Wise and Otherwise

Bible Book: James  3 : 13-18
Subject: Wisdom
[Editor's Note: Slight changes have been made to the outline form of this sermon by the editor; however, the text is exactly as Dr. Adams wrote it. The changes help adapt the message to the format required on SermonCity.]

A few weeks ago I used my Sower article to highlight some old magazine and newspaper ads. One of the ads I mentioned was this one from 1916 that said it was healthy to give Blatz beer to infants. As you can see it’s entitled, “How Mother and Baby Picked up” and it says, “A case of Blatz beer in your home means so much to the young mother and obviously baby participates in its benefits. The malt in the beer supplies nourishing qualities that are essential at this time and the hops act as an appetizing stimulating tonic.” Of course these days docs would scoff at that early 20th century “wisdom!”

Another is from the late 60’s and it advertises a Kenmore blender called “The Chef.” The ad says, “The Chef does everything but cook. That’s what wives are for!” How many of you men would ever tell your wife her purpose in life is to cook for you?

The next is from 1885 and it advertises cocaine tooth drops for children and before you wonder how the owners of this company stayed out of jail, cocaine wasn’t made illegal until 1907.

I got a kick out of this next one: “The hard disk you’ve been waiting for! 10 Megabites for $3348!” How many of you paid that much for a tiny hard drive like that back in the day? I didn’t but I remember paying $80 for a pocket calculator when they first came out—the week before their prices plummeted to about $10. I felt so foolish!

The next one is from 1949 and it has Camel cigarettes advertising that more doctors smoke their brand than any others. Most of those docs have probably died since—of lung cancer!

The next one is from the 1950’s and it encourages parents to give their babies Cola to drink claiming it benefits them in their early formative years. Listen to the ad: “Laboratory tests over the last few years have proven that babies who start drinking cola during that early formative period have a much higher chance of gaining acceptance and “fitting in” during those awkward pre-teen and teen years. So do yourself a favor. Do your child a favor. Start them on a strict regimen of sodas and other sugary carbonated beverages right now for a lifetime of guaranteed happiness.” So, we used to think the secret of getting through adolescence—in fact, the secret to a happy life was Soda Pop!

The next is from the late 1800’s and encourages people to manage their weight by eating sanitized tape worms. How exactly do you sanitize a tape worm without killing it?

The last is from the 1950’s and advertises a new kind of Ketchup bottle top. The ad says, “You mean a WOMAN can open it?!” How many of you ladies feel a little put down by that one?

Well, as I said in my SOWER article, these old ads show that man’s “wisdom” is as changing as the shifting sand on the sea shore. We change our minds all the time about wisdom. Things that we once thought were SO WISE—we now see as being very foolish. But, I think these ads show something ELSE—and that’s why I decided to “re-run” a recent Sower article. These ads show that people yearn for wisdom. I mean, the fact that companies promote their product in this way shows that we value wisdom. We are drawn to it. So ads that say it is wise to use their product—ads like this appeal to us because we want the “inside story.” We do indeed yearn for WISDOM.

Now—be sure you hear me correctly. I did not say we yearn for KNOWLEDGE—because we don’t. We have more knowledge than we know what to do with. Each year thanks to the labors of researchers across the globe we greatly multiply mankind’s knowledge, but KNOWLEDGE is not the same thing as WISDOM. Knowledge is just information that usually leads us from the SIMPLE to the COMPLEX. Wisdom is a PRACTICAL thing. It leads us from the COMPLEX to the SIMPLE—which is why we are drawn to it. We want wisdom that helps us with the complexities of life. We want the “cliff notes.” We want an “app” to make life easier—simpler.

Well, as I told you a couple months back, James’ book is a PRACTICAL book. It’s the “ultimate-how-two manual” for the Christian life. It’s full of wisdom on various aspects of the Christian walk. James even includes wisdom—about wisdom! That’s the subject he deals with in the last half of his third chapter—wisdom. And, as I said, we all hunger to know how to DO life correctly—but the sad thing is most of us look for wisdom in the WRONG place. Instead of consulting God’s Word for guidance in life—we embrace the world’s way of thinking. More and more of us live our lives according to our culture’s definition of wisdom. In our day and age we tend to believe the wisest way to live is to pattern our decisions after the principles of this fallen world…principles as silly as the ones found in these old ads.

Well, the Christians in James’ day must have been making similar mistakes because in our text for this morning James addresses this issue by comparing the wisdom of the world to the wisdom of God. Take your Bibles and turn to James 3:13-18: 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. 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, of the devil. 16 – For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 – 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. 18 – Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

Okay, let’s back up and review James’ side-by-side comparison so that we’ll see how much sense it really does make to look to God and not our culture when it comes to deciding how we should live our lives. James begins by describing the world’s way of thinking. And the first thing he says is this:

I. The World’s Way of Thinking

A. The SOURCE of the world’s ‘wisdom’ is the DEVIL.

Look at verse 15. “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from Heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.”

In short, James says that worldly wisdom is a wisdom that ignores God. And, since it does, it is a VERY foolish way to think and live, for it basically says, “I know how life works—better than the Creator Who GAVE me life.”

We see this prideful foolish attitude way back in the Garden of Eden. Remember? Satan tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God and eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree. He told them the one rule God had given them was nonsense—that the really smart thing to do would be to disregard what God said and enjoy the fruit. Satan said that if they ate this fruit they would know important things—their wisdom would increase. So, as it says in Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also DESIRABLE FOR GAINING WISDOM, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband and he ate it.”

Well, ever since that horrible day people have continued to live Satan’s way—they have believed his lies and ignored God’s truth. They have thought they knew more than God Himself. Paul writes about people like this in Romans 1 when he says, “…although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” Let’s be sure we understand this first point. When we ignore God’s Word—when we disobey Him—we are yielding to the same demonic influence that Adam and Eve did which is why there is so much pain and sadness in the world today. As James says in verse 16, when we snub God’s loving laws, the result is always, “disorder and every evil practice.” This is because the SOURCE of the WORLD’S “wisdom” is the evil one, Satan himself.

B. Selfish Ambition

A second thing that James says about worldly wisdom is that it is characterized by SELFISH AMBITION.

And wouldn’t you agree that this is the way our world tends to think? We live in a culture that has embraced a “ME-FIRST” mind set. We are willing participants in a society that says,

“Indulge YOURSELF, fulfill YOUR desires, satiate YOUR appetites, pursue PERSONAL pleasure—forget restraints, forget OTHERS. Just do what makes YOU happy.” We run our lives like you would a cafeteria in that we embrace the “self-service only” plan—and we do that because our world says if you put yourself first, you’ll be happy. Our culture’s “wisdom” says that the only way to find meaning and fulfillment is to look out for number one.

But this is another one of Satan’s lies because the truth is when we live this way it leads not to happiness but to emptiness, guilt, pain, sadness, and heartbreak. I mean, think of all the FRUITS of selfishness: STDs, unwanted pregnancies, aborted babies, failed marriages as men and women walk away from commitments to spouses and children, corporation after corporation collapsing because of the selfish greed of executives.

A few years ago, Google released a database of over 5 million books published between 1500 and 2008. Thanks to their hard work you can now type a search word into that database and discover how often specific WORDS have been used over the centuries. Cool! Based on this data, The New York Times columnist David Brooks offers what he calls, “The story of the last half-century.” The first part of this story is the rise of INDIVIDUALISM. In an article he wrote for the times a few months ago, Brooks reports that, in the past 50 years, “individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.” For instance, the following individualistic words and phrases have been used far more frequently: “self,” “personalized,” “I come first,” “I can do it myself.” In contrast, the following communal words or phrases have been used LESS frequently: “community,” “share,” “band together,” “common good.”

The second part to the story Brooks sees is the decline in MORAL VIRTUE. Certain words were especially hard hit, including words associated with courage or gratitude. For example, all of the following words have dropped in usage: “modesty,” “humbleness,” “discipline,” “honesty,” “patience,” “faith,” “wisdom,” and even “evil.”

Brooks offers his interpretation for these trends. He writes: “The story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. [The first two trends] have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.”

It doesn’t take much brain power to see that this trend in our thinking Brooks discovered is not wisdom but foolishness! It underscores what James says here—the world’s “WISDOM” is SELFISH.

C. Bitter Jealousy

And then James also says that worldly “wisdom” is known by its BITTER JEALOUSY.

This is a direct result of selfishness because you see when our main focus is on self, we become envious of anyone who gets more attention or achieves a higher level of success than we do.

I’m reminded of the story of two men who were rivals. They were both jealous of each other and were always competing. The ruler of their city sent for them and said he wanted to grant them each one wish with this proviso that the one who chose first would get exactly what he asked for, while the other man would get exactly twice what the first had asked for. The man chosen to make the wish found himself in a quandary. You see, he wanted to choose something great for himself but he realized that if he did so the other man would get twice as much. He thought for a while—-and then asked that one of his eyes be put out.

Of course, that’s just a story—a fable—but the Biblical record is full of true stories that show how incredibly destructive this way of thinking can be.

God’s Word says that bitter jealousy is what led Cain to kill Able.
It’s what made Sarah order Abraham to cast Hagar and her son out into the wilderness. I for one doubt that there would be a Muslim faith today if not for that one jealous act.
Bitter jealousy caused Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery.
It motivated Saul to try and kill David.
Bitter jealousy inspired Haman to develop a plan to kill Mordecai and all the Jewish people.
It moved the princes of Babylon to plot against Daniel.
And jealousy was what set the Jewish religious leaders against Jesus.

Well, the same kind of bitter jealously causes us to burn with envy when others receive something we feel we deserved—and acting on that envy has disastrous results.

But God’s way of living on the other hand—one that allows for no jealousy—has great benefits. Many years ago F. B. Meyer was the pastor of the Westminster Chapel in London. At the same time G. Campbell Morgan was pastor of nearby Christ Church and Charles Hadden Spurgeon was pastor of the Metropolitan Chapel. Both Morgan and Spurgeon often had much larger audiences than Meyer. Consequently Meyer was often troubled by jealousy and envy. But this wise pastor said he received no peace in his heart until he ignored the world’s way of thinking and began praying for his colleagues. Meyer said, “When I prayed for their success, the result was that God filled their churches so full that the overflow filled mine, and it has been full ever since.”

You see, when we transform our focus from an “I-focus” to a “You-focus” then we enter a pathway that leads to fulfillment and joy. But when we allow the deadly duo—jealousy and bitterness—to find a harbor in our hearts, we are headed for trouble. That is what happens when we are foolish enough to allow ourselves to be controlled by the wisdom of the world.

D. Temporary instead of Eternal

A fourth thing that James says about worldly “wisdom” is that it focuses on the TEMPORARY instead of the eternal.

The word he uses is “earthly” which means the world’s wisdom says we should center our goals and aspirations around the things of this earth—physical possessions and pleasures. I’ve never seen the show but I read this week that the award-winning TV series Mad Men revolves around the conflicted world of Don Draper, the biggest ad man (and ladies’ man) in the business. Draper’s high level position at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency gives him all the money and power a man could want, and he wields it throughout each episode. During the show’s first episode, Draper explained to a woman in the office his entire world view. He said, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”

Unfortunately this TV show is more than a show—it’s a reflection of reality for many people. Like Draper they build their lives on the “wisdom” that says there is no tomorrow—no eternity. They rush around at ninety miles a minute, hurriedly accumulating things that don’t last—pursuing pleasures that are passing and destructive to boot. For example, they kill themselves investing in their careers instead of being there when our kids need us. John Ortberg says, “We tell ourselves, when things settle down—then I’ll get my priorities straight.” But you know, the truth is things will never settle down—that is until we DIE. In fact you’ll be amazed how much life slows down then.

This week I went to a retirement party for the executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, Dr. David Lee. The party began with a worship service and as part of that service both of Dr. Lee’s sons spoke. Both are in full-time ministry. One son said something like this, “Dad, thank you for always coming to my ball games when I was a kid. It felt so good to see you up in the stands. Until I became a pastor myself, I didn’t realize how many people you would have to say, ‘no’ to in order to be at those games. Thank you dad.” I applauded Dr. Lee at this point—applauded his wisdom in investing in the lives of his children. James would applaud as well because his point here is that it is foolish to live for the temporary things of this world. It makes much more sense to build your life on things of eternal significance. It is much WISER to invest in treasures that last FOREVER.

Moses is a great example of someone who was wise enough to know this. In Hebrews 11:24-26 it says, “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing to endure ill-treatment with the people of Go rather than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ riches than the treasures of Egypt.”

Tradition says that when the tomb of Charlemagne was opened centuries after his death it was discovered that his corpse had been placed in a seated position with a New Testament open on his knee. His finger pointed to Mark 8:36 which says: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?”

Well, this is the ultimate end of all worldly wisdom, for it focuses on the things of the earth only—things that are here today and gone tomorrow. Worldly “wisdom” says lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where most and rust corrupt and where thieves break in and steal. Do this at the expense of eternity.

Okay, let’s turn our focus from what James has to say about the FALSE wisdom of the world to what he says about TRUE wisdom—GENUINE—wisdom.

II. True Wisdom

A. Source

First of all, he say’s that the SOURCE of this caliber of wisdom is GOD.

This goes along with James 1:15 which says: “If any of you lack wisdom, he should ask God, Who gives generously to all.” Billy Graham embraced this way of thinking. He once said, “Knowledge is horizontal. Wisdom is vertical. It comes down from above.” Charles Swindoll’s definition reflects this understanding as well. He says, “Wisdom is the GOD-given ability to see life with rare objectivity and to handle life with rare stability.” These two GENUINELY wise men would say if we want real wisdom—we must abandon worldly pride and humble ourselves and admit that God knows more than we do. Every day we must confess our need for His help and guidance. Prideful people won’t admit this—but the truth is that even our greatest wisdom pales in comparison to God’s. As 1st Corinthians 1:25 puts it, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” So, TRULY wise people are those who trust God’s perspective on things. They know that He knows more than they’ll ever know.

I remember one of my favorite war movies—Von Ryan’s Express. It’s about several hundred allied POW’s held in Italy during WW2 who commandeer a train to escape from the Nazi’s. At one point they are in the train station and are able to see a huge lighted diagram of all the train tracks with glowing lights to indicate trains as they travel along. This perspective helps them to see the NAZI troop train that is pursuing them. It also literally lights the track they must take for them to escape to the freedom of Switzerland. Well, genuinely wise people know that this is the perspective God has on our lives. He sees the end and the beginning all at the same time. He knows what’s on the track ahead and what’s coming up from behind. Wise people know this so they seek God’s guidance at every junction of the track knowing only He is the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE. Wise people are not like the fools who trust in people that see life no better than they do. They trust God’s perspective because we know that He is the only reliable source of wisdom.

B. Active

James goes on to say that TRUE wisdom—Godly wisdom—is seen in a life of ACTION.

Look at verse13: “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.” You see true wisdom is BEHAVIORAL not INTELLECTUAL. It is seen in the skill of LIVING righteously. Charles Haddon Spurgeon once put it this way, “Wisdom is the right USE of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal and are all the greater fools for it. To know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.” And Spurgeon is right. Wisdom is a productive thing. It is seen in a life that is full of mercy and good fruits. Let me put it this way, Godly wisdom does not just see needs, analyze them, and condemn the causes that led to them. Godly WISDOM—TRUE wisdom also ACTS. It issues forth in practical help!

A few years back, I came across the following prose. It’s a sort of paraphrase of Jesus’ words in Matthew 27, when He talked about the final judgment—a time when He would bar from Heaven, those people who had foolishly, selfishly, refused to get involved with helping people in physical need. See if you don’t hear Jesus’ words in this. “I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger. I was imprisoned and you said you would pray for my release but you never visited me. I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual nature of the shelter of God’s love. I was lonely and you left me alone while you went off to attend some church meeting. You seem so holy, so close to God. But I’m still very hungry, lonely, and cold.”

Friends, the truth is, if we are close to God—if we are in a growing faith relationship with Him—we’ll begin to THINK like our ALL-WISE Heavenly Father think—so much so that when we see others who are hurting or lonely our hearts will break and we’ll be moved to act. Genuine FAITH-FILLED Christians—WISE believers—will be known for the way they roll up their sleeves and GET INVOLVED in meeting physical need. It will become SECOND-nature to them.

There was once a college student who was having a hard time understanding all the injustice in the world. He spent a great deal of his time feeling angry and frustrated. When he could stand it no longer, he went to the dim and seldom-used chapel on campus. He paced up and down the aisles, slapping the back of the empty pews. He yelled, he cried, and he raged at God saying, “God You created the world. What could You possibly have been thinking? Look at the problems people face. Look at the pain, suffering, and hunger. Look at the neglect, the waste, the abuse. Everywhere I look, I see messed-up people, hurting people, lonely people!” The young man ranted and raved like this on and on. Finally, exhausted, he sat in the front pew an looked hopelessly at the cross and said, “It’s all such a mess! This world You created is nothing but a terrible mess! Why even I could make a world better than this one!” At that moment the young man heard the voice of God reply, “That is exactly what I want you to do.”

C. Selfless

This leads me to one other things James says about true wisdom. It is SELF-LESS.

Contrary to the current way of thinking, James reminds us that wisdom from God is considerate to the point of being submissive. It is a quality that is found in the life of all peace-makers because they put the needs of the others above their own. In his book, Letters to My Children, Daniel Taylor describes an experience he had in the sixth grade. Back then school kids were taught how to dance in school. Remember? The teacher would line the boys up on one side of the classroom and the girls on the other and then one by one the boys would have to choose their partner. Imagine what it would have been like to be one of the girls waiting to be chosen, wondering if they were going to be chosen, wondering if they would be chosen by someone they didn’t like. Well, one girl, Mary, was always chosen last. You see, thanks to a childhood illness, one of her arms was drawn up and she had a bad leg. She wasn’t pretty; she wasn’t smart; and she was very overweight. Now, the assistant teacher of Dan’s class happened to attend his church. One day, she pulled Dan aside and said, “Dan, next time we have dancing, I want you to choose Mary.” Dan couldn’t believe it. Why would anyone pick Mary when there was Linda, Shelley, or even Doreen? Dan’s teacher must have read the question that appeared on his face because she told him that is what Jesus would have done, and deep inside, he knew she was right, which didn’t make it any easier. All Dan could hope for was that he would be last in line. That way, he could choose Mary, do the right thing, and no one would be the wiser. Instead Dan ended up FIRST in line. Here’s an excerpt from the book where Dan describes what took place in the next moment. “The faces of the girls were turned toward me, some smiling. I looked at Mary and saw that she was only half-turned to the back of the room. She knew no one would pick her first. Mr. Jenkins said, ‘Okay, Dan, choose your partner!’ I remember feeling very far away. I heard my voice say, ‘I choose Mary.’ Never has reluctant virtue been so rewarded. I still see her face undimmed in my memory. She lifted her head and on her face, reddened with pleasure and surprise and embarrassment all at once, was the most genuine look of delight and even pride that I have ever seen, before or since. It was so pure that I had to look away because I knew I didn’t deserve it. Mary came and took my arm, as we had been instructed, and she walked beside me, bad leg and all, just like a princess. Mary is my age now. I never saw her after that year. I don’t know what her life’s been like or what she’s been doing. But I’d like to think she has a fond memory of at least one day in sixth grade. I know I do.’”

Friends, that is Godly wisdom—a realization that the best way to live life—the most fulfilling way to live life is to be not selfish—but selfless—considerate of the needs of others.


Now—as anyone who has met Jesus Christ knows, He is the perfect example of Godly wisdom because He put our needs above His own. He loved us enough to die for us—in spite of the ugliness of our sin. And the world does not understand this. It makes no sense to them. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians 1:18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” One of the reasons our world thinks the preaching of the cross is foolishness is because many people buy into the lie that says we don’t need Jesus. They say we can EARN our way to God by living a good life. In fact, that is the basic message of every religion on earth except for Biblical Christianity. And this is the height of foolishness, for as Paul said, even our best attempts at GOOD WORKS are as filthy rags. The only way to Heaven—the only way to know God—is through faith in Jesus Christ. If you are here this morning and are not a Christian, then I urge you to humbly admit your need for God. Pray to Him and ask Him to forgive you of your sin. Invite Jesus into your heart and life. Commit right now to live your life according to His wisdom. And if you make that decision come and share it with me. God may be leading you to join our church family. Come. You may have some issue in life about which you need guidance. Come—we’ll ask God for His wisdom together.