© 2021 Evan D. Garner
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” When James wrote those words, it seems he had a particular criticism in mind, but for a moment, let’s take him at face value. Who are the wise and understanding people in your life? Who is the wisest person you have ever known? Think about it. Think about who that person is. Picture them in your mind. Who is it? What is it that makes that person so wise? What is it about them that you admire most? What part of them would you most hope to emulate?
I wonder. If we all took time to share stories about the wisest person we have ever known and describe what it was about them that we admire so much, I wonder how many of our answers would sound the same and how many would highlight different sorts of wisdom. What is wisdom? In almost every circumstance, the answer is contextual. A wise boss has different skills than a wise grandparent. A wise physician is praised for different things than a wise soldier. A wise hedge fund manager can probably make you a lot of money, but a wise friend is the one who can help you spend it well.
If you were putting together a team of people to lead a church—a vestry, perhaps—what kind of wisdom would you look for? Financial wisdom? Legal wisdom? Creative wisdom? Strategic wisdom? Conventional wisdom suggests that a balanced approach might be best—picking the wisest people from a number of disciplines, all of whom would work together to lead a church into its full potential. That sounds like a winning team. But how could you be sure that such a diverse pool of talent would come together and set aside their individual egos in order to accomplish the common good? How would the brightest and best ever figure out how to work together? Whose particular wisdom would be subjected to the wisdom of others in order to get anything done?
When James wrote to the Jewish-Christian community, he recognized that there were two competing wisdoms at work within the church and that they threatened to rip the Body of Christ apart. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he asked. But, more than asking them to identify the people who they considered to be wise, he asked them to consider what kind of wisdom belongs in the church. In every generation, there are many people who are wise and who have gifts and talents to offer the Christian community, but, as James explained, there is only one wisdom that leads to the building up of Christ’s body.
If someone is truly wise, James wrote, that person must show by their good life that their works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. That is what wisdom from above looks like—wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” That kind of godly wisdom produces a harvest of righteousness—a bounty of deep and abiding goodness that resonates throughout the community and beyond. Because we belong to God in Jesus Christ, the one who gave himself up to death for the sake of the world, we measure fruitfulness and the wisdom that produces it in ways that don’t compute in earthly terms.
So often, though, the church forgets how to look for and rely on the wisdom that comes from above and falls into the trap of celebrating the sort of wisdom that carries weight in the boardroom and in the courtroom, in the state house and in the White House. It is to that kind of wisdom, James writes, that those who have “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in their hearts have revealed their true allegiance. Their wisdom is nothing less than earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic, and it always produces disorder and wickedness of every kind.
The word James uses to convey what is translated for us as “selfish ambition” is an important word in this passage. It’s a peculiar word that the apostle Paul also uses several times to describe the forces that tend to fracture the Christian community. It is derived from the Greek word that literally means “work for hire” or “mercenary activity.” But the best way to understand what James and Paul have in mind when they use that word is to look at the only pre-New-Testament example of its use that historians and archeologists have discovered. In his work Politics, Aristotle used that word to describe “the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians in his own day.” Imagine that: leaders in the church, acting like greedy politicians, seeking their own interests at the expense of the community as a whole.
I find it strangely comforting to know that the church has struggled with these forces since its very beginning. As Benedict de Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher wrote, “I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.”
What is the readiest criterion of our faith in the twenty-first century? As you read the news, look at social media, and listen to popular culture, what behaviors do you think most readily describe contemporary Christianity? In a healthy, balanced, peaceable congregation like ours, we like to pretend that we are immune from such rancor and hatred—that what fringe radicals do in the name of Jesus has nothing to do with us—but no branch of the Jesus Movement is isolated completely from all of the rest. And, as far as I can tell, the Christians who are getting the most attention—the ones with the microphones—are sowing the exact opposite of peace. As members of the Body of Christ, as participants in the wider Christian community, that isn’t someone else’s issue to address. It’s ours.
I find the church’s continual struggle with selfish ambition and worldly wisdom strangely comforting because that means the remedy for us is more or less the same as it was in James’ day. “Those conflicts and disputes among you,” James wrote, “where do they come from?” Not from the hearts of other people but even from within us. “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James asked. Each of us—all of us—are subject within our hearts to that conflict between the wisdom from above and the wisdom of the world. As long as we are in this life, that war will take place within us. But God working through us has the power to put to death that selfish ambition that is as natural and familiar as every breath we take.
In the end, the answer is beautifully familiar to us. “Submit yourselves therefore to God,” James wrote. Subject yourselves, realign yourselves, reorient yourselves to your proper relationship with God. That is the principal act of worship. We worship God in order to situate ourselves where God can get through to us and shape our lives and lead us into true blessing. To get to that place, we have to let go of our own selfish ambition and cling to the wisdom of God. When we come to worship, we do this not only with our minds and hearts but with our bodies, too, every time we kneel.
By submitting ourselves to God—by bowing before the Almighty—we are also resisting the devil. The word translated as “resist” is a word that literally means “withstand”—as in to take our stand against the one who would deceive us. When we “draw near” to God—when we worship God—we take our stand by refusing to bow to the one whose devilish wisdom brings disorder and wickedness into this world and into the church.
True worship, therefore, is our real hope. This is where God’s people find their egos dissolved and their selfish tendencies replaced by the will of God. That happens every time we come together as long as we come together to worship—to submit ourselves to God. I don’t know what you came here today expecting to take away with you. But, if you’ll start instead with what you can give—with letting go of that part of yourself that gets in the way of what God is doing in your life—God will take it from you and will leave you something even better in its place.