Wisdom from Above
Father, again, we are just overwhelmed by your kindness that we as your people can come and pray and worship in your presence. And you’ve promised to be with us. We pray for many this morning who are not with us physically, are following on livestream, that your hand of blessing would be on them in their living rooms, in their offices, in their cars as they worship you with us, that you would encourage them. We pray for many who are not here or some who are here and are carrying heavy burdens. We think of the Franseens, whose son, Jared, went to be with you this week. We just beg you to continue pouring grace on Tom and Chris and Josh and Jamin and Seth and Kara and the whole extended family. Thank you, that your power and love have been so obvious in them this week as you have been with many in our church who are carrying heavy burdens. Help us to know how to share those burdens, how to pray for one another. And even as we come this morning, we’re coming with our burdens, with our questions, with our doubts and fears and pride. And we’re just bringing all of that to you and saying, Lord, you meet with us, you wash us clean by the power of your Son, Jesus Christ and his blood and the power of your Spirit. Unite our hearts now through your Word. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
It’s so good to see you. Let’s turn to James 4. I’m sorry, 3. James 3. So, a couple of weeks ago David French wrote an article on conspiracy theories, and he called for a better theology of politics. You may wonder, what is the connection between conspiracy theories and political theology? And the reason these … I’m not going to quote him here, but let me try to summarize his ideas and see if you can follow this. He basically is saying if we don’t have a rich theology of what it means to be a follower of Jesus politically, then we tend to think the worst about those who differ with us politically. When we think the worst about them, they tend to live up to what we think. Do you see the connection to conspiracy theories there? We’re far more prone to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the pike when we’re already in a posture of cynicism toward those we disagree with.
And this cynicism that characterizes our political environment is bipartisan. You’ll see this in this chart here done by the More in Common Project under “Judging One’s Opponents.” Now, I know that the print is really small, so I’ll walk through it. So, if you can’t read the words, which most of you can’t because you forgot your binoculars for church. Come on, people, come prepared. Basically, what this is saying is (on the top left) Republicans’ description of Democrats. You’ll see the top left bar that goes up. Only 24% of Republicans said that Democrats are honest, 17% said they’re reasonable, and 31% said they’re caring. Now, look down (bottom left). That word at the very bottom left is the word “brainwashed.” 86% of Republicans believe that Democrats are brainwashed, 84% believe they’re hateful, and 71% say they’re racist. Now, let’s switch over to the Democrats so you can see how bipartisan we are. 26% of Democrats say Republicans are honest, 20% say they’re reasonable, and 19% say they’re caring. Now, look bottom right, down below. And this is just stunning. 88% of Democrats believe that Republicans are brainwashed, 87% say they’re hateful, 89% say they’re racist.
Now, how do you have a reasonable political discussion with people who believe that those who differ with them are unreasonable, hateful, and racist from the start? You can see the environment that we’re in is not a surprising environment when we’re operating on those assumptions. And the danger of this is not just that there will be an environment of animosity. The other result of this is there will be an environment that does not permit cordial disagreement or even reasonable interaction, dialog.
The Cato Institute just came out with a brand new study that revealed that 52% of Democrats have political views that they’re afraid to share with those in their family or friends or coworkers. 59% of Independents, 77% of Republicans said they have political views that they would be fearful to talk about with those they do life with. That means not only are we thinking ill of one another, but we’re actually creating an environment where we can’t even have honest, open discussions without fearing we’re going to be offensive or cancelled if we say the wrong thing.
Now, none of that is new to any of you, right? You’re all just like, “Did I get up for this?” You know that, right? I’m just showing you what you know. But here’s the thing that we are gathered to focus on, and that is, the world is going to be the world, right? But the Church has to be the Church. God is calling us to do politics different from the world, not just like every other Republican or Democrat or Independent, whatever you are. That’s the key. And that’s what French was going after. He was arguing that when we teach people, for example, to do business, when the church teaches people to do business, interact with the world, our primary focus is not on how do we help businessmen or women make tons of money, strategize, build teams. There’s a time for those kinds of discussions. There’s nothing wrong with training people to do well in what God has called them to do. But that’s not the primary focus of the church. You saw that in our work series. We gave most of our time to knowing how to be who God has called us to be as image bearers, worshipers, disciple-makers in the workplace. Most of the time it was not, how do we have a right work view on specific issues? It was, how do we become the right people as we work?
What if we did that with politics, to where the primary focus is not, how do we get everybody to have the right view on political issues. And I’m not saying at all that there’s not a time and place for that. We’re going to talk about some of that very soon. But the primary emphasis of a rich theology of politics for believers is not so much on how do we get to the right issues, but how do we become the right people as followers of Jesus in a hostile, toxic political environment? Listen to the way French puts this.
“Christians are rightly taught that the objective of the secular activity is less important than the manner with which you engage with your community.”
Stop for a second. Do you believe that? I think you do when it comes to work. If we have a guy in our church who’s making millions of dollars in his business but is known in the community for shafting people, stealing from people he owes money to, treating his employees like dirt, would you respect him as a business person even if he’s making millions? Why? Because, you know the end does not justify the means. It’s more important what kind of business person you are as a follower of Jesus, not just whether you make fifty thousand or millions. That’s not the primary focus. What if that were true politically? That’s what French is getting at.
“In every context, commandments regarding our conduct aren’t conditioned on levels of adversity. Duties of honesty and kindness don’t slide away when bankruptcies loom or failures threaten our plans — even when those failures can have grave consequences for our lives. If you think, ‘Well, of course all this teaching should naturally translate to politics,’ then you’re forgetting the inexorable pull of our fallen nature. At every turn, the enemy of our souls rejects the upside-down logic of scripture. (‘The last shall be first; to gain our lives we must lose our lives; love your enemies.’) A voice whispers in our ear saying, ‘You could be kind, but you’ll lose. You could stand against lies, but you’ll fail. All your worthy goals will turn to ash.’”
And if we listen to those lies, the gospel quickly becomes irrelevant to our political interactions. So, we go back to the words of Jesus. He protects us from the lies. And he says in Matthew 10, “I am sending you forth as sheep among wolves. And I’m calling you to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” This is the focus of our series. And what we want to do today is wrestle with, how does that help us interact with one another politically on issues we may differ on, social media, political issues that normally divide? What does it look like to be serpent-dovish? Now, as I mentioned last week, all of us tend toward one or the other, right? Some of you are doves. Your personality prefers to get along. Others of you are snakes, serpents, in a good way. You love to research. You want to be right. You want to stand for truth. You don’t want to be gullible. You don’t want to believe everything that comes along. What Jesus is saying is, it’s not enough to be a serpent or a dove. I want you to be a serpent-dove. What’s a serpent-dove? What is that? That’s what we want to wrestle with today. How do you be keen and kind? Subtle and gentle? Not cynical, not gullible. And to help us, we’re going to turn to James 3:13. James 3:13,
“Who is wise and understanding among you?”
We’re called to be wise as serpents, innocent as doves. And James is wrestling with that question. Who is wise and understanding among you? A modern way to ask that question: Who is an expert at navigating life among you? Who is a life-specialist who knows how to walk through really hostile situations in the presence of God for the good of their neighbors? Who is wise and understanding? You could ask the question this way: Who is a Spirit-filled Sherpa? Do you know what a Sherpa is? The Himalayan people, who are known for their experience, expertise and endurance climbing at very high altitudes like Mount Everest. They can thrive at higher altitudes and in more hostile conditions than most people. Therefore, they serve as excellent guides. They know weather conditions, trails, survival strategies.
And James 3:13 is basically asking the question, in a hostile environment, who among you is a … I used the word Spirit-filled because there does seem to be some evidence that James uses Spirit-filled and wisdom, wise interchangeably. Who is a Spirit-filled Sherpa? Who is a wise life-specialist? Then he goes on to explain a little more of what he means. Verse 13 defines this further.
“By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
Two big ideas here. Number 1, this Spirit-filled Sherpa is doing the right thing, “By his good conduct let him show his works.” So, works without faith is dead. So, he’s doing the right thing. But this kind of wisdom is living right, doing right. But look at the second big idea in this verse is, in the right way, in the meekness of wisdom — a wisdom that expresses itself in meekness. Adamson calls this meekness a “self-subduing gentleness.” A self-subduing gentleness before God and man. It is another way to define meekness. It is a refusal to take shortcuts. It is a refusal to live the fact that the end justifies the means. No, no the means matters, just as the end does. Meekness is willing to wait. It’s that strength under control. I’m not going to be funneled into a flesh-driven response, no matter how hostile the enemy might be. So, this is very close to what Jesus said, “I want you to be wise as serpents (do the right thing), innocent as doves (in the right way).” If you say, “I’m still having a hard time getting my arms around this,” James goes on and helps us. He contrasts two kinds of wisdom — earthly and heavenly. And so, let’s walk our way through these two kinds of wisdom so that we can get our arms around what it means to be a life-specialist in the midst of a hostile environment.
Number 1, earthly wisdom. So, he’s going to give the wrong kind of wisdom first, then the right kind. Earthly wisdom. And with each one of these we’re going to notice three things: the home of that wisdom, the heart of that wisdom, and the harvest of that wisdom. So first, earthly wisdom. Look at the home. Where is it from? Verse 15, “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, [it’s not from above.] but is earthly [earth bound], unspiritual, demonic.” What is the heart of this wisdom? What is it like? Verse 14, “if you have bitter jealousy” or sometimes translated envy, literally, it’s bitter zeal. This person is trigger happy, carries a chip on their shoulder, ready to argue, ready to fight. May be right on the issue, but wrong in the response. Verse 14, “selfish ambition in your hearts.” That is self-interest. That word is a very interesting word. This is word only appears here in the New Testament. And listen to what Douglas Moo describes of the background of this Greek word.
“The only attested pre-NT occurrence of the word comes in Aristotle, who uses it to describe the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians in his own day.”
I’m so glad we don’t have any politicians like that anymore. But it’s interesting that when James chose a word, he chose the word that’s nowhere else used in the New Testament. It was only used of Aristotle referring to these partisan politicians. What he seems to be lamenting is, there are times when this kind of earthly wisdom seeps its way into our hearts, into our churches, into our interactions about sensitive political issues. And he’s saying that’s not from above.
Therefore, verse 14, second part, “Do not boast and be false to the truth.” I try not to do this too much, but every once in a while, it’s irresistible to show you the Greek word here. So, look at the word boast — katakauchaomai. Katakauchaomai. Isn’t that a great word? You notice the middle, we get the idea of cocky, somebody who is cocky. Katakauchaomai. I thought that would be a really good North Hills code word. When you see somebody online flaming somebody, and you want to be nice to the North Hills people, so you just private message them one word — katakauchaomai. And they’re like, “Right. Got it. I’m so going toward the earthly wisdom. I’ve got to get back on track.” And you’ll all know exactly what that means. Even if we can’t say it, we’ll know it’s the code. This is basically when (Jeremiah 9:23), when a wise man is boasting in his wisdom. We are more proud about being right than we are about representing Christ. That’s why he says you’re boasting against the truth, because the way in which you’re standing, perhaps on a really good issue, a really important issue, and maybe even having the right stand. But you’re doing it in a way that is actually undermining the gospel you claim to believe. That’s what he means by “You’re boasting against the truth,” even though you think you’re standing for it. How many times I’ve done that. He says that’s earthly wisdom. Remember when Peter tried to forbid Jesus from going to the cross, that made so much earthly sense. But Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan,” because that does not come from above. Earthly wisdom is from earth, it’s earth bound, its heart is bitter zeal, and selfish ambition or self-interest.
Look at the harvest of this wisdom. What does it produce? Verse 16, “For where [bitter zeal] jealousy and [self-interest] exist,” there will be two things. Consistently, two things. “There will be disorder,” that is instability, chaos in homes and communities. There will be this relational turbulence “and every vile practice.” So, this wisdom actually opens the door for an unlimited menu of malignity. And you can see it in our marriages, you can see it in our families and churches and communities. When we revert to this kind of wisdom you will see chaos and corruption. That’s earthly wisdom.
Then James quickly turns and says, “Let me tell you about a different kind of wisdom that is so reflective of the words of Christ as serpent-doves.” Number 2 is heavenly wisdom, verse 17. Notice the home, heart, and harvest of this kind of wisdom. First, the home. Where is it from? Verse 17, this wisdom is “from above.” It is God-given wisdom. What is the heart of this wisdom? What is it like? Verse 17 he’s going to give seven characteristics, but the first one is clearly dominant because he says, “First, pure.” That is untainted by impurity, contrasting a heart that is full of bitter zeal and self-interest. I see this most strikingly in my heart when I get defensive. Whether it’s an interaction with my wife or a person I am disagreeing with on something, when I get defensive it’s remarkable how that insecurity, that defensiveness, that desire to be right contaminates every thought I think, every word I speak, regardless of whether I’m right or wrong on the issue we’re discussing.
Do you notice that? That’s why James just stops there and says, “First, pure.” Before you even try to talk about these other things, can you slow down long enough to say, “God, what is happening in my heart? What am I really after? Jesus, wash me clean, please.” I’m so interested in getting my own way. I want you to think I’m right. I want to prove you’re wrong. All of that just doesn’t matter. My manner maybe ostensibly good, my position may be right, but it’s all contaminated by self-interest and insecurity. And by the way, have you noticed when I begin there, I can yell and still feel like a victim? I could hurt people, burn buildings, do whatever and still feel like a victim once I get that mindset because I’m not beginning pure. I’m beginning with a desire to be right, to win, to prove this. To think I’m God, like I’m going to change their conscience.
He moves from “first pure,” and then the rest of these seven characteristics flow. When our hearts are pure, the rest will begin to follow, the fruit of the Spirit. “Then peaceable [peace-loving], gentle [that is considerate, willing to yield, a refusal to demand rights for personal benefit.]” I love that word. It describes Jesus in 2 Corinthians 10:1, the gentleness of Christ. The most powerful person in the universe refuses to use his power to crush his enemies but lays his life out. And Titus calls us to this kind of gentleness right in the hostile, toxic environment that we’re discussing. He says in Titus 3:1, (Paul to Titus)
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be [there it is] gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”
Why? If you keep reading, it’s because God has treated you that way. Because if God treated you like you’re currently treating this person you disagree with, you would be in hell right now. But he’s pouring out his kindness on the very person who rejected him, me. So, let your gentleness, your courtesy, flow from the heart of the gospel in your own life.
“Open to reason.” That is willingness to hear others, a posture of submissiveness. Not servility, but we’re willing to hear. I love this idea. It’s not gullible, but persuadable. There’s a big difference. Help me understand. Not being gullible, but I really want to understand the issue from your perspective so that I’m not cartoonizing your position. He goes on, “full of mercy and good fruits.” That is, overwhelming, overflowing with tangible expressions of compassion. Verse 17, “impartial.” That is literally undoubting. That’s the only time this word is in the New Testament. Undoubting, that is in contrast to the double-minded man from James 1. You’re not all over the place.
Now, this is important because, again, so many of us think if I’m gentle, that means I’m just being a political noodle, and our world has too many political noodles. I don’t want to be a political noodle. I don’t want to blindly just believe everything I’m told and walk down the assembly line. James is not saying you’ll be that. As a matter of fact, he’s saying the fact that you’re gentle and open to reason actually will give you greater clarity to think clearly and biblically, and you’re not wavering. That doesn’t mean … You’re not just fluctuating all over the place. Wisdom is willing to listen, but not willing to waver. There’s a big difference. And then look at the last one, “sincere.” Not playing a part, not two-faced, unhypocritical. You’re straightforward, transparent. That’s the heart of the wisdom from above.
Now look at the harvest. And this is what we pray for — for our families, for our church, for our country. The harvest of this wisdom, what does it produce? Verse 18,
“And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Isn’t that beautiful? Peace lovers plant seeds of peace that produce a harvest, a harvest of righteousness. But it’s interesting that he uses agricultural language, because that means the harvest may not come today or even tomorrow. We may even be talking about generations to come. So, what feels like an immediate loss actually can be a harvest of righteousness.
Let’s talk about an example, a vivid example of this kind of heavenly wisdom. December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was commuting home from work on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was seated in the front row of what, at that time, was called “the coloured section,” which was in the back of the bus. She was seated in the front row of the back section. A white man could not find his seat, a seat. So, the driver told three people, three African-Americans sitting in the “coloured section” and Rosa, to get up so this white man could sit down. The three people got up; Rosa Parks refused. She was arrested. She was fined $14. Pause for a second and just let the weight of that fall on you. An image bearer, one image bearer, made in the image of God, looked at another image bearer and said, “You’re lesser. Get out of my seat.” That is blasphemy. You could just feel the heart of God, the wrath of God. That is earthly wisdom at its worst.
Rosa Parks was arrested. Four days later, the MIA was formed — Montgomery Improvement Association. And the group elected a young pastor, 26 years old. Anybody have any ideas who that was? Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the association. They set up a boycott from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, so a little over a year. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was conducted to protest the segregated seating. So, for over a year, many people had to walk, find a way to work. On December 17, 1956, the Supreme Court rejected the state of Alabama’s appeals and ordered the Montgomery buses desegregated. This is the part I really want us to focus in on, because Dr. King knew that the day was coming very soon when the buses would be desegregated. He and some others wrote what are called integrated bus suggestions (you can still find them online) to help prepare people that he was pastoring to integrate those buses well. He actually (he and some others) took over a thousand African-Americans through this training so that they would be ready not just to do the right thing, but to do the right thing in the right way. Let me let me read you the introduction of that document.
“This is a historic week because segregation on buses has now been declared unconstitutional. Within a few days the Supreme Court mandate will reach Montgomery, and you will be re-boarding integrated buses. This places upon us all a tremendous responsibility of maintaining, in the face of what could be some unpleasantness, [that is an understatement] a calm and loving dignity befitting good citizens and members of our race. If there is violence in word or deed, it must not be our people who commit it.”
He went on to ask them to read, study, and memorize these. Here are a few of the suggestions:
1. Not all white people are opposed to integrated buses. Accept goodwill on the part of many.
What is he doing there? He’s trying to get them to do what? Assume the best. That’s heavenly wisdom. Can we assume the best about those you will interact with? And as I’m reading that there’s just something in me that goes, “How is that possible for people who have been so mistreated to do what that says when they finally get justice?”
2. The whole bus is now for the use of all people. Take a vacant seat. [So, do the right thing, but do the right thing in a right way.]
3. Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete non-violence in word and action as you enter the bus.
4. Demonstrate the calm dignity of our Montgomery people in your actions.
5. In all things, observe ordinary rules of courtesy and good behavior.
And he went on to warn them in the next few. Don’t brag, don’t boast, don’t be boisterous — don’t “katakauchaomai” at all. He said, “But be friendly.”
8. Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? [Who are the Spirit-filled Sherpas who are going to lead us through hostile, toxic discussions, decisions.] By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
This wisdom is not from below; it is from above. So, be wise as serpents (that is resolute) and innocent as doves (respectful).
Steve Kaminski has graciously taken some of these similar ideas from the book of Proverbs, written out “Tips for Serpent-Doves in a Media Age.” I sent that to you in the church email. We’ll send it out again. We’ll post it. I would encourage some of you as families, as life groups, as accountability partners, to read over that, to apply where appropriate. I get it, it’s hostile out there. The question is, which kind of wisdom are we going to exhibit? Are we going to perpetuate the earthly wisdom or the heavenly wisdom?
Let’s pray. Jesus, you have showed us so much kindness. I ignore you, I push you away. I press on with my own agenda. You graciously reach out to me. You convict me. You love me. You are so patient. You wash away my sin. You purify my motives through the sacrifice on the cross. So, Lord, please do that in us today. You have warned us that we are going to be like sheep among wolves. We are going to feel like victims. There are going to be times we’re going to think people are stealing from us. They’re destroying our country. They’re ruining my agenda, what I believe should happen. And it’s so easy to revert to wisdom from below, to fight fire with fire. Purify us, Lord. Fill us with your wisdom from above that is first pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, please, Lord, impartial and sincere. Father, we are well aware of the fact that we can’t produce that in us, so our eyes are locked on to you, Jesus, right now. We are looking to you. As you convict us, we pray that your Spirit would just wash away the insecurity, the pride, the duplicity, the hypocrisy. Lord, please. Spirit, move among us. The anger we feel that contaminates the stream of our response. Lord, continue to do this work in us as we pray, as we worship. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.