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Who Is Wise and Understanding?

James 3:1-18

Jim Davis

Knowledge without wisdom is what James writes about. Knowledge enables us to take things apart but wisdom enables us to put them back together. Evening news great at taking things apart, but have no clue to put things back together. A person may be able to teach and preach good things -- but may be unable to relate it to everyday living.

Through wisdom we discover true knowledge of God. Wisdom is the ability to apply the knowledge of God to our daily lives through obedience. James makes it clear; you can’t know God without doing his will. James says," Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins." (James 4:17 NIV) The person sins because to refuse to do what God asks when it is plainly understood and when the person has the power to act is to refuse the wisdom God has given. The truth of God cannot set you free until you have a desire to build your life around the wisdom discovered through seeking to be obedient. (John 8:31-32)

James 3:13
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. (NIV)

Wisdom is the most precious treasure known. Solomon said, "Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor." (Proverbs 3:13-16 NIV)

All the knowledge in the world is no substitute for wisdom. Solomon wrote, "My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding." (Proverbs 2:1-6 NIV) Wisdom allows us to discover the true knowledge and proper understanding of God.

God gives wisdom as we seek obedience to his word. The wisdom of God cannot be had without a desire to know God and respond in obedience to his word. In the opening chapter of this book, James asks us to seek wisdom from God. Seeking the wisdom James speaks of is in the context of desiring to live Godly lives in the midst of troubles. James tells us wisdom has little to do with how much we know, but it has everything to do with what desire to do. He concludes chapter one by saying the wise man looks into the mirror of God’s word and responds to what is seen.

Isn't it amazing how our increasing knowledge only creates more problems? Worldly wisdom is not enough. Paul wrote, "For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." (1 Corinthians 1:20 NIV)

Earthly Wisdom vs. Godly Wisdom

Too many today are enslaved to what they already know. The knowledge they have has puffed their egos up and closed their minds to the discovery of God’s truth. Many are willing to spend their lives boasting about what they know. Their selfish ambition and pride causes them to close their minds to those who may have more insight than they do. Pride causes them to become bitter and envious. Their minds become closed to the truth. It is little wonder that there are so many troubled churches.

James 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. (NIV)

James 4:1-7
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (NIV)

In contrast, Godly wisdom solves problems. "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." (James 3:17-18 NIV) These attributes reflect a life of humility, which is absolutely essential to gain the wisdom of God. Every attribute mentioned in the last verses of chapter 3 is a problem-solving attribute. Sincere peace-loving consideration, which submits itself to others with mercy and without partiality can only result in peace.

Worldly wisdom seeks to exalt man and robs God of glory. Earthly wisdom has to do with our fallen nature as opposed to the new nature given by God. There is a wisdom that gets its origin in man's nature totally apart from the Spirit of God. This wisdom is from beneath -- it is devilish. It was the wisdom the Devil used when he tempted Eve. The tree will make you like God. Ever since people have tried to become their own gods.

"Who Is Wise and Understanding?"

How we use our tongues reflects the wisdom by which we live. The tongue is one member of our physical body, which tells more about the condition or our heart than anything else. James says, "We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (James 3:2 (NIV)

Wisdom understands that it is no easy task to control the tongue. James says only perfect people can control their tongues. "We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (James 3:2 NIV) The Psalmist said, "I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence." But when I was silent and still, not even saying anything good, my anguish increased. My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue." (Psalms 39:1-3 NIV)

In James 1:19 we are admonished to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Wisdom is reflected, as we are willing to listen and think about what God is saying and what we are going to do about it. Holding a tight reign on our tongue is a crucial part of practicing pure religion. (1:27)

Wisdom understands our use of the tongue reveals the direction of our lives. Solomon says, "The tongue has the power of life and death." (Proverbs 18:21) Our tongues are like the bits in a horse’s mouth, they are like the rudder on a mighty ship, tongues are like tiny sparks that start a forest fire and the tongue can corrupt the whole person. An uncontrolled tongue can rule our whole lives. It is no accident that James wrote, "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom" (James 2:12-13)

Wisdom understands the words we speak will judge us in the last day. Jesus said, "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matt 12:36-37 NIV) Those of us who talk too much will be made to eat our words on judgment day.

Wisdom understands the deceitfulness of the tongue. Faith is living without scheming.

Proverbs 26:18-28
Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, "I was only joking!" Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts. Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit. Though his speech is charming, do not believe him, for seven abominations fill his heart. His malice may be concealed by deception, but his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly. If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it; if a man rolls a stone, it will roll back on him. A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin. (NIV)

When God's wisdom is at work there is a sense of humility and submission. James says, "But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth." (James 3:14 NIV) Is our zeal for the Lord spiritual or Carnal? Do we rejoice when others succeed, or do we have secret envy and criticism? Do we feel burdened when others fail or are we glad? When worldly wisdom gets into the church there is a great deal of fleshly promotion and human glorification! Worldly wisdom promotes envy and selfish ambitions, which seek control of the tongue through boasting. Humility and submission allows us to see the condition of our hearts and enables to control our tongue. In the meantime we can work on the attitudes of our hearts.

Wisdom understands using the tongue for boasting is evil. James writes, "Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. (James 4:13-17 NIV)

There is so much self-talk today. We talk about what we have done and what we are planning to do. We are afraid if we don’t toot our own horn no one else will. We never realize that if God wants our horns tooted, he will toot them. He can do a much better joy tooting horns than we can. If God doesn’t want your horn tooted, it won’t do you any good to try to toot it yourself. We build our lives around temporal values to gain recognition from our peers. Then we watch that recognition dissipate as a fog with the rising of the sun.

Paul wrote, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 1:31 NIV) "We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise." (2 Corinthians 10:12 NIV)

Man's wisdom leads to competition ruin. Lot followed worldly wisdom and ended up loosing it all. Abraham followed God's wisdom and ended up gaining it all. Everything Lot lived for went up in smoke. Abraham ended up blessing the whole world.

Wisdom understands slandering our brothers and sisters in Christ is the same as slandering God. In essence, slandering one another is the same thing as slandering God. James writes, "Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it." (James 4:11 NIV) The law of God forbids speaking evil of one another. To disrespect God’s law is to disrespect God.

The Root of Our Problem

James says the person who is never at fault in what he says is a perfect person. (3:2) Then James proceeds to tell us that no one can tame his own tongue. (3:8) Initially it may seem hopeless to tame the tongue that is so restless and full of deadly poison. To control it seems as hopeless as a grapevine bearing figs, or a fig tree bearing olives, or a salt spring producing fresh water.

Jesus makes it clear that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. If there is good stored up in the heart, then good will come forth as we speak. If evil is stored in the heart, we will only speak evil. (Matthew 12:33-37)

Matthew 7:16-23
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (NIV)

The trees and thorn bushes Jesus speaks of represent what is planted in the heart. They do not represent the potential of the person. You can't change the fruit a tree bears, but you can allow God to plant good trees in your heart. You must allow God to root out the bad to make room for the planting of good seed. The evil is rooted out as we begin to surrender our lives to what is good.

Matthew 7:24-29
"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (NIV)

The book of James is written to bring maturity to our lives through seeking the wisdom of God. James’ wisdom comes straight from the mouth of the master teacher. James says the wise person builds her/his life upon rooting evil out of their lives by being doers of God’s word. Nothing demonstrates our level of maturity more than the tongue. It speaks from the deepest depths of our being.

What we are, is what we live. Christian life is one of sowing and reaping. Fruit we bear produces seed for the next crop. James says God's wisdom produces blessing. "Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." (James 3:18)


If you want to measure your wisdom, your maturity and growth you only need to measure your words. Nothing reveals the condition of our hearts more than the words we speak.

Isaiah 50:4-5
The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. (NIV)

If you and I are going to have tongues that delight, then we must meet with the Lord each day and learn from Him. We must get our "spiritual roots" deep into His Word. We must pray and mediate and permit the Spirit of God to fill our hearts with God's love and truth.

James warns -- a fountain cannot send forth sweet water and bitter water. If the tongue is inconsistent, there is something radically wrong with the heart. The tongue that blesses the Father, and then turns around and curses men made in God's image, is in desperate need of spiritual medicine. How easy it is to sing hymns in the worship service and then get in a car and fight all the way home. The problem is not the tongue; it is the heart.

James 3:13
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. (NIV)

Matthew 15:18-20
But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'" (NIV)

James 3:14-15
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. (NIV)


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