Wisdom

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached by Brice Laughrey on August 22, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, once again, thank you for getting us through this week, for being with us, for being persistent in your love and your patience and your mercy, Lord. We know that you are desiring after us. We know that you are in solidarity with us. We know that you empathize with us — that you feel what we feel and you move through our suffering with us, Lord. We’re grateful for these things.

We’re grateful that we don’t move through the world alone. We’re grateful that we have the opportunity to participate with you in creating out of love, in creating in the world, in being part of reconciling all of creation to you.

We pray, Lord, that this morning as we consider your scriptures, as we consider our own relationships with you and with others, that you would guide us by your Spirit and you would help us to examine ourselves and examine the folks around us and consider what we understand. As we go through this week, Lord, help us to put those things into practice in realistic ways, in the ways that we interact with everybody from our families to strangers, in the ways that we make decisions about our own lives and the lives of people around us, as we choose how to interact and where to interact, Lord, that you would give us a deep humility in everything that we do.

We love you, and pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

I’m going to start in James chapter three, this morning, and we’re going to talk about wisdom.

I don’t know how many of you keep up with anything that’s going on around the world and in different sects of Christianity, but there’s a lot going on in certain denominations that has to do with leadership and the way that people are treated and abuses that people are enduring. One of the big debates is about who can we trust, who can we follow?

What credibility is it to us as leaders in the Church — as people in positions of ministry — [what credit is it to us]  that we are in those positions? Is it any credit to us? Does it give us merit? For a person who’s not in a leadership position who might be asking themselves these questions, that’s what I want to talk about this morning, because I think that James 3 gives us a way of at least beginning to examine the merits of our leaders, the merits of our ministers, the merits of the people who come and say they have knowledge and wisdom and whether we should be following them or not following them.

It’s easy to say that in the end, ultimately, we want to follow Christ — it’s easy to say that all we want to do is what it requires to be Christ-like — but what does that actually mean, and how do we begin to put that into practice?

In James chapter three and verse 13, it says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (NIV) We’re going to read the rest of the passage in chapter 13, but I just want to stop there, because already, we have a way of beginning to understand what wisdom looks like. Already, he’s beginning to talk with that kind of language that we find in Proverbs, that we find Solomon talking with all throughout that book in the Old Testament.

In Proverbs 11:2, it says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom,” (NIV) so he begins to link humility and wisdom together. Now, the author of James says that humility comes from wisdom, and Solomon says that humility and wisdom come together.

In Proverbs 15 in verse 33, he says, “Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord,” (NIV) and chapter 22 and verse four, he says, “Humility is the fear of the Lord.” (NIV) For Solomon, it’s not just a matter of which comes first, wisdom or humility. For Solomon, they come together, and I think this is why James can say that humility comes from wisdom.

I want to talk about that phrase we just heard: fear of the Lord. “Fear of the Lord” is a phrase that Solomon equates to humility. He says humility is fear of the Lord, and he says wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, so wisdom instructs us toward humility, and from humility comes wisdom. They work together, hand in hand, and if you hear that phrase “fear of the Lord,” you might notice that a lot of people nowadays, a lot of ministers in American Christianity, try to use actual fear — that you should fear the Lord because the Lord is wrathful, because the Lord is judgemental, because the Lord is going to condemn you to hell, because whatever. Because you’re a sinner, and you’re unworthy… 

Fear mongering in Christianity is all over the place, yet noticing that for Solomon, fear of the Lord is not about fear mongering. Fear of the Lord is about humility. Humility is fear of the Lord, so fearing the Lord is not about fear — it’s not about being afraid of God. It’s about having a view of oneself that is not haughty or proud, just like he said earlier in Proverbs, and we read, when pride comes, then the fall comes.

This isn’t something new. This isn’t something that most people would debate concerning humility and pride. Even people who are not Christians would often agree that pride is not good when it’s stood up next to humility. They would rather have humble leaders than proud leaders. Most people know this from experience in the workplace. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your work, but when a person is prideful, we see all kinds of toxic situations coming about.

For James, here, in chapter three and verse 13, he says if you are wise and understanding, show it to me by your good life and by deeds done in humility that comes from wisdom. Wisdom is not something we simply say; it’s not intellectual, and it’s not just a feeling that we have. Wisdom gets lived out in action. This is something we see all throughout scripture, the fruit that people bear. Good trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit, right? We see this even outside of scripture. We judge people by their actions, not necessarily their words. A person can say lots of good things and then go about hurting other people, and we say, “Well, we can’t take you at your word.”

We know this to be true. This is something that humans have observed since the beginning of history. We know this to be true, and what James says here is that not only is it true but because, as Christians, we believe that wisdom comes from God, we know this is a spiritual thing. We know that wisdom that comes from God is a matter of the Spirit, and I would even encourage you, maybe, to go and examine a study of your own about the Holy Spirit and wisdom being one and the same. We’re not going to go into that here, but consider it.

He says, in the next verse, in verse 14, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from heaven but is entirely earthly and unspiritual.” (NIV) He uses the word demonic. This is what I mean when I say that James talks about wisdom as a spiritual thing, and, of course, as Christians who believe in God and believe in the Holy Spirit and believe that true wisdom comes from God, of course we believe that it’s spiritual.

Wisdom is of the Spirit, and I would argue from Proverbs that wisdom is the Spirit, that what the Spirit brings to us is the wisdom of God, and it manifests itself through good deeds that are humble, and that humility comes with wisdom. In other words, people who are not humble cannot be wise. It’s not that they can’t say things that help you. It’s not that they can’t write things that encourage you. It’s that if you’re seeking true wisdom, be careful not to put your allegiance behind a person who acts out of pride, whose life is filled with bitter envy and selfish ambition.

Again, thinking about the workplace, if you’ve ever had a boss whose entire mode of operating is selfish ambition, you know the kind of toxicity that comes out for the teams below him or her. You know that that’s true. You know it from experience and from seeing the lives of your coworkers, even maybe from direct experience in your own life. Selfish ambition, the ambition that seeks only the good of oneself, creates toxicity. It tramples over people. It oppresses people. It manipulates people. That kind of reality, especially if envy is present, creates the kind of situation where people are never going to be equal, there’s never going to be equity, there’s never going to be justice. That is not the place that you find wisdom, and if those are the kinds of people who are your leaders, then you need to think carefully about their position and how much allegiance and weight you give to their words. Selfish ambition cannot be trusted.

James continues in verse 16, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (NIV) This is why forgiveness is so important. Forgiveness is not just about healing other people. Forgiveness is about the kind of reconciliation that heals us. Forgiveness is anti-bitterness. I don’t want to be bitter toward somebody, and the way to get around that is to forgive them. In order to forgive them, I have to let go of the bitterness that I have for them, and that’s sometimes a process — I would say most often is a process. It’s not the kind of thing we can just do on a whim because we decided in our mind that we should, but it’s so important to pursue forgiveness, because forgiveness is anti-bitterness.

It’s so important to pursue equality and equity with others, because equality and equity is anti-envy. When we combat bitterness, when we combat envy, we also combat selfish-ambition. How can we have selfish ambition when we consider others to be like ourselves? When we love our neighbors as ourselves, how can we be selfish in our ambition? In order to be selfish, we have to trample over others for our own good. Forgiveness, equality, justice — they stand in the way of those things, and they become ways to inoculate ourselves. They become ways to see where true wisdom lies and where true wisdom doesn’t lie.

Already, in these first four verses that we’ve read, we know that humility in deeds — in the works that we do — is the good life and that that good life is the evidence of our wisdom. We know that bitter envy and selfish ambition are disorder and evil practices, and those are not wisdom. This is not new. It’s not exclusive to Christianity. It’s something that humans observe and experience every day, and what Christianity offers next to all of that is the possibility that true wisdom comes from God.

We believe that the Holy Spirit is what wisdom is. It is a relationship with God that brings us into a right understanding with other people. It gives us eyes to see and ears to hear. It empowers peoples’ voices. It humbles us. It helps us to see things that the world doesn’t normally see, because [those things] are challenging, so we blind ourselves to them. Wisdom sees what other people don’t.

Isn’t that our experience of people who are wise? We don’t call them wise because they tell us things we already know. We call them wise because in their words and in their actions and in their lives, they reveal to us truths about things that we didn’t understand on our own. That’s what  the Spirit does for us.

In the next verse, in verse 17, it says, “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 reap a harvest of justice.” (NIV) James reiterates everything I just said. Everything that we already know from experience about wisdom, he reiterates in these few verses. Consider it for yourself, and see whether this is holding up to your experience of wisdom.

Wisdom and humility go hand in hand. They’re shown in our deeds, which James calls the good life, and the characteristics of wisdom are that wisdom is peace loving… We know in almost every story that we see, that we read, that we watch in tv shows and movies, in almost everything that we throw ourselves into — we find this idea: that the people and the characters we consider to be the wisest are the ones who advocate for peace the strongest. That doesn’t erase all of the messiness of war and tension between peoples and societies and systemic issues, but the people we look at and we say, “That’s the wise character in this story,” are always the ones who advocate for the most peace.

James says wisdom is considerate. The NIV says considerate, but the word there is gentle or equitable. It considers others, but not just in a way, “I’m going to be nice to you. Please go ahead of me,” or, “I’m not going to complain when you cut me in line,” or, “I’m going to understand when you complain about something.” It’s not that kind of considerate. It’s gentle and it’s equitable. It makes space for other people, and it pursues the kinds of things that create space for other people. It’s not just a matter of saying, “Well, I understand your feelings.” It’s a matter of saying, “You have human dignity, so I’m going to do what’s equitable for you.” It’s that kind of considerate. I’m going to take into consideration your life and not just my own.

Again, it’s that anti-selfish ambition. It’s the equitability we see in verse 18 when it says it harvests justice. It’s the kind of thing that relates to the peace loving nature of wisdom. It’s the loving our neighbors as ourselves sort of consideration.

[James] says that wisdom is submissive. That word, submissive, means “willing to yield,” and I love the way that the ESV puts it, that it can be reasoned with. A person who is wise can be reasoned with. They don’t insist only on their own way. They don’t insist only on the certainty of their position. They are considerate in their gentleness and their equitability, and because of that, they are able to be reasoned with as people. This relates to that humility that is wisdom. Humility and wisdom go hand in hand.

Wisdom is full of mercy. Mercy relates to that idea of forgiveness, that somebody is deserving of something, yet we’re not going to simply punish them. This relates to the anti-bitterness that comes through wisdom. It relates to the mercy and justice that comes in the next verse.

Wisdom bears good fruit. This relates to that issue of disorder, that issue of evil practices. Wisdom doesn’t result in evil practices. Wisdom doesn’t result in a love of disorder. Wisdom doesn’t result in oppression. Wisdom results in good fruit. We have to examine the fruit of the thing in order to have a full picture of what the thing is doing.

This is why you can’t simply listen to the words of your ministers. You can’t simply sit there and listen to my words. You can’t simply sit there and listen to the words of your leaders and say, “Are these words good or bad?” The words, themselves, are only part of the issue. James says, “Show me!” Show me in your good life. Show me in your deeds that come from humility, that come from wisdom. Show me that good fruit, and we can talk about if your are wise and understanding.

Wisdom is impartial, and again, this relates back to that equitability. Wisdom doesn’t look at some and favor them and not others. If you’re part of a community that favors a particular ethnicity only, that gives partiality to them… If you’re part of a community that gives partiality to rich people… If you’re part of a community that shuns people… Those communities are not living in wisdom. They’re not impartial. They are, in fact, the opposite of the very next characteristic, which says wisdom is sincere, and some of your translations might say “without hypocrisy.”

Wisdom is not hypocritical, and a person who claims to be wise and conducts themself through evil practices, through oppression, who lacks mercy, whose life does not result in good fruit, who is not impartial and peace loving and gentle and equitable, who is not open to reason, who is not full of mercy, and who is not sincere — that person is not a wise leader.

We have to be willing to examine everything about our communities, including our leadership. We have to be empowered to stand up and question our leaders. They are just people like we are, and it doesn’t matter than I’m called to ministry. That’s irrelevant, because if I’m called to ministry by God, then I’m called to ministry in the Spirit, and if I’m called to ministry in the Spirit, then I have an obligation to the Spirit, to bear the fruit of the Spirit, and to conduct myself in wisdom and understanding and to lead the good life — to have actions and deeds that come from humility that comes from wisdom. There’s no escaping that connection.

All of this is in keeping with a God who claims to be love, and all of this is in keeping with loving our neighbors as ourselves.

In verse 18, he says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of justice,” and you might be looking at your translation and saying, “My translation doesn’t say ‘justice.’ My translation says ‘righteousness.’” If that’s you, I’m going to challenge you right now. In the New Testament, the words we translate as “justice” and “righteousness” are the same word, but in American Christianity, we view righteousness as this individual thing that we do or have, a status we obtain, and we view justice as this kind of disconnected, legal thing that we might not participate in, at all. Yet, in the New Testament, it’s one and the same, and I would challenge you to show me what kind of righteousness can be harvested by peacemakers that is not also just.

I don’t think that a person can live out the kind of wisdom that James’s good life requires and not reap a harvest of justice, and in this day and age, where justice and abuse seem to be the common topics in Christian news, I want to challenge you to consider whether or not your leaders and your ministers and your communities are ones of justice.

Are they communities of equitability? Are they communities of wisdom and understanding? Are they communities of loving your neighbor as yourself? Are they communities that reflect the claim in the New Testament that God is love, and if they are not, then ask yourselves why? Can we really say of ourselves that we reap justice or that we reap righteousness without having both of those things present? Unrighteous people do not reap justice, and unjust people cannot possibly reap righteousness.

It is a complicated issue, and it takes so many different forms, and not every Christian community, not every non-Christian community, is going to see these things manifest in the same way. But, I think that James 3 gives us a place to start when we ask ourselves, “Is there something wrong here?” If we look at these passages and we say to ourselves, “This is not what’s happening in my community…” If we cannot reap justice and righteousness out of our communities and our structures and our systems and our leadership, then it is not one of wisdom and understanding. We need to have the humility to reexamine our positions, to reexamine our actions, because in the end, what we want is to live the good life, and the good life is filled with deeds of humility and wisdom and understanding.

That’s my invitation to you, today. Of course, there’s always the invitation to come and know Christ and be baptized into the body of Christ, to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit in a way that might help set you down that path of wisdom, but even before that (you might say to yourself, “I’m not ready for that, yet. I don’t know enough about that, yet. I still have questions.” That’s fine.) — even before that, we can begin to ask ourselves about our communities, about our leaders, about our own actions. Do we live in the good life? Do we walk the path of wisdom and understanding? It is equitable, and does it reap a harvest of justice? If not, then I invite you to make changes.

Thank you.

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