisdom’, and towards destruction.  The richer they get, the poorer they get, but of course they don’t realize it until they stand before God with nothing.

Note also what James says accompanies this sort of ‘wisdom’: For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. Envy and selfish ambition are the driving forces of this so-called wisdom and wherever it is, when you look into what is going on, you find ‘disorder’.  Disorder is confusion and upset like you have when there is anarchy.  Here is this man working out his schemes and causing upset in other people’s lives and businesses. He is a law unto himself and he ploughs through other people’s lives and activities like a bulldozer, leaving havoc and mayhem in his wake. He causes upheaval on the earth.  Moreover James speaks of every evil practice.  The way this man thinks and works is evil.  Evil just means it is utterly wrong.

Now you may have been reading all these descriptions and my story above, and have thought, “Well I’m glad I’m not like that!”  Well perhaps you aren’t as big a person as the man of my illustration but, in all honesty, is your way of thinking somewhat similar to his?  What genuinely motivates your life?  Is it a genuine desire to please God, and to do things God’s way, or do you struggle and strive, thinking, planning, reasoning and working all hours to achieve material prosperity?  Are you sometimes a little careless about moral integrity when you cut corners or don’t entirely speak the truth in business? You see you may not do it to the extent of the man above, but if you do it even a little bit, there are adjustments to be made according to James.  Check it out.  Be honest.  What is your life like?  Can you honestly stand before God and say you never operate with the ‘worldly wisdom’ we have been considering today?  Ensure that you can!

Woe to Respected

Readings in Luke Continued – No.21

Lk 6:26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.

The world is often a very deceitful place. All is often not as it seems, and especially so when it comes to people. Because of the sinful nature that we all inherit, there is this tendency in us, to be for us but against everyone else. We call it self-centredness and it produces behaviour in us whereby we show one thing on the outside but think or feel something else on the inside. We like to portray lives that are in control, we like to show ourselves as nice, sociable people, people who are good to be with, and therefore we often put on masks to pretend we are what we are not!

The verses we have been considering in these last few meditations are all about reality, about how only those who recognise their spiritual poverty can enter God’s kingdom, about how only spiritual hunger provides access to God, and about how tears of repentance pave the way to receive salvation. On the other side that reality has been about how affluence can be a real hindrance to realising our real needs, about how being well fed can be a real hindrance to creating a spiritual hunger, and about how laughter can cover up or even prevent revelation of our true state. Each of these three pairs of verses that we have considered so far, challenge us to face reality if we are to go on with God.

The counterpoint to today’s verse says, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” (v.22). That is the reality of knowing Jesus: you will be hated by some, excluded by some, insulted by some and rejected by some, and that is because they hate, want to exclude, insult and reject Jesus, and because you are his follower, the same comes your way! THAT is just how life is. Because of Sin and of Satan that IS how life is. That is the reality which we would prefer to forget. I have used the word ‘some’ in respect of people because it won’t be all people, for some will come looking and searching for him, but some will be all out against him, as we see in the case of modern crusading atheists.

Now we have been saying that our primary verses each day in the previous three mediations have been the counterpoint or opposite side of the preceding verses. Thus our verse today warns, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” The earlier verse warns that people will speak badly of us and now this verses warns against people speaking well of us. Why?

Jesus’ answer is because people only speak well of those they feel an affinity with, or those who do no upset them, or do not threaten them. He cites the false prophets of old. They said things bringing false assurance: “they are saying, `No sword or famine will touch this land,’” (Jer 14:15) and false hopes, “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They keep saying to those who despise me, `The LORD says: You will have peace.‘” (Jer 23:16,17).

No, the truth is that the Gospel IS Good News but it first calls men and women to repentance, to surrender to God, to acknowledge their sin, their godlessness and their unrighteousness. Without that it is not possible to receive God’s salvation through Jesus, and people don’t like to hear that. The Church of the twenty-first century is learning to build bridges to people, to soften people’s hearts with the love of God brought in practical ways, and yet still each person has to face their sin and their need and come humbly to God through Jesus – and many do not want to do that, and so they will speak out against us. It’s just how things are. The warning that Jesus gives us through today’s verse is essentially saying, “Beware when people are saying nice things about you, because they haven’t yet been challenged by your holy lives, and they haven’t yet been challenged by their own need.” There is potential deception here, the deception of thinking we are sharing the Gospel by our lives, when in fact we may simply be accommodating the world and making them feel nice.

We need to be careful here because many Christians have turned potential seekers away because of their arrogant, “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude, or their insensitiveness to the plight of people and their lack of care and compassion for them. If people turn away because of our poor attitudes and behaviour, that is not what Jesus is talking about. We need, as we seek to present the Gospel by word and deed, to be loving, caring, accepting, respectful and compassionate and not condemning. We allow the Holy Spirit to convict, which is very different from condemning. Condemning writes people off so they give up and walk away, while conviction brings a need to act to bring the necessary change, to receive salvation.

No, we shouldn’t, as some sects do, use Jesus’ former words to excuse our bad approaches to people. And we shouldn’t use people’s reactions to our bad approaches to excuse us from the import of today’s verse: “Oh no, people don’t speak well of us! We’re all right.” If they speak badly of us because of our unloving and ungracious attitudes and approaches to non-believers, that is NOT what Jesus is speaking about. Our role is to present the Good News in as gracious and loving a way as possible, feeling for, understanding, sensing the anguish and need in people’s lives as Jesus did. When we do that we can rest and be at peace if people still speak badly of us, because then, and only then, it will be because of the challenge of Jesus. Let’s make sure that is how it is.