The first verse of this passage struck me like a ton of bricks. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” A question like that almost always has to be answered in the negative. It just might be that this is one of those rhetorical questions for which James is so famous, and which he sprinkles so liberally throughout his epistle. But even if it demands an answer in the negative, it still requires pondering on our behalfs. What does it mean to be wise and understanding? Is it more than being smart and intelligent? I suspect that it is. Becoming wise and understanding seems to be one of the goals that James has for his readers, and he seems to tie it very closely to something that he calls our “good life.” And I also suspect that James definition of “good life” is very different from how our culture defines “good life”, which in the last year or so has become radically redefined anyway.
The first thing that James encourages us to do is to get friendly with the confession of sin. It is confession time, James implies, and what needs to be confessed is bitter envy and selfish ambition. Both bitter envy, and selfish ambition are very nearly believed to be positive attributes in our world. Envy motivates and ambition empowers. Motivation and empowerment are good things, right? Maybe not so much among the followers of Jesus, though. So what, then is bitter envy and selfish ambition? It is stuff that is all about me. It is me, myself and I. It is all three of me. It is me before you. It is me at the expense of you. Envy is jealousy, but it is subtle jealousy. It is covetousness. It is wanting what others have. It is hating others who have it better than I do. Selfish ambition is also me, myself and I. It is making sure that all three of me gets to be number one. It is self focus, it is unhealthy introspection. It is seeking the praise and adoration of others and dismissing them out of hand when I don’t get that praise and adoration. It is greed.
But the worst thing about bitter envy and selfish ambition is that they both work very hard at proving to us that they do not exist. They are subtle, deceptive and demonic. Given the chance, they will destroy us and others before we even realize it. James says that “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. One of the great tragedies of our time spent in the midst of a coronavirus world is that wickedness and disorder have been prominent in the news almost every day. And moreso than normal, so it seems.
And so bitter envy and selfish ambition have got to go. We’ve got to get rid of them. But in order to get rid of them, we’ve got to find them. Most of the time, we’ve so cleverly hidden them from others that we can’t even see them in ourselves any more. And besides, almost everyone around us still believes that these are positive attributes. It is hard to get rid of something that is generally praised and admired in others. This is how backwards our world is. If it is any consolation, the same was true in James’ day, or he wouldn’t have been writing about it.
But the most important reason that we need to root out the bitter envy and the selfish ambition is that both of these character traits isolate us from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Bitter envy and selfish ambition puts us mostly in relationship with ourselves. And that can become terribly lonely. And quite frankly, when we are lonely because of our own faults, we don’t get along very well with ourselves, either.
So, the first step toward becoming wise and understanding is to confess our sins of bitter envy and selfish ambition, and to seek forgiveness from our Lord. And then, very, very important, we must forgive ourselves. Forgiving ourselves is always incredibly difficult, but we must learn to do it. Most spiritual malaise comes from our inability to forgive ourselves.
And then, having been forgiven, we’ve got to learn to live in community with our sisters and brothers. For about a year and a half now, human relationships the world over have suffered from pandemic fatigue. We have witnessed things in the last 18 months that we would never have imagined. And sadly, the followers of Jesus have discovered yet one more thing to separate us from one another as if we were not already divided enough. It is embarrassing. When we should be leaders in the fray, calling for peace and reconciliation among all human beings, we have done just the opposite.
And so James says, in our faces,”…wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” This is the way in which we must learn to practice faith.
And so, first of all, we have “pure”. Pure is many things, but mostly it means working faithfully at becoming undefiled by the crud that we wallow through on a daily basis. We have to live in this world, but we don’t have to be shaped and molded by it. And we certainly do not need to be panicked by it. Wisdom teaches us that panic is a form of defilement. I hope, that someday, when I am long gone, that someone will say, “He made us all sick and tired of hearing him say, ‘Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.”‘ If that becomes true, I will be grateful.
After pure, there is peaceableness. The person who is a peacemaker is someone who is desperately needed in every corner of our society. We have, unfortunately, become more and more divided, socially, religiously and politically, even within the confines of our houses of worship. The peaceable person is someone who actively encourages harmony, even in the midst of diversity. The peaceable person is someone who can think objectively and creatively when disagreements surface. The peaceable person is someone who is deeply committed to mutuality and respect for all persons in God’s family.
And then, there’s gentleness. In this context, gentleness, like peaceableness is not a passive thing at all. Gentleness is forbearance and patience. Gentleness does not place unreasonable demands on others. Gentleness is opposed to harshness, or unloving criticism. Gentleness is demonstrated by a willingness to walk alongside of someone who is lost, or struggling or distressed, and to become their advocate in a world that is bent on destroying them. Gentleness seeks understanding and truth before it forms opinions.
Next, and not far removed from gentleness, is a willingness to yield. At its most basic level of understanding, it simply means that we will not always insist on getting our own way. Almost always, when we want to have it our own way, it is at the detriment and expense of others. We want to be victors. We want to tell our stories of victory. We want to rejoice in the power that we have wielded when we put others down. A willingness to yield is the willingness to pray, along with our Lord, “never-the less, not my will, but yours be done.” A willingness to yield is a willingness to acknowledge that God has moved in the hearts of others, even when we disagree with them. It might even mean learning to rejoice with them for the way in which God has moved in their lives. I’m also pretty sure that it means erasing the words, “I told you so” from our vocabularies.
Finally, James speaks of being full of mercy and good fruits. James has a very powerful sense and understanding of the profound dependency and interaction that mercy and good fruits have upon one another. He was the one, after all, who penned those words. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Those words have troubled us for more than 2,000 years. We have not yet figured out what they mean.
Mercy is the nature of God, but it can also be our nature. Mercy is the willingness to forgive others as God has forgiven us. It is a willingness to reach out in love to those who have hurt us or upset us. It is a grappling with the solid and hard truth that we ourselves, have hurt and offended God, and yet, even so, we have received mercy. A merciful person is a person, acting on God’s behalf, who extends mercy to those who do not deserve any mercy at all. A merciful person is a person who has a desire to restore broken and damaged relationships, and who is willing to be the one who takes that first step toward reconciliation.
Very closely tied to being filled with mercy is what James calls here being filled with good fruits. It is very possible that James is familiar with the writings of the Apostle Paul. And we can guess that, because the list that James provides here in chapter three has some strong similatities to the list of the fruits of the spirit that the Apostle Paul provides in Galatians chapter five. And it may be that James is simply calling attention to what the Apostle Paul has already written. But I am convinced that while James may in fact, be doing just that, I am also quite sure that James has something quite a bit more on his mind. And so James is saying that those who have received mercy, must also show mercy to others. James is certainly encouraging us to be doers of acts of mercy. He is saying, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
James is saying that we must live with one another by showering one another with mercy and with acts of mercy, also known as good fruits. This is how our Lord has treated us, this is how we must treat others.