James in his letter writes to professing Christians who are tearing each other, and the church, and their own lives to shreds. It was a crucial time, in which Christianity would either adopt earthly means and wisdom in order to seek Christian success, or they would learn to seek the humble wisdom of God, which only comes from above—a time much like every generation since, including our own!

You and I know something of their struggle: it’s that hot feeling in your head that tells you how right you are even as you cut your spouse or children with cruel words. It’s that bitterness that rises up in your heart every time you think of how nobody at church really appreciates you. It’s that feeling of success as you subtly stir up strife by “contending for the truth” while undermining the teaching and authority of the pastors.

It is astounding, shocking and horrifying how right we can feel as we go about doing the devil’s work, with the devil’s wisdom. But in his typically blunt—but pastorally practical—style, James gives the early church (and we through them) some simple, clear instruction regarding how to discern devilish wisdom from the wisdom that is from above. Let us then consider together the characteristics of the wisdom that is from above, to renovate our working definition of wisdom and success. Here’s a hint: it does not look or feel like we often think it does when we are in the midst of trying to win an argument or pursue our own selfish ends.

We begin by simply observing—as James does—that there is a kind of earthly wisdom, and it can even achieve a certain kind of success. However, James warns us against this kind of wisdom and instead urges us to seek a wisdom that is from above, which is utterly unearthly in its motivations, its means, and its results.

A Devilish Wisdom

“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” (James 3:14-15).

Devilish wisdom can be knowledgeable, clever, even successful. In Luke 16, Jesus relates what seems at first to be a bizarre parable: the parable of the unjust steward. A rascal of an employee has been squandering his employer’s money, and then finds out he’s about to be called on the carpet. He sits down and thinks, “What’s going to become of me?” And so he decides to make friends of all his employer’s debtors, while he’s still manager; he calls each of them in and just writes off 20 to 50% of their debt. A pretty clever plan for making friends fast!

And then we read in Luke 16:8 that “the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” They are shrewd, at least, in dealing with their own world and their own concerns. This is at least part of the point Jesus is making. The children of this world are often more concerned with their world than children of God are concerned about God and heaven! They spend more time, more mental energy, more physical effort pursuing the things that concern them than Christians spend concerning the fame of Jesus Christ! And obviously, that is not the way things should be.

Nevertheless, the underlying illustration of Jesus’ argument is that there is a kind of earthly wisdom that can be thoughtful, intelligent, and clever. It even results in a kind of success! Devilish wisdom is earth-centered, materialistic, and selfish. So it leads (in the short-term) to success in these realms and to these ends. You see, it is not that earthly wisdom is not smart, is not clever, is not thoughtful; but earthly wisdom is wise about earthly things, consumed with clever thoughts that are related—not to Jesus Christ or furthering his kingdom and ends—but to self and furthering one’s own kingdom and ends.

James is speaking to some devilishly clever people who are stirring up havoc in the church, among the saints. These were professing believers who are on the one hand “blessing our Lord” (James 3:9), but on the other are ripping the church apart with their poisonous words and actions. They have bitterness and strife in their hearts, yet they have so thoroughly justified it to themselves that James has to tell them, “Stop glorying in what you are doing! Stop lying about what is true and good!” To think, their tongues were sparking forest fires of discord and division, and yet they were actually glorying in their orthodox, dead “faith,” lying to themselves and others by arguing that all of this was due to their knowledge and wisdom.

That is why James says, “Yes, this is a kind of wisdom, but it is not the kind of wisdom that you are thinking or pretending it is – this is not the wisdom from above, this is the devilishly clever wisdom that is earth-centered, materialistic, and selfish.”

Before we go any further, however, let us make a personal application. What kind of influence are your words and actions having on those around you? In the church, do your words and actions tend to build up in Christ or divide and disturb the body? In an urgent campaign for some “truth” are you really spreading strife like a plague, with your heart being the epicenter of the disease? Or if your tongue is not the one that started the forest fire of gossip, are your ears, or expressions of “concern,” feeding flames of division or discontent?

In your home, do your words and actions tend to build up in Christ or divide and disturb the atmosphere within those four walls? Are you glorying in how “right” you are and blessing God with your mouth, while simultaneously belittling your spouse or frustrating your children? Maybe you have been trying to impress your household, or impress your parents, for years with how wise and knowledgeable you are; yet the household is itself falling apart at the seams as a result of your argumentative demeanor and selfish behavior.

Whether in the church or in your home, you may be winning the argument because you are so clever, you may be succeeding because you are so subtle, you may feel good because you are furthering your agenda – but these are earth-centered, selfish victories. Devilish wisdom can lead to success in its own realm and to its own ends. But don’t deceive yourself or others by thinking this is the wisdom from above. Do these words from Jeremiah 4:22 apply to you? “They are ‘wise’—in doing evil! But how to do good they know not.”

A Different Wisdom

Where devilish wisdom is earth-centered, materialistic, and selfish, the wisdom from above comes from above and so is God-centered, good, and eternal. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

If it is not from above, then it is not good, not from our Father! We can tell ourselves all day long that we are right, we can glory in the “success” we see as the result of our words or efforts—but if our heart, lips, and actions are not God-centered, good, and eternally minded, then we are wrong all day long.

What a soul-searching, heart-revealing examination this is! Is my god God, or is my god my own belly? (Philippians 3:18-20). Am I minding earthly things, consumed in my thoughts, ambitions, or worries with the temporary rather than the eternal? Am I truly heavenly wise, or am I just subtle and clever in getting my own way? In all my wisdom and success, am I really only wise to do evil but ignorant of how to actually do good?

An Unearthly Success

Devilish wisdom may lead to a string of earthly successes, but it will never obtain real and lasting joy or victory. Wisdom from above only comes from above, so it means humbling yourself to meekly seek God’s glory, in God’s Word, in order to further God’s kingdom and ends. When we so seek God and come to him for wisdom, he promises to answer (James 1:15).

And this is how this subject matter brings us to Jesus Christ and the good news of the gospel. Now perhaps the easiest, most obvious way to see Jesus in this passage from James is to simply acknowledge that Jesus is the ultimate expression of all we have been talking about. He is that “good and perfect gift” that came down from above, from the Father of light. Or we might observe that Jesus is the embodiment of the “wisdom that is from above”; he is pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.

But I want to dig deeper, get more personal than that. I don’t want to just consider Jesus as the perfect example, in other words – I want to consider Jesus as the perfect Savior. Because here is the reality: none of us have practiced heavenly wisdom as we should have. You and I have spoken and acted with impure motives this week that were earth-centered instead of God-centered, materialistic instead of characterized by the Holy Spirit, selfish instead of seeking the glory of God and the good of others. We have minded earthly things, we have worshiped our own belly by serving it like a god, we have with great subtly, and cleverness pursued our own goals no matter what it cost the church, our family, or others around us.

So, I don’t just want to point us to Jesus as the perfect example. I want to point to Jesus as the perfect Savior, who lived perfectly the heavenly wisdom of God so that we could collapse into his arms with honest confessions of our failures. So that we could see the perfection of Jesus in contrast to our utter imperfection and so come to ask with single-mindedness, “Lord, give me that wisdom—the wisdom of Jesus Christ as the Savior for sinners that could never save themselves—for you have promised to give him liberally to all who ask and to not upbraid us! Lord, give me the wisdom of your eternal plan of redemption.”

And God promises us, through James, that “it will be given” (James 1:5). And when it is given to us, it will transform our lives, our disagreements, our pursuits, our words, our motivations. May that heavenly wisdom of Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners be yours today.