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Fight Valiantly! Unspiritual worldly wisdom

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 28 Mar 2019

The letter of James urges us to avoid quarrelsome behaviour based on demonic and unspiritual wisdom. Watch today's video podcast on our YouTube channel.

It is surely relevant to the issue of how we go about contending for the gospel when the book of James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Indeed, James has a lot to say about how we interact with other Christians, especially when we are convinced we are right. James 3:13-4:8 in particular speaks into our debates on how to contend, and our communication strategies, whether in person, in the pulpit, in print, or online.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

If we lack wisdom, we are to ask God (James 1:5). Some people, however, think they are wise enough already says James. And yet their conduct, even with other Christians, is full of bitter jealousy, insatiable ambition, and unwarranted boasting. This tends to cause fights and quarrels amongst brothers whose primary thought is more prominence or more prestige for themselves (James 4:1-3). God, on the other hand, wants more of them: he yearns for our wholehearted friendship, which is only fostered by an attitude of repentant humility (James 4:5-6).

An attitude like this is difficult for those who have let their selfish desires and worldly ambitions run away with them and distract them from the way of Christ. So James concludes that the much vaunted wisdom of quarrelsome Christians is actually “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15), precisely because it is not peaceable, gentle, and merciful (James 3:17). Their sinful passions and propensities cannot be satisfied without attacking other people and dragging them down somehow, whereas truly spiritual wisdom (says James) raises others up and is itself exalted by God, who gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud (James 4:6).

No-one in the Bible illustrates this better than Jesus himself, of course, but Moses is also said to have been the meekest and humblest man on earth (Numbers 12:3). That startling declaration comes in the middle of a story where he was being publicly undermined by his brother and sister, and yet we hear nothing of his retaliation. God himself opposed the proud, vindicating Moses and chastising Miriam in an ironic and powerfully appropriate way. What does Moses then do? Is he full of schadenfreude and gloating? No. He graciously and earnestly prays for those who stood against him.

Again, in terms of contending, James also says in chapter 5 that “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). We contend for the faith by rescuing the wanderers (cf. the lost sheep of Luke 15:3-7). This is a similar thought to that at the end of Jude, concerning showing mercy to those who doubt and snatching others from the fire.

Questions for Reflection

1. How can we recognise the effects of the two kinds of wisdom James talks about?
2. Why do people today not value meekness and humility more in those who contend for the faith?
3. How can we be more imaginative and bold in reaching out to save those who wander away from the truth?

Catch up with the whole series here.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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