As we mature in Christ, we should develop wisdom. James indicated that all believers should seek wisdom. (1:5) Solomon wrote Proverbs “to know wisdom”. (Prov. 1:2) But spiritual, rather than worldly wisdom, reveals itself by good conduct and meekness. (13) In verse 13, James calls out those who think they are wise to be examined. If they are wise, it will be shown by good conduct in meekness, as saving faith is shown in righteous works. Such wisdom will be pure peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (17)
In contrast, if your wisdom produces bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, it is false. (14) Wisdom does not compete for the number of likes on Facebook or the number of retweets on Twitter. It does not get jealous if another teacher is more popular or his books sell more copies. These things will lead to sin both in the teacher and in his congregation. He says this kind of wisdom is earthly unspiritual and even demonic. (15) Those are harsh words. But selfish ambition, jealousy and competition in the church are tools of Satan. They can destroy a fellowship. And they can destroy the believer.
When I was in my early thirties, a fellow young deacon told me his goal was to become the youngest deacon chairman ever. There is no reason you would aspire to that other than to brag on yourself. It did not happen. In fact, he never became a deacon officer and eventually stopped serving because he did not want to serve; he wanted to be recognized and important.
The spiritually wise person will reflect the fruits of the spirit. (Galatians 5:22). Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control define this person. In contract, someone who has only worldly wisdom will reflect the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:19-21. Notice that envy, strife and jealousy are listed. I have worked with people who were brilliant in business, but were terrible human beings. That is what is being discussed here. In verse 16, James says fleshly or worldly wisdom causes disorder and vile practices. When you bring these things into the church, you corrupt it.
In verse 17, James reiterates the characteristics of wisdom. It is pure. That means moral blamelessness. The essence of spiritual wisdom is harmony with God and his standards. God and his word are pure. So will the wise person be pure. It is also peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy, impartial and sincere. The wise person treats all with respect, humility and gentleness. It is a product of wisdom. The wise believer always works for peace and unity in the fellowship, not disruption. If you want a harvest of righteousness, you sow peace. (18)
The Root Cause of Conflict
James begins this discussion simply by asking the question “what causes quarrels and what causes fights to break out among you”? He also answers plainly: it is because our desires\passions are in conflict within us. The ESV says they are “at war” within us. In other words, conflicts on the inside of us result in conflicts on the outside.
The conflict here is between our desire for what the world wants and our desire for what God wants. In Romans 7, Paul discussed this in relation to the lost person. He called it the battle between obeying the law of God and the law of the flesh. We know that the battle continues after salvation.
There is an implied question in verse 2. The question is “why don’t I get what I want”? James answers that question with 2 alternatives.
First, James says you do not ask. He means you do not ask God for what you want. That may mean you do not believe God will give it to you. James has already told us that every good and perfect gift comes from our heavenly Father. (1:17) Yet, we do not always trust him to give us what we need. It may also mean you think you deserve it without asking. Or it may mean you want to take it for yourself without help from God.
Second, James says you ask but do not receive because you want the thing for your own selfish desires. Janis Joplin sang “Oh, Lord, won’t you give me a Mercedes Benz?” And, at least in America, a lot of people pray for things like that. And some preachers preach that you should. But not James. James says instead that this kind of asking is idolatry. He called them “adulterous people”. (4) God used that image of marriage in the Old Testament to describe those who broke his covenant by worshipping idols. Here the idol is money and possessions. We want those things for our own pleasure, status and pride rather than to help others or advance Christ’s kingdom.
So, James sternly reminds us that we can live for the world or we can live for God. He said friendship with the world is enmity with God. Enmity is hostility. For example, God put enmity between the serpent and Eve, between its offspring and her offspring. (Genesis 3:15) That enmity will last until the end of this age when the serpent and his offspring are all removed from earth and thrown into lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
Verse 5 tells us God does not take this lightly. He is jealous for his people. (5) When he made his covenant with Israel, he he told them they could not worship idols (other gods) because he is a jealous God. (Exodus 20:5) That means he demands exclusive loyalty and worship.
For example, see Exodus 20:5. When God made a covenant with Israel, he told them they could not make idols and worship them because he was a jealous God. Since he is God, the only God, he can rightfully demand that we worship him only.