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  • John Lenschow

True and False Wisdom

James 3:13-16

1. Recognize the Context: Previous Context-James 3:7-12

James continues his argument concerning the tongue with a reference to the created order. He acknowledges humans have subdued (tamed) the creation as God instructed in Genesis 1:28. However, no human being can tame the tongue.


In verse 8, James warns of the tongue’s dangers. He says it’s a restless evil, meaning it’s dangerously unstable. The tongue is also like poison. Psalm 140:3, using synonymous parallelism, makes the same point--“They (evil people) make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips.”

Next, James contrasts the speech habits of a person who praises God and then curses a fellow human, who has been created in God’s likeness (Gen 1:26-28). This inconsistency is unacceptable- “My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

James then provides two analogies from nature to illustrate the absurdity of such a contradiction in speech. The first involves two distinct types of water bodies-salted and fresh. The second includes two distinct agricultural products-figs and olives. His point is clear-neither entity can produce both things. In the same way, the tongue should not produce both blessing and cursing.

2. Read the Scripture: James 3:13-16

13 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. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

3. Reflect on the Scripture:

In verse 13, James begins with another rhetorical question. He returns to the topic of wisdom introduced in chapter 1 (1:5). He asks if anyone has wisdom and understanding. This word pair is found in the Old Testament (Deut. 1:13, 4:6, Hos. 14:9). For James, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, true wisdom comes from God and practically enables a person to live in relationship to him and others. The evidence of a person’s wisdom and understanding is demonstrated in their positive actions or lifestyle, specifically in their humility, which comes from wisdom (1:21).


In contrast, the person who has bitter envy and selfish ambition in their hearts should not boast like this is a positive thing. They also should not lie about it. A life characterized by these vices is not a life of wisdom and humility from above. Remember, of course, true wisdom enables a person to live in a relationship with God and others. Therefore, this pseudo-wisdom is of a human understanding (earthly), not from God’s Spirit (unspiritual), and from the devil (demonic).

The presence of envy and selfish ambition leads to pride and a false sense of wisdom. The result is chaos and evil, both individually and in the believing community.


4. Relate to life:

Now it's time to get specific and respond today. Remember, it is important to be a doer of God’s Word, not merely a hearer or reader (James 1:22-25). Here are some practical ways to actively respond to God’s Word. Consider these or create other ways you can apply the message.


To pray:

Today, prayerfully consider if there is evidence of envy and selfish ambition in your life. If there is, surrender it to God.

Today, prayerfully ask God for wisdom for living life in all circumstances.

Today, prayerfully reflect on how this section relates to the section above on the use of our words.

To do: (work produced by faith with the Holy Spirit’s help) Given the prayer suggestions above, how do you need to respond today? Think about your attitudes, actions, and words. Think about your family, friends, church community, and co-workers. To study: (Always make sure to read the immediate context of the given passages).

Read and study the passages listed above.

Read and study Paul's vice list including bitter envy and selfish ambition-2 Cor. 12:20, Gal. 5:19-20.

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