Scripture: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Some of you will be surprised to learn that I do have a second dog. Her name is Neko—a black terrier mix. We rescued her eleven years ago. Some of you have seen me walking her. If you drive by our backyard she’s usually in it. Unlike our spaniel, she is not especially affectionate. Let’s say she’s sitting on one of the cushions of the loveseat. And I sit down on the other cushion. She will literally jump down off the loveseat and then jump up on the sofa—on the other side of the living room! To avoid being too close to me. I try not to take it personally.
But it’s a good thing she doesn’t want or need much affection from us humans, because when we show her any—just patting her on the head—and her brother Ringo sees us doing it… Uh-oh… he’ll come running over and chase his sister away or sort of force himself between Neko and us… As if to say, “Don’t give her something that you’re not also going to give me! That’s not fair!”
Why does Ringo do this? Because jealousy is not unique to us humans! Ringo is jealous!
And jealousy—“bitter jealousy,” James says—is a big part of today’s scripture. Look verse 14: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.”
In last week’s scripture, James warned of the danger of the tongue. In this week’s scripture, he’s interested in a new danger: bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, and the quarreling and fighting to which they give rise. Together, James says, these sins often have the appearance of wisdom. So in this sermon, I want to do two things. First, compare and contrast worldly wisdom with what James calls the “wisdom from above,” and then I want to talk about the three biggest lies that the devil tells us—which are obstacles to godly wisdom. Because if we believe these lies, we’ll never become truly wise.
So… what is true wisdom, and what are three lies that prevent us from becoming wise.
Let’s look again at verse 14. Do we ever suffer from “bitter jealousy,” or envy? Pastor Chuck Swindoll gives three tests to help us figure it out. The first test he calls the “but approach.” Swindoll writes:
When I talk of someone I envy, I may say, “He is an excellent salesman, but he really isn’t very sincere.” Or “Yeah, she has a brilliant mind, but what a dull teacher!” Or “This [man does outstanding work], but he doesn’t mind charging an arm and a leg for it!”
The second test he calls the “reversal approach”: “Somebody does a good job, but I cast a shadow over it by questioning the motive.”
An individual gives a truly generous gift, and we mutter, “He’s obviously trying to impress us.” A Christian couple buys a new car and a few pieces of furniture. [And someone’s like], “Hmmmm. I wonder how many missionaries could have been supported with that car payment.
Finally, there’s what Swindoll calls the “unfavorable comparison” approach:
The baritone does a commendable job on Sunday as an envious pew-warmer thinks, “Yeah, he was all right. But you should have heard so-and-so sing that piece.” Or “If you think my neighbor has a nice lawn, you should see that house down on First Street!” Or “That’s a nice car all right, but Consumer Reports gave it only an average rating.”1
I suspect for most of us, these different evidences of envy are so common we don’t even notice them anymore. I often don’t…
For example, I was talking a while back to some clergy friends about a colleague we know who was appointed to a large, fast-growing church in a desirable part of the city he was in. And out of nowhere someone said, “Sure, that looks like a good appointment on paper, but did you know they’re up to their eyeballs in debt? They can’t even pay their apportionments. They’ll probably have to close their doors in the next couple of years!”
And I, along with my clergy friends, suddenly felt better. “Glad I wasn’t appointed there!” Why? Because we’re not so different from my dog Ringo: “Why is this person getting something that I’m not also getting! I deserve that. It’s not fair!”
And that feeling, you see—“It’s not fair! I’m not getting what I deserve”—is what fuels the “bitter jealousy” that leads to the “selfish ambition” and “boasting” that James describes in verse 14 of chapter 3. It also causes the quarrels and fights he describes in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 4. And James says that even though these thoughts and behaviors are sinful, they have the appearance of wisdom—at least what we might call “worldly wisdom.”
James doesn’t think it’s wisdom at all; he calls it “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” But the world calls it wisdom.
After all, isn’t it often the case, in our culture today, among many different types of successful, powerful people—be they Hollywood celebrities, or business leaders, or sports heroes, or politicians, or even pastors—that “worldly wisdom” often gets celebrated and cherished, recognized and rewarded?
Here’s one example… There’s an excellent podcast out right now from Christianity Today magazine that some of you might be listening to. It’s called the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It’s the true story about a church in Seattle that quickly became a megachurch with tens of thousands of members and collapsed overnight because of the bullying and abusive behavior of its senior pastor, Mark Driscoll.
The most recent episode explored the parallel between this celebrity pastor and… the legendary Hall of Fame coach at Indiana University… Bobby Knight… Do you remember Bobby Knight? Here’s a man who won three national championships at Indiana. Won 900 games. Graduated nearly all of his players. Never got into trouble with the NCAA for any recruiting violations or academic scandals. Mentored future hall of fame coaches like Coach K at Duke and Roy Williams at North Carolina.
Yet he was—according to the reporting on this podcast—an angry, violent, abusive, out-of-control person… One time he threw a chair from the sidelines across the court in the direction of a player from Purdue shooting a free throw… because Knight disagreed with the foul call. He routinely berated reporters in press conferences with profanity and cursing. He got into physical altercations with reporters and opposing coaches. In one notorious episode, he grabbed one of his own players by the throat and started choking him… which was captured on video… and maybe he did worse than that… He eventually locked the doors of the practice gym so that neither his AD nor the president of the university could see how he conducted practice.
Eventually he got fired, but while all this behavior was happening—mostly out in public for all the world to see—Bobby Knight was beloved by fans of the school… And still is, by many of them… They loved his antics, his bullying, his perceived toughness, his cursing, his crudeness. Watch the video of the chair-throwing episode: you can hear them chanting, “Bobby! Bobby!”
In the podcast, a journalist asked Knight if the “ends justified the means”… and he said, “Yes.” Just look at the championships. Look at the graduation rate. Look at the team discipline. Look at the lack of NCAA scandals. In so many words, he said, if you want to be “successful,” you’ve got to do things like this…
That’s what worldly wisdom looks like; that’s what it promises.
By contrast, listen to what “wisdom from above” looks like and promises in verses 17 and 18: “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.”
Bible scholar Tom Wright, in one of his commentaries, asks us to imagine who we would rather have as a neighbor—someone who has this “wisdom from above,” described in verses 17 and 18, or someone who possesses the worldly wisdom described in verses 14 through 16? The answer is obvious. “The challenge,” he writes, “is to become that neighbor yourself… Pray for [this wisdom]. Persevere.”2
But James is only talking about worldly wisdom in the first place because he knows that this phony wisdom infiltrates the church. It manifests itself, as he points out in verse 1, in quarreling and fighting.
And what’s the sin underneath this worldly wisdom of bitter jealousy, and selfish ambition, and “quarreling and fighting”?
He tells us at the beginning of chapter 4: “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” In other words, James is saying, we have strong, misplaced desires for things that we do not have. And this makes us jealous of others, this fills us with resentment, and it causes us to act out in harmful ways.
In fact, remember Adam and Eve? Remember the first temptation to sin, in the Garden of Eden? The devil, in the guise of a serpent, convinces Eve that God won’t give her what she needs, that God isn’t interested in her ultimate happiness and welfare, that God isn’t looking out for her best interests—that God is depriving her and her husband of this delicious fruit for his own “selfish” reasons…
And this brings us to Satan’s first, most powerful, and most seductive lie: “You can’t trust God to meet your deepest needs, to make you happy in a lasting way, and to satisfy your deepest desires.
God won’t satisfy you, so you need to find your satisfaction somewhere else.”
In fact, Satan has been telling this lie ever since.
For example, there’s an episode in scripture that Jesus himself refers to in John chapter 3, verses 14 and 15,3 when Israel is wandering in the wilderness. As they so often did, the Israelites are grumbling and complaining about God and Moses. Pay attention to what the people say in Numbers 21, verse 5:
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”
The so-called “worthless food” they’re referring to is manna, God’s miraculous provision of bread from heaven every day. But do you spot the contradiction? “There’s no food here!” they say. “We’re starving! And by the way, we hate this food!” Both those things can’t be true.
The truth was, God was giving them precisely what they needed! They just didn’t want what they needed!
What is the purpose of food, after all? To keep people alive and healthy so that they may do what God created them to do… which is what? The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which John Wesley taught to fellow Methodists as part of confirmation, puts it like this: “The ‘chief end of man’—which is to say, the reason we human beings are here in the first place, the very meaning of life—“is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” And if that’s the case, the Israelites, alongside the rest of us, have precisely what they need to fulfill this purpose. But the people didn’t want to glorify God and enjoy him. Instead, they wanted to glorify food and enjoy it—and the food they ate back in Egypt enabled them to do that better than the food that God was giving them now!
So God was giving the Israelites everything they needed to enjoy him, to experience him, to take pleasure in him, to find their deepest satisfaction in him, and Israel was saying, “No, thanks, God! We don’t want that food because we don’t want you, God! We want all the good things you can give us. But we don’t want you!”
The apostle Paul picks up on this theme in Philippians 3:19. He’s warning the Philippians not to be influenced by the harmful pagan culture that surrounds them. Of these pagans, he writes, “their god is their belly.” Their god is their belly. Paul isn’t denying for a moment, of course, that these pagans worshiped many gods, and none of them literally worshiped their stomach. Of course not! But what he means is, they have made an idol out of their worldly appetites—they’ve made an idol out of the things that bring them pleasure. And they’ve done this because they don’t believe that they’ll find pleasure and satisfaction and joy… in their Creator.
In Proverbs 30:8 and 9, the author, a man named Agur son of Jakeh,4 prays, “Give me the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” Agur sees the temptation so clearly: We can so easily fill up on “food that isn’t needful”—that is, earthly pleasures that have nothing to do with God and our God-given purpose—that we forget God in the process.
I am constantly tempted to do this! Why, for example, do I work for “food,” and money, and other earthly treasures? Is it so that I can glorify God and enjoy him forever? Or that I can enjoy college football this season—and have fun hanging out with my friends? Or that I can enjoy recognition and success and respectability in the eyes of the world? Or that I’ll be able to retire at 65 and live comfortably for the rest of my life?
Because literally those last three things I mentioned… are not guaranteed! Not a one!
But here’s a guarantee: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:4.
Here’s a guarantee: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:11.
Here’s a guarantee: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19.
But if that’s the case, why are we so often unhappy, and frustrated, and unfulfilled, and dissatisfied, and bitterly jealous of others? Why do we get angry and fight with others when we don’t get what we want?
Because we want the wrong things. What we often want isn’t good for us. The desires of our hearts are bent and crooked and misguided. And they need to be reshaped, and repaired, and renewed by God.
But… here’s an amazing promise from today’s scripture: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” James 4:8.
That’s another guarantee. Because what we truly need, the greatest gift we can receive, what will satisfy the deepest longings of our heart… is… God. And he promises to give us himself every time we draw near to him!
Do we want God? He’s here. He’s available. He wants to give himself to you. He wants to satisfy you! “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34:8.
Do we believe it? Do we take him at his Word… or do we believe the devil’s lie that God doesn’t want us to be happy?
Because that’s the first and most important lie.
Lie number 2 that the devil tells us: “Don’t bother drawing near to God. He’s mad at you. He’s disappointed in you. He’s holding a grudge against you because you keep on letting him down… because you keep disappointing him with your sin.”
Well, if you’re in my Wednesday night Bible study, you know that this is a lie that Dane Ortlund, in his book Gentle and Lowly, takes on again and again. He shows us from scripture how devilish this lie is!
But last Wednesday night we talked about Luke chapter 15, and the three parables that we find there: The Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep… and throws a big party when he finds it. And the woman who loses a valuable coin and turns her house upside down looking for it… and throws a big party when she finds it. Finally, the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who loses his own son… after the son leaves home and squanders his father’s inheritance and comes home with his tail tucked in between his legs, certain that his father will be angry at him. No… His father is watching and waiting for him, runs out to greet him, and throws the biggest party imaginable when they arrive home.
And I realized something last week… I’ve only been reading these parables in an evangelistic way. In other words, I’ve been reading them as parables about lost people who don’t yet know Jesus, who don’t yet have eternal life, who aren’t saved yet. And of course these parables apply to lost people who don’t get know Jesus. But as the class pointed out to me—because I’m pretty slow on the uptake—the lost sheep was already a part of the shepherd’s flock; the lost coin was already a part of the woman’s collection; the lost son was already a part of the father’s family. So… if we’re Christians, we’re often a lot like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son! We’re already a part of God’s family!
And since that’s the case, our Father is always, always, always eager and anxious and happy to hear from us! He loves when we come to him… even with all of our mess, even with all of our trouble, even with all of our sin. He’s loves helping us, healing us, forgiving us. Putting us back in the right path!
Come to him! Don’t be afraid!
See, we’re tempted to think that the Father welcomes us back home the first time. And throws a big party for us the first time. And celebrates our returning to him the first time… only to say later, “Don’t let this happen again! Don’t mess up again! Don’t sin again… or you’re in trouble! If you do, you’re out of here! I don’t want anything to do with you.”
That’s a lie straight from the pit of hell! Don’t believe it!
Lie number three, and this is the last one: “You don’t have time to ‘draw near to God’ because you’re too busy with all these things that are pressing on you, demanding your time and attention, threatening you and your life or your livelihood, demanding that you make these other things your top priority. Drawing near to God will have to wait.”
To which James would surely say, “Are you kidding? Who do you think is in control here? Who’s in control of your schedule, your life, your world? God is! If you don’t believe that, well, it’s no wonder you ‘do not have because you do not ask’! Perhaps one reason you feel so overwhelmed and unable to take time for God, unable to pray, unable to worship, unable to listen to his Word, is because you’re not asking God and trusting God to take away all those things that make you feel overwhelmed.”
Don’t believe Satan’s lies. You have time to draw near to God because God is in charge of time! He’ll make sure you have enough of it.
Finally, there’s a remarkable exchange between Jesus and his disciples in John chapter 4 that I want to close with. The disciples have gone into a Samaritan village to get lunch for themselves and to bring something back for Jesus—because Jesus, we’re told, is tired and hungry. While they’re gone, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well. And what happens? She receives the gospel and is saved—and she runs into town to tell others about Jesus. When the disciples return and offer Jesus food to eat, to their surprise Jesus is no longer hungry. He says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”5
In other words, Jesus is so satisfied in fulfilling his mission and purpose that he doesn’t even need anything else! Nothing makes him happier, nothing brings him more joy, nothing brings him more satisfaction, than pleasing his Father and doing his will! I want to know that kind of joy and happiness and satisfaction in life! “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
I want to be like that! I want to live on the food that God gives me, rather than feeling resentment and bitter jealousy for the food that God isn’t giving me! How about you?
Dear Lord, make it happen. Change our appetites. Change our desires. Make us hunger for you, your Word, for doing your will, and fulfilling your purpose. Amen.