Everybody, it seems, has a strong opinion about something. In our more honest moments, we might catch ourselves being downright doctrinaire about things about which we don’t really know a heck of a lot. But no matter. As long as we can say things in an engaging way, we can become social media superstars.
That’s the world we live in now: instead of being famously wise, we can famous for having entertaining opinions. Social media didn’t create the situation, of course. It just made it possible to spread both wisdom and foolishness around the globe in the blink of an eye.
As we’ve explored in previous posts, the apostle James was addressing the way in which cultural values had contaminated the life of the church. People wanted to be influencers. It wasn’t because they had true wisdom to impart. It wasn’t because they wanted to better the life of the church. Instead, they craved the status that went along with such a public role. James insisted, however, that real wisdom was not found in the cleverness of one’s words but in the outward demonstration of an inward humility (James 3:13). By contrast, the friction and bad behavior James saw in the church were the result of envy and selfish ambition (vs. 16).
This, of course, was anything but godly, however much people may have protested to the contrary. James, who was no shrinking violet, called it demonic (vs. 15).
At the end of chapter 3, then, James speaks to the other side. If the supposed “wisdom” of these would-be influencers was false and unspiritual, what was the alternative? How would one recognize true and godly wisdom, the wisdom from above rather than below? He elaborates on what he’s already said:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18, NRSVUE)
Reading this, it’s hard not to think of what Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23, and there are some obvious parallels between the two lists. Such lists of virtue (as well as lists of vices) were common to the literature of the day. What makes Paul and James different than their contemporaries is that both are describing what one should see in the life of a person who is truly living under the tutelage of God’s indwelling Spirit.
The metaphor of fruitfulness also fits James’ earlier argument. If the word has been planted in us (1:21), shouldn’t it bear appropriate fruit? Neither James nor Paul, though, is trying to list all the possible qualities of an authentic Christian life. They’re not creating exhaustive lists of all possible “fruits” — the point, as Jesus himself taught, is that what we see on the outside tells us what’s inside, and what’s inside is what matters.
Thus, James’ choice of virtue words here is somewhat driven by the bad behavior he’s been seeing in the church. Both “pure” and “without partiality,” for example, can be taken as the opposite of “double-minded.” “Gentle” can suggest a willingness to forgo harsh legalism in order to do what’s truly good and just, and this parallels what James has already said about mercy triumphing over judgment (2:13). “Willing to yield” should probably be taken as “willing to listen to reason.” Considering what he will say at the beginning of chapter 4, he’s probably seen little of this kind of humility.
And, of course, true wisdom, the wisdom from above, is “peaceable.” The wise person is a peacemaker, in all the ways we’ve explored in the previous post about the meaning of shalom. Their actions are just; their desire is to sow peace rather than discord. Such a life demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit, and bears fruit in turn.
There will be times in the life of the church in which brothers and sisters disagree, sometimes sharply. Each has a strong opinion, and considers it to be wise. Each may be willing to go to extremes to defend that opinion, believing him- or herself to be right.
But if in the process we are promoting more strife than peace, we need to ask ourselves where true wisdom lies. Let us have, as James suggests, a pure heart of devotion to God that humbly seeks peace and listens to reason.