Growing into a Wise Guy/Gal (James 3:13-16)

Growing into a Wise Guy/Gal

The test of wisdom, part 1–Man’s False Wisdom, James 3:13-16

What would you ask for, if the Lord of Heaven and Earth gave you a blank check–you could have anything you wanted, just fill in your desire? As a citizen of this world, you’d ask for money, pleasure, health, fame or ease. As a citizen of Heaven, the question gets more difficult, the prospects more serious. You would not say, “world peace”, cause that sounds like a Miss Universe contestant. Maybe you’d ask that certain family members would turn to Christ. Possibly, because you live in a lot of pain, you’d want that agony to stop.  Or maybe you’d ask for a healthy family, or healthy church, or even church plants.

But when Solomon was given a blank check from God at the beginning of His reign as king over God’s nation of Israel, you know what he asked for—in 2 Chronicles 1:10, “Give me now wisdom and knowledge,…to…rule this great people of Yours.” In essence Solomon said, “This is overwhelming Lord, to rule Your nation. More than anything else, I need your wisdom, Lord–I need to know how to put truth into practice so I can govern Your people well. Lord, this is what I ask and nothing more.”

With a humble heart, Solomon turned to the Lord to give him what he needed (wisdom) in order to accomplish his God-given assignment. And as result of seeking wisdom, positively you see Solomon thriving as an author, diplomat, poet, politician, philanthropist, architect, and engineer. At the zenith of his reign, as the third king over all of Israel, Solomon had no equal.

Wisdom for the Greek was about speculative knowledge and philosophy. Sadly, for the Romans wisdom was about gaining knowledge–and we are cursed with that definition today. Many think education itself will solve the world’s problems. But wisdom for the Hebrew and for the Christian is different—greater, better. Wisdom for the believer is skillfully applying biblical knowledge in practical life. Simply, to be wise is living practically, directed by the Word of God.

There are some who think living spiritual means living impractically–selling your car and riding a bike, burning your clothes, wearing only a burlap sack. No! Wisdom is the skill of living righteously, living biblically–wisdom is living right. Wisdom enables you to apply God’s truth to everyday life. For the Jewish nation and New Testament believers, true wisdom is not merely intellectual, it is behavioral. The fool is anyone who knows the truth, but fails to apply the truth.

In the Old Testament alone, the words wisdom and wise appear about three hundred times–one hundred of those in Proverbs alone. Every genuine believer needs and wants wisdom. But the Scriptures, both Old and New, give this warning. There are two kinds of wisdom–man’s wisdom and God’s wisdom, wisdom from below and wisdom from above. There is a heavenly wisdom that comes from God, and there is a man-made wisdom that does not come from God. And whatever does not come from God is destined to fail, no matter how successful it may seem at the time or for a time.

The Bible contains many examples of the folly of human wisdom–building the Tower of Babel to keep everyone together, but only led to confusion and separation. King Saul tried to put his armor on 17-year-old David to fight Goliath. The disciples trying to dismiss the crowd to go eat, when Christ would feed them dinner from a few loaves and fishes. And today we see the folly of human wisdom, even in the Church.

Men who were passionate about reaching the lost, changed the purpose of weekly worship to only evangelism–using entertainment, drama, and special effects to impact the lost is all human wisdom.   To place women in the role of an elder sounds so egalitarian–so today, when it actually violates God’s design for women and violates the very nature and character of the triune God, again human wisdom.

There are lots of examples of human wisdom, because there are two sources of wisdom–one is wisdom from God, and two is wisdom from man, wisdom from above and wisdom from below, heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom. Those who pursue God’s wisdom grow mature, become stable, and are greatly used of God to impact this world. Those who pursue human wisdom never seem to grow, are unstable, are barely used at all and often not saved.

This is now where James takes us in our study of this first New Testament letter. As he writes to his scattered and battered mainly Jewish believers, he now calls them in chapter 3 to pursue God’s wisdom and to reject man’s wisdom. Both are contained in these verses. Open your Bibles to James 3:13 to 18–we will study the first half, verses 13 to 16 about man’s wisdom today, and the second half verses 17 to 18 on God’s wisdom next week.

These six short verses paint two clear pictures—first, a portrait of someone who lacks God’s wisdom (the unwise), and second, a portrait of one who lives by God’s wisdom (the wise). James knows that living by God’s wisdom first requires salvation. James himself was blind to the wonder of Christ’s life until he met the risen Lord after His resurrection. James sat at the same table, walked to school with, lived in the same home and heard all the answers of the incarnate wisdom–but he didn’t get it until he was born again.

And you will not see the profound wisdom of God’s Word until you change direction by turning from your sin in repentance and change dependence, by giving your entire life to Christ through faith. Until you are genuinely saved, you view God’s Word, God’s will, God’s ways and God’s wisdom as foolish–since man’s wisdom comes from reason, but God’s wisdom comes from revelation. And for all who are born again, growing in wisdom will only be achieved through an 1) intense study of the Scripture, 2) striving to be dependent upon the Spirit through prayer, and 3) seeking to be obedient to Christ through His Word in all things.

In this letter, James continues to describe for you the tests of true faith–whether joy in trial, responsibility for sin, obeying God Word, or treating others impartially, guarding your speech–James continues to compare the real with the phony. So now in chapter 3:13 to 18, James says wisdom is another test of genuine faith. And the key, verse 13, the kind of wisdom a person possesses will be revealed by the type of life they live. Verses 14 to 16 show those who live by the wisdom of man will give evidence they have no salvation in Christ. On the other hand, verses 17 to 18 shows that those who possess genuine saving faith will live by the wisdom of God and give evidence of genuine salvation.

Read aloud verses 13 to 18, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

Look at the chart Charles Swindoll crafted to help you understand these verses. On the left are the signs of wisdom, then the characteristics of each kind of wisdom. And final,y the results of each wisdom. James is trying to help you identify, am I living by God’s wisdom or am I living by human wisdom–am I God’s wise man, or am I just a wise guy?

The kind of wisdom a person possesses will be revealed by the type of life they live.

#1  The TEST of True Wisdom

James 3:13, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.” James kicks off with a question–“Who among you is wise and understanding?” James isn’t really looking for a show of hands–it is hard to find a self-professed fool. Most people have unrealistically high opinions of their wisdom. They believe they are just as savvy as the next person, and that their opinion is usually better than anyone else’s.

Verse 13–most of you here think of yourselves as wise and understanding. Although each of these two terms seem to be synonymous, they are slightly different. “Wise” is a general word, referring to the careful application of knowledge to personal living. “Understanding” appears only here in the New Testament and describes a specialized knowledge, like a highly skilled tradesman. So James asks, who wants to live godly and have special skills?

Remember that game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” That’s a dumb question–yes I want to be a millionaire. Yes, James, I want to be wise and with skills—but the key is this. If you have God’s wisdom, it will show in your practical behavior. Every married couple argues, but wisdom shows in how do you argue/disagree? Every student struggles with their emotions, but how do you deal with your feelings? Every Christian battles with fear, but how you respond to your fears actually demonstrates whether you live by God’s wisdom or human wisdom.

When James asks, “You think you’re wise and understanding?” This answer reveals not only your inner character, but the spiritual condition of your heart. Those who think they are wise, James clearly asks here–we’ll see about that. Yes, you can see wisdom, because true wisdom shows itself in behavior. Look at the verb in verse 13—“Let him show.” James commands his readers to prove it. The verb “let him show” is emphatic–show it in how you live, explain it by your behavior, prove it through your lifestyle. Just like our Lord Jesus, who not only taught wisdom, but Jesus lived wisdom every day. Do you see the two ways James says heavenly wisdom is shown in verse 13? By his good behavior–his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.


God’s wisdom changes the believers lifestyle. Just like faith without works is dead, so wisdom without a changed lifestyle is phony. The life of a wise person exhibits a life seeking to obey God’s Word in your priorities, your identity, and in your desire to do things God’s way, not your way. Are you a teacher, or a Christian who teaches math while demonstrating Christ? Are you a salesman, or an evangelist who sells to tell? Are you a policeman upholding civic law, or a witness of one who lives by God’s law? Neither IQ nor education make a person wise–what does make a person wise is how well his or her lifestyle reflects the truth.


This refers to living out wisdom-inspired humility and meekness. People today view gentleness as a mark of weakness. People think the meek are spineless folks who let others walk all over them–not so in Scripture. The Greek term for gentle, sometimes called meek, connotes power under control. The adjective gentle was used to describe a wild horse, a tough to break high-spirited horse, that was broken and brought under control, made useful to its owner. The horse didn’t lose its strength, but now carries that strength with gentleness. Moses was called meek, but was one of the boldest and decisive men in the Old Testament.

So these gentle deeds, sometimes called meekness, are not weakness–it is disciplined strength. The meek person does not selfishly assert himself. The meek person seeks only the glory of God and does not cater to the praises of men. The gentle only care about what God thinks, not what others think or what they think. According to Galatians 5, gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, reminding you that gentle deeds cannot be manufactured by people, or by you–you can’t do them on your own.

Pointing to this–the kind of wisdom a person possesses will be revealed by the type of life they live. The test of biblical wisdom is that it changes your lifestyle–it changes how you live. Verse 13 clearly says “his deeds”–what you do in controlled strength. It is action. Gentleness won’t keep you from struggle, but will change the way you respond to difficulties. Wisdom won’t keep you from disagreements, but will show you a better way to deal with them. Leadership is not defined by a college degree, but by a life worth emulating. As you look for future leaders in your ministry, James says, look for the evidences of biblical wisdom in the way they live their everyday life–the test of wisdom.

#2  The TAINT of False Wisdom  Verses  14 to 16

The wisdom that is of the world is based on man’s standards. In false wisdom, man is supreme. False wisdom does not recognize God’s sovereignty, nor God’s will, nor God’s Word. False wisdom follows man’s ideas. James now contrasts the heavenly wisdom of verse 13 to the earthly wisdom of verses 14 to 16. Here James lists the indicators of an unwise person, showing (verse 14) the motivation, (verse 15) the qualities, (verse 16) the results of false wisdom.

First  The CORE of False Wisdom

Verse 14a, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart”–James exposes the core, the heart, of all those filled with earthly wisdom. Did you catch the reference to your heart in verse 14, “in your heart”? James is describing the heart, the center of motivation, where unbelief and belief originate. You and I are not to be slow in heart to believe, but believe with all your heart. But you are to be aware that out of the heart come evil thoughts and worse. So Solomon warns, “watch over your heart”–the heart is the core of your spiritual life.

And James is x-Raying your heart—and of the many sinful motives there, James highlights two. Verse 14a, “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” What do those mean? “Bitter” is the Greek word pikros, which sounds like picky–and that’s what it means. Bitter has a basic meaning of pointed, sharp, or prickly. And James uses bitter to describe the worst sort of jealousy, which is harsh, cutting, and destructive–having no concern for the feelings or welfare of certain people. “Bitter jealousy” refers to jealousy that harbors hard feelings. Someone’s belongings, looks, talent or accomplishments threaten you–so you bite and attack.

Those who are engulfed in worldly wisdom despise anyone or anything that comes between them and their own objectives, which is why James adds a second heart motive—”selfish ambition”. The heart of an unwise person carries an insatiable hunger to push themselves to the top. Selfish ambition translates a single Greek word which was used of personal gratification and self-fulfillment at any cost. Selfish ambition has no room for others–it is the main goal of the secular world. Self-promotion, which is the antithesis of what the humble, selfless, giving, loving, and obedient child of God is called to be.

Even in the Christian world, go to enough conferences, visit enough academic institutions, meet enough leaders, and you will find far too many so-called Christ-followers jockeying for higher positions and a greater audience–all in the name of reaching people. It is easy to go on an ego trip under the guise of spiritual zeal. The Pharisees used their religious activities to beef up the praises of men. And you all remember the apostles arguing over who was the greatest in the Kingdom?

The wisdom of the world says, “Promote yourself.” Be famous or be infamous, but make certain you’re known. The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the grease. Yes, true believers should be zealous for the things of the Lord, but be certain your heart motives are pure, because the wisdom of this world exalts man and robs God of His glory. Those whose lives are motivated by human wisdom are inevitably self-centered, living in a world where their own personal ideas, desires, and standards are the standard to live by and not God’s Word. But God says in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.”

Second  The CHARACTERISTICS of False Wisdom  Verses 14b to 15

If the heart generates bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, then from the expression of those qualities, James exposes five characteristics which identify counterfeit wisdom. James is highlighting the false wisdom which comes from your flesh, not from the Spirit. James now describes a few of the indicators of worldly wisdom, which if they are consistent, exposes an unsaved heart.

Verses 14b to 15 give you five characteristics of false wisdom, “Do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.” This is not the wisdom from God’s revelation, coming down from above–but this is the fruit of the wisdom from man’s reason, which is earthly, fleshly and worldly. When you live by man’s wisdom, this is the result . . .


The Greek word arrogant means to exult over others. A wisdom motivated by arrogance is one where that self-interest leads to a society that says, “Do your own thing,” “Have it your way,” and “Look out for number one.” When arrogance is the normal attitude of a person, it demonstrates the absence of a saving relationship to God. A professing Christian known for boasting, self-centered arrogance is a fraud.

Pride loves to boast, and there is nothing more boastful than the wisdom of men. The wisdom of men is the evolutionist who boasts of his so-called science. Earthly wisdom is the feminist who boasts of her so-called liberation from God’s design.

Beware of arrogant boasting–it is an indicator of earthly wisdom. Jeremiah 9:23 to 24, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; 24but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.”

God’s wisdom manifests itself in the life of a born-again believer in humility and actual submission to God’s simple Word, so that God alone gets all the glory. In God’s wisdom, we don’t compare ourselves to others, but only to Christ–showing us just how far we have to go.


Verse14b, “Lying against the truth.” Despite what some modern theologians say, truth remains an immovable standard. Forget postmodern concepts of relative truth or the uncertainty of truth–God’s revealed truth addresses the way things really are. The unwise, however, change their truth standard to match their desired lifestyle. Human wisdom makes up its own version of truth in order to develop its own way of salvation. Often they call themselves Christian, but their gospel is a self-deception of living a life of faith without any works—”lying against the truth.”

Near the beginning of this letter in 1:18, James speaks of salvation as God “bringing us forth by the word of truth.” And at the end in 5:19 he says, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth”–clearly identifying truth as a synonym for the Gospel, where true wisdom must start. Lying against the truth is distorting the Gospel. The Gospel is the only way anyone can be forgiven and made right with God. If you miss the message that God alone saves sinners and He did so through His Son, then you have lost the most important truth in the universe.

James is saying that if a person claims to belong to God and have the wisdom of God, but his life is motivated and characterized by selfish ambition and bitter jealousy, he is simply lying against the truth. Whatever he might claim, he is not saved–he’s a living lie. John 8:44 reminds us, “the devil, … is a liar and the father of lies.” Revelation 21:8 reminds us of the kind of people who will spend eternity in Hell and concludes with, “and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”  Human wisdom is deceptive—”a lie against the truth.”


The word means of the earth–so James is contrasting wisdom from above to wisdom down below here. Earthly means having only a horizontal perspective–limiting everything to the present, material world of time and space. Earthly wisdom includes the lie of evolution, the lie of many ways to God, the lie of no distinction between the sexes, even the lie of a faith that doesn’t obey God’s Word. People who live by the thinking of this world over the truth of God’s Word are filled with earthly wisdom. Human reason is viewed as above God’s revelation.


This fourth characteristic of the unwise is natural, meaning soulish. The Greek word is related to the English word psyche, which applies to the self–the inner human motives. The source of natural, man-driven wisdom is our own thoughts, interests and pursuits, not the Spirit’s revealed wisdom from above. Natural wisdom relates only to the fallen, unredeemed man who is wholly corrupted by the fall into sin and separated from God. Those who rely on this natural wisdom are Jude 19, “worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.” All of their feelings, desires, appetites, standards, and impulses are grounded in a humanistic view of the world, meaning human over God.

The number one goal of natural wisdom is to justify your sinfulness. Natural wisdom blames your parents, your race, your environment, your glands, your genetic make-up, your culture, or your circumstances for your sin. Naturally, it is not your fault. Natural wisdom values what people say over what God says. Whatever science says, whatever psychologists say, whatever scholars write, whatever news media mentions–all of it is more important, more influential than what God records in His Word.

To the world’s experts, biblical Christianity is a relic of the superstitious, prescientific past that relies on fantasy to explain what had not yet been discovered by man’s own efforts. That’s natural wisdom–which is why the wisdom from below is also . . .


The root of human wisdom is Satan himself, who works through his demonic, fallen angels, who rebelled with him against God in ages past. Satan always promises wisdom to those he tempts, asserting that God’s Word should be doubted and his own ideas accepted. That was the basis of his temptation of Eve. Contradicting what the Lord had told Adam, Satan said to Eve in Genesis 3:5, “God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” In other words, Satan said if she did what God forbid, she would not only not die, but Eve would actually become like God.

Thus was born the lie that people can be their own god–which is at the core of false wisdom. In fact, the first time the word wise appears in the Bible is in connection with Satan’s temptation of Eve. Satan directed her attention to the forbidden fruit and let her dwell upon the fact that “the tree was desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).

The apostle Paul warned Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:1 that, “The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” The wisdom from below is nothing more than the deceitful efforts of demons. Appealing to men’s sinful inclination, this wisdom deceives your friends and family into believing Satan’s lies rather than God’s truth. What they believe to be their own wisdom is really the devil’s.

Only the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the redeemed currently protect this world from a coming satanic and animalistic existence. But when both are removed from Earth at the Rapture, Satan and his minions literally will cause all Hell to break loose. So you see, in the heart of the unwise, bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, verse 14. That person is arrogant, dishonest, worldly, natural and demonic in character (verse 14 to 15). So now James describes the end result of such false wisdom in verse 16.

Third  The CONDUCT of False Wisdom Verse 16

In the wake of earthly wisdom, what you see is waves of chaos, confusion, disharmony, antagonism and pettiness–which is what James says in verse 16. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” James reiterates the two heart motives driving false wisdom–namely “jealousy and selfish ambition”. And says whenever they exist, “there is disorder and every evil thing.”

Both disorder and every evil thing are broad terms, covering a multitude of bad results. They include conduct filled with anger, bitterness, resentment, lawsuits, divorce, and divisions–plus the absence of love, intimacy, trust, fellowship and harmony. “Disorder” means instability, describing a state of confusion, disturbance and rebellion. “Evil” here means worthless, and can mean contemptible. Evil is used in the New Testament to contrast the works of those who are saved and obedient from those who are unsaved and disobedient.

Every evil thing”–thing is where we get the English word pragmatic. Thing is translated work, deed, event, occurrence–the idea is that absolutely nothing of any ultimate good comes from human wisdom. So James is saying to you and to me–worldly wisdom produces trouble. Coming in chapter 4, James tell us how worldly wisdom is causing fighting among believers. So then what is the solution? Divine wisdom, showing the wisdom from above. And to get that kind of wisdom, you have to come back next week for verses 17 to 18.

False wisdom always produces wrong living. One reason the world is in such a mess is because men have refused to accept the wisdom of God. One reason why you are in such a mess is refusal to embrace God’s wisdom over their own thinking.


Embrace the B’s of godly wisdom–God’s wisdom

A  Comes from a BORN again heart

James starts this passage by exposing the heart. And if the heart is filled with jealousy and selfish ambition, then there will be no heavenly wisdom–because the heart first needs to be transformed by God and you need to be made into a new person. That only comes as you surrender your life to Christ. Maybe you haven’t met too many actual born-again Christians, but when a person is truly saved, they not only are made right with God, but they are internally made new, given a new heart that is empowered to follow God’s Word and motivated to follow God’s Word. Only the new heart can manifest God’s wisdom. Today, ask God to give you a new heart–when it happens, you will change direction from sin to God in repentance, and you will change dependence from you to Christ, by faith.

B  Comes to a BIBLE-saturated doer of the Word who prays about everything

The most important thing you can do as a Christian is measure your life and ministry by the Word of God, and not by the wisdom of men. That means you study God’s Word, seek to see everything in life through the lens of God’s Word and seek to dependently live by the Word in all you do. The happiest, most content, most peaceful believers are those who pursue God’s wisdom. But God’s wisdom doesn’t just happen–it is a treasure to be sought, it is truth applied. Are you seeking it?

C  Comes to a BRAVE Christian who desires to reject earthly wisdom

You have to determine to reject all forms of earthly wisdom. Reject the world’s view of 1) creation, called evolution, 2) the roles of men and women, 3) many ways to God, 4) science is never wrong. But in doing so, you will be mocked, rejected and belittled. You must be brave and develop convictions that God’s Word is correct and every contrary view is wrong.

D  Comes to a BELIEVER who desires God’s best over what they want

Godly elders want what Christ wants over what they want for His Church. Godly believers want what God wants for their lives and families over what they want or prefer or have determined. God’s ways are the best ways–do you have His wisdom?

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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