Shelby G. Floyd
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Is there anyone in this audience who lacks wisdom? Do we have any who are wise and understanding? James asked these questions of his readers. James is fond of asking questions and then answering those questions himself. He also likes to contrast one thing with another.
Let us notice these two questions regarding wisdom from the book of James. Let us first take notice of QUESTION NUMBER ONE:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
All of us can answer the question by indicating that we need more wisdom. Therefore the idea is that we should go to God in prayer and ask him for wisdom. But to pray for wisdom doesn’t mean that God is going to give it to us miraculously. We are taught to pray to God for our daily bread. But God does not miraculously hand us bread like he did in feeding the five thousand. God gives us bread when he provides everything we need from his perspective—seed, soil, and good weather. We however must do our part from our perspective. “If a man will not work do not let him eat.”
The same thing is true regarding wisdom. God desires that we pray for wisdom, but he wants us to do everything in our power to acquire wisdom from the provisions and providence that he has supplied. One of David’s psalms illustrates this point: “You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me” (Psalms 119:98 NKJV).
The entire 119th chapter of Psalms indicates over and over again that wisdom and understanding come from the will and word of God. The wisest people therefore will be those who order their lives by the word of God.
The only one who ever asked for wisdom and it was given to him directly was Solomon. God told Solomon to ask for anything and he would give it to him. Most people would have asked for riches and pleasure, but Solomon said, “I am like a little child and you have given me this great nation to lead. Please give your servant an understanding heart.”
1 Kings 3:7-12
“Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”
The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.
Therefore, when we pray for wisdom a good place to start is the book of Proverbs. The terms wisdom and wise are found over 300 times in the Old Testament, but 100 times they are found in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is not just a book of wise sayings, but they relate to behavior. Our conduct or behavior is where wisdom is really demonstrated.
THE SECOND QUESTION of James is found in the third chapter: WHO IS A WISE MAN AMONG YOU?
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.
Therefore, if we do possess wisdom and understanding we can demonstrate or show it to others. Yogi Berra, one of the great professional baseball players of the New York Yankees stated humorously some tidbits of wisdom:
“First, never give up, because it ain’t over till it’s over.
Second, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Third, don’t always follow the crowd, nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.
Fourth, stay alert, you can learn a lot by just watching.
Fifth, remember that whatever you do in your life, 90 percent of it is half mental.”
Remember, James is asking us, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Most of us in our own estimation think we are fairly wise. And Solomon would agree: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts”( Proverbs 21:2 KJV).
In the context of James 3:13-18, we notice first that James asked the question “Is anyone wise and understanding among you?” Next, he says we can show or demonstrate that wisdom by our good conduct growing out of the wisdom of humility. The wisdom from above and the wisdom from below is manifested by the kind of lives that we live. Right living and good works show wisdom. Wrong living also shows lack of wisdom and evil works.
THE WISDOM FROM BELOW
We have all heard the saying, “experience is the best teacher.” But there is a Welsh proverb that goes like this: “Experience is the fool’s best teacher. The wise do not need it.”
Today everyone is thinking about the danger of flying as a result of September the 11th, 2001. Once there was a small plane with a pilot, a minister, a Boy Scout, and a United States senator. The plane had trouble and the pilot came back to the cabin and said the plane was going down, but there were only three parachutes. He stated that he had a wife and three children and should have one of the parachutes. He grabbed one and jumped out. The senator said that he was the wisest man in Washington and a lot of people depended on him. So he grabbed a parachute and jumped out. The minister said to the Boy Scout that he had lived a long, rich and useful life. He declared that the Boy Scout was young with his whole life before him and that he should take the remaining parachute. The Boy Scout asked the preacher to calm down because the wisest man in Washington had just grabbed his knapsack instead of the parachute!
This story illustrates that sometimes those who claim to be smart and wise, demonstrate by their conduct that they are not as wise as they thought themselves to be.
General Omar Bradley, a U.S. General of World War II said in his retirement: “The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom.”
Socrates was one of the wisest men in ancient Greece. Socrates referred to himself as a philosopher instead of a wise man. Therefore, he was a lover of wisdom, not wisdom itself. That is the right attitude—we should love wisdom and not act as if we are wisdom itself! O. S. Hawkins said, “Wisdom is the ability to take facts and put them into action at the point of need.” Someone has defined wisdom as, “That attribute of God whereby he produces the best possible results with the best possible means.”
In reference to wisdom, Job once asked this question: “But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding”( Job 28:12)? And then later in the chapter Job answered his own question: “And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” ( Job 28:28 KJV).
How then do we cultivate wisdom in our lives? We fear the Lord and shun evil. One is positive and the other is negative. Fear, respect, and obey God and cut off all evil in your conduct—this is wisdom indeed!
WISDOM IS DISPLAYED IN OUR EVERYDAY CONDUCT
Wisdom is to be displayed in the everyday arena of life. People can see whether we are a wise person by the action we take and the deeds that we do.
Once there was a beautiful blonde who was sick and tired of all the blonde jokes. So she decided to have a makeover. She went out and had her hair cut and died. Then she purchased a new convertible, put the top-down and went for a drive in the country. As she traveled along she noticed a large flock of sheep in a field. She called the sheepherder over and complemented him for the fine flock of sheep. Then she asked him if she could have one of the sheep to take home with her if she could guess the exact number of sheep in the flock, to which he agreed. She looked the flock over, and said 382. That is amazing said the sheepherder. You are correct. He told her to go pick out one of the sheep. She picked out one and put it in her car. The sheepherder then said, “If I can tell you the exact color of your hair, could I have my dog back!”
Charles Steinmetz designed the generators for Henry Ford’s automobile plants. One day the generators ground to a halt. Not one of Ford’s engineers could get them started again. So Henry Ford called up Charles Steinmetz, who came out, tinkered around for a while, then he threw the switch on, and the generators started up and the factory started making parts again. Shortly thereafter, Henry Ford received a bill for $10,000. Henry blew up and called Charles Steinmetz and demanded an itemized statement. Later he received an invoice that stated: $10 for tinkering, $9,990 for knowing where to tinker! Wisdom is applying the best understanding at the best possible point of need.
THE WISDOM NOT FROM ABOVE
James next describes the wisdom that is not from above. If it is not from above it is from below. Therefore we can describe the wisdom as worldly or secular wisdom:
James 3: 13-16
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.
This worldly spirit of wisdom can get into the church and it will always create big problems. Therefore, James is warning the members of the church to watch out for this wisdom not from above, but from below! This worldly wisdom comes from bitter envy and selfish ambition. This is the source of most problems. Ambition is good, but it must be held in check. If not, selfish ambition and bitter envy will lead a person to trample on the rights and the feelings of other people. Bitter envy is a sinful attitude. Envy is where someone has something you want and you would do anything to get it.
James reveals the origin of this wisdom. He says it is not from above. He says it is earthly or secular. Christ once said the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the sons of light. There is a lot of wisdom in the world, but it relates to this world and not the world above. The wisdom of the world produces wealth, power, and position. But it also produces crime, confusion, and disorder. This is because of bitter envy and selfish ambition. James further describes this wisdom as being sensual and of the devil. Notice these examples of how this worldly wisdom can ruin the lives of many people.
Emanuel Ninger was arrested for passing counterfeit $20 bills. When they searched his home they found a $20 bill in the process of being made. They also found three paintings that he had done. Ninger had hand-painted each $20 bill. He was a master; meticulously applying each tiny stroke so skillfully that no one could guess they were counterfeit. He was so slick that he was getting away with passing these bills until one day he passed one to a clerk whose hands were wet. When he noticed the smudged ink, he called the authorities and Ninger was arrested. After his arrest the three paintings were sold at public auction for $16,000. These paintings brought over $5000 each. The amazing thing is that it took Ninger the same amount of time to paint a $20 bill as it did to paint a $5000 painting. Ninger went to prison because he was using his God-given talent to serve worldly wisdom rather than the wisdom that comes from above.
Sigmund Freud was one of the great psychologists. One of his peers, Dr. Nikolai was professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school. He related that Sigmund Freud died at the age of 83, a bitter and disillusioned man. In 1918 Freud wrote, “I have found little that is good about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they subscribe to this or that ethical creed or no creed at all.” Freud died friendless and even his famous pupils, Carl Jung and Alford Adler were expelled from his life because they had on occasion disagreed with him. Freud died a bitter, disillusioned and friendless man because his wisdom was from below.
Bitter envy and selfish ambition will destroy not others but ourselves. It is said that if you corner a rattlesnake it will become so angry that it will bite itself. That illustrates what happens when a person allows bitter envy and selfish ambition to consume them. They will bite and devour themselves like a rattlesnake! Buddy Hackett the comedian once said, “I have had arguments with people, but I never hold a grudge. While you’re holding a grudge the people you hold a grudge against are out dancing.”
Bitter envy and selfish ambition demonstrates that one has the wisdom not from above, but from below. The story is told of an eagle that was envious of another eagle that could fly higher and better than he could. One day a hunter with a bow and arrows came along and the eagle said to him, “I wish you would bring that eagle down from up there.” The hunter said, “I would but I need some feathers for my arrows. The envious eagle plucked out a feather and gave it to the hunter. He shot the arrow but missed his target for it was too high. More feathers were plucked until the envious eagle was naked and could not fly at all. Then the hunter killed him. Bitter envy and selfish ambition is much like that. It will destroy us rather than those we envy.
Why is the wisdom from below so bad? It is bad because it will destroy our souls, our influence, and our lives. This wisdom is bad because of where it comes from. It is earthly and secular.
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.
Why do have so many problems in the church today? It is because we have much of this worldly wisdom in the church. Our minds are upon the earth instead of up in heaven. James says that this wisdom is sensual, it is unspiritual, and it is natural. It is concerned more with our feelings rather than our faith: “These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the spirit” (Jude 19 KJV). Those whose wisdom is sensual will come along and divide the church because they are only concerned about their feelings and their selfish ambitions.
This wisdom that James describes is also satanic. It originates with the devil and not God:
1 Peter 5: 8
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:
THE RESULTS OF WORLDLY WISDOM
Where there is bitter envy and selfish ambition there will be confusion, contention, corruption, jealous rivalry and every evil work. God is not the author of this kind of harvest. We must keep it out of the church: “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints: (1 Cor. 14:33 KJV).
Let this be our motto. Let us show by our conduct that we have the wisdom from above. When we have the wisdom from above there will be peace—peace with God, peace with ourselves and peace with our fellowman.
Anyone that is subject to heaven’s invitation is encouraged to respond to the gospel message. Remember that the beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord and cut off from evil. May God help each one of us to seek the wisdom that is from above? *
*Shelby G. Floyd delivered this sermon January 13, 2002, at the Heartland Church of Christ, Greenwood, Indiana. Copyright © 2008 2019 Shelby G. Floyd All Rights Reserved
Shelby G. Floyd
Heartland Church of Christ
1693 West Main Street
Greenwood, Indiana 46142