Faith at Work

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Are your ambitions pure?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 3:13-18

Verse 13. Who is wise and knowing among you? Let him show by the good behavior his works in meekness of wisdom.

Who returns us to the teachers of 3:1, as speech and wisdom are both liable to abuse (Robertson 45). While “who” may point specifically to teachers, church members at large are included. The problem is that some people who believe they were endowed with superior wisdom and understanding have divided the church because of their teaching; such is a sin of the tongue (Martin 128).

Wise in the Jewish context does not point to a speculative philosopher but a person who possesses practical, moral wisdom (Rienecker 388). Knowing is to possess expert or professional knowledge (Rienecker 388). Good behavior points to the entire manner of life (Johnson 270). Good in this context connotes not only excellence and beauty, but moral purity.

Meekness is submission to God, the opposite of arrogance. Paul warned that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Wisdom produces works, and is characterized by meekness (Martin 129). Jesus called himself “meek” (Matthew 11:29), and exhorts his followers to display the same character (Matthew 5:5). Wisdom is a desirable quality in the community (Romans 16:19; 1 Corinthians 3:10; 6:5; Ephesians 5:15; Johnson 270), and so requires the model of leaders.

Verse 14. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not exult over and lie against the truth.

Jealousy is “zeal, ” a fierce desire to promote our opinion or agenda to the exclusion or detriment of others (cf. Rienecker 388-9). It can be good: “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'” (John 2:17); or bad: “the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the part of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17). Aristotle defines the word as the sorrow one experiences because someone else is in possession of what one is not. The word denotes the desire to acquire by taking something from another (Johnson 271).

Selfish ambition is the vice of a leader who creates a party for his own pride (Rienecker 389). This was the very problem in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ'” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12).

The term is found only in Aristotle before its appearance in the NT; to him it means “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means” (Martin 130).

Do not exult could be translated, “stop exulting.” To exult over is to put ourselves over others, to claim that we are superior. James’ opponents could not exalt themselves unless they lie against the truth, for the truth would condemn their “wisdom” and attitudes. Jeremiah gives the lie to all such attitudes: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me'” (9:23-24).

Verse 15. This is not the wisdom from above coming down, but earthly, beastly, devilish.

What follows is a negative progression (Johnson 272), proceeding from the natural to the demonic.

Earthly contrasts with heavenly, that which is spiritual; “sensual” (NEB) may be the best translation (Adamson 152). James is not rejecting the flesh, but dealing with the “unspiritual” (RSV). Paul contrasts the “spiritual” and “unspiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15); Jesus makes the same contrast: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12)

Beastly could be translated “natural,” that which is unspiritual since it is of our lower nature. Devilish calls to mind Paul’s warning: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). It is instigated by the demons themselves (Martin 132).

Verse 16. For where jealousy and contention, there is confusion and every foul deed.

Confusion is disorder, disturbance, trouble. The word often carries political connotations such as “anarchy”; here it relates to the dissention created by those who demand their own rights and exercise a party spirit (Rienecker 389).

Foul deed could be translated “mean practice,’ and could have a lawsuit in mind (cf. James 2:6; Johnson 273). However, James seems to leave the phrase deliberately ambiguous, so that all sins are included: “The wrong kind of wisdom brings about just about every kind of evil practice that one could name” (Moo 174).

Verse 17. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, forbearing, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, not partial and not pretended.

James is writing well before Paul, and before a theology of the Holy Spirit had been worked out by the church. Nonetheless, the similarity between his list and Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) is noteworthy.

First points to “pure” as “first in rank and time” (Robertson 47) or most important. Without it, nothing else James lists can follow.

Pure implies integrity of character, that which is sincere, moral, and spiritual (Rienecker 389). Peaceable or “peace-giving” is admirable only when it is conditioned by purity; peace at any price is not worthwhile. The word means not just freedom from strife, but wholeness and health, “shalom.” It describes God’s gentle and kind disposition as King (Burdick 191), and suggests the ability to get along with others (Johnson 274).

Forbearing translates epiekes, considered by Barclay (95-6) to be the “most untranslatable” word in the Greek NT. He describes this person as “the man who knows when it is actually wrong to apply the strict letter of the law. He knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a perfect right to condemn. When knows how to make allowances, when not to stand upon his rights, how to temper justice with mercy, always remembers that there are greater things in the world than rules and regulations.” This person manifests “humble patience, steadfastness which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred and malice, trusting in God in spite of all of it” (Rienecker 389); Adamson renders the word “humane” (155).

Yielding means to be compliant, the opposite of disobedience. The term was often used for submission to military or legal leadership or standards (Rienecker 389). Full of mercy reminds us of James’ definition of “mercy” as love for neighbor showing itself in action (2:8-13); thus the connection with “good fruit” here (Moo 176).

Not partial means “not divided,” to be single rather than double in purpose. Not pretended is to be without hypocrisy; it could be rendered “undivided in mind” (Adamson 156

Verse 18. And the fruit of righteousness in peace is sown for those making peace.

Fruit of righteousness could be the fruit which righteousness produces, or which is equivalent to righteousness. Adamson (156) quotes Hort: “St. James cannot too often reiterate his warning, founded on our Lord’s, against anything that bears no fruit, an unfruitful religion, and unfruitful faith, and now an unfruitful wisdom.”

Sown for those or “sown by those.” Making peace shows that only those who sow peace are entitled to reap it (cf. Robertson 48). The phrases together could be translated, “the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace” (Adamson 157).

Theological applications

How can we develop “the humility that comes from wisdom” (v. 13)?

Understand what humility is. The Greek word is tapeinos, meaning “base, cast down, humble, of low degree, lowly.” As a verb, it means to place oneself under or behind others, to put them ahead of ourselves.

Andrew Murray: humility is “simply the sense of entire nothingness, which comes when we see how truly God is all, and in which we make way for God to be all” (Humility 12).

Humility is the opposite of pride and power, the root sins of human nature (cf. Genesis 3:5, “you will be like God”). It is putting God and others before ourselves.

Understand why humility is so important. . C. S. Lewis: “If you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?’ The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. . . . Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone” (Mere Christianity 109-110).

Humility removes this element of competition, defeating pride.

Admit your need for humility, the fact that we “harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts” (vs. 14, 16).

Pride keeps us from God.: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you” (Mere Christianity).

Pride infects our spiritual lives: “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good–above all, that we are better than someone else–I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether” (Mere Christianity).

Pride hurts our relationships with others: “Pride is spiritual cancer; it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense” (Mere Christianity).

Humility frees us for joy: God “wants you to know him: wants to give you himself. And he and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with him you will, in fact, be humble–delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off–getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To even get near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert” (Mere Christianity).

Humility helps us be the men we want to be: “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

“If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed” (Mere Christianity).

Affirm humility as God does:

•”Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud” (Proverbs 16:19).

•”A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor” (Proverbs 29:23).

•”This is what the high and holy One says–he who loves forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite'” (Isaiah 57:15).

•”Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).

Admit that you can do nothing of spiritual or eternal significance without God. Note Jesus’ example (Murray, Humility 22):

•”The Son can do nothing of himself” (John 5:19).

•”I can of my own self do nothing” (John 5:30).

•”I came down from heaven, not to do my own will” (John 6:38).

•”My doctrine is not mine” (John 7:16).

•”I have not come of myself” (John 7:28).

•”I do nothing of myself” (John 8:28).

•”Neither came I of myself, but he sent me” (John 8:42).

•”I seek not my own glory’ (John 8:50).

•”The words that I speak unto you, I speak not from myself” (John 14:10).

•”The word which you hear is not mine” (John 14:24).

Choose to humble yourself before God each day:

•”Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).

•”What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

•”Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).

•”Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Is the next hour of your life yielded to the Holy Spirit of God? Ask of every decision in this day, How can this glorify God?

Choose to humble yourself before others:

•”When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests” (Luke 14:10).

•”The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

•”By the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).

•”All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'” (1 Peter 5:5).

•”A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Remember that God will judge you, not by your title but your towel. Whose feet will you wash today?


When was the last time you humbled yourself before the Lord? The last time you put him in charge of your day, your decisions, your ambitions? The last time you obeyed his will and word, even though your pride and standing were injured?

When last did you humble yourself before another person? Put their needs, success, or standing before your own? Pay a price to see them succeed?

Pride keeps God from using us. Humility positions us to be used by God. And so humility is the key to spiritual significance.

The three greatest preachers of the last three generations are probably Charles Spurgeon, Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham. What do they have in common?

Here is what Spurgeon said of himself, recorded in the preface to his collected sermons: “Recollect who I am, and what I am—a child, having little education, little learning, ability, or talent . . . Without the Spirit of God I feel I am utterly unable to speak to you. I have not those gifts and talents which qualify me to speak; I need an afflatus from on high; otherwise, I stand like other men, and have naught to say. May that be given me, for without it I am dumb!” And God used him to preach to 10 million across his ministry.

D. L. Moody was the son of an alcoholic who died when Moody was four years old. He completed seven grades of school. He said of himself: “I know that other men can preach better than I can. All I can say is that when I preach, God uses me.” And he did—more than a million came to Christ through him.

Here is what Billy Graham says of himself: “I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, ‘Why me, Lord? Why did You choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?’ I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer.” And he has preached to more people than anyone in Christian history.

Why did God use them so? Because they gave their best in humility. They let God be God through them. Who will be next?