Wisdom from Below

Wisdom from Above: A Study in James

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Students with sources of worldly wisdom

James 3:14–16
But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.

We do what we do because we love what we love and think what we think. You can train a pet dog to react to various commands. But Fido’s obedience or lack thereof is not the result of a reasoned worldview. We, on the other hand, are God’s unique creation, His image-bearers. And God has given us the ability to reason—to live in light of the truth about Himself and His creation. We flourish when our lifestyle conforms to God’s revealed point of view. Successful living flows from divine wisdom.

All of our actions stem from our assumptions about life—governing principles known as wisdom. But a flourishing life is not guaranteed, because there is more than one kind of wisdom. In James 3:14–18, the author presents two kinds of life-governing wisdom. There is wisdom from above (that is, from God) that is on display when a person handles his issues with meekness (3:13, 17–18). In contrast, there is wisdom from below (that is, from fallen human nature and Satan). James begins by showing us the characteristics and consequences of one who is governed by this second kind of wisdom.

Wisdom from Below Stirs Up Trouble

James 3:14
But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.


Bitter — harsh; resentful; the word indicates a harsh attitude

Envying — jealousy; resentment; zeal, in a bad sense; fanatical zeal for an evil cause; a bitter aggressiveness

Strife — selfish ambition; spirit of rivalry; resentfulness; hostility; faction; party spirit; selfishly seeking to gain an unethical advantage

Glory — to brag; to be arrogant; to degrade; to look down; to make false claims for yourself; to assume superiority

Lie — to be false; to deny the truth

Against — in conflict with; in defiance of

Truth — objective truth; revealed truth; the Christian faith

James is writing to a group of believers who were experiencing relational conflicts. It is not clear who was causing the problems. Perhaps the leaders were splitting the church into factions by their arrogant, abusive, agenda-driven words (3:1); or the church members may have been opposing the leadership and engaging in bitter partisan fights promoting their own views. In either case, the consequences of their actions reveal that there was a serious problem with the wisdom they were employing.

In verse 16, James says that their wisdom caused confusion and evil actions among believers. The Greek word for confusion, akatastasia, has the idea of disorder, instability, chaos, unsettledness, revolt, and tumult. (In 1 Corinthians 14:33, Paul reminds us, “God is not the author of confusion.”) The consequences of their actions reveal that their wisdom was not from God. Evil work refers to actions or events that lack moral or spiritual value. They are simply worthless! This would include sins like suspicion, slander, gossip, hostile disputes, angry tempers, dissension, and an unhealthy craving for controversy (2 Cor. 12:20; 1 Tim. 6:4). In fact, by including the word every, James indicates that the kinds of bitter fruit grown from envy and strife are endless. When Satan sticks his nose into God’s business, he always creates disturbances, disorder, and dissension among God’s people. Turmoil in churches and families and relationships demonstrates a spirit opposed to God’s plan.

James makes it clear that these problems do not come from people who have a meek spirit. Rather, “confusion and every evil work” come from those who are characterized by “bitter envying and strife.” The ancient Greeks believed that envy was the moral cause of all human problems and conflicts. The second century moralist, Epictetus, said there was an organic relationship between envy and violence. He stated that Caesar could free people from “wars and fightings” but not from “envy.”¹ Whenever there was a question concerning the origin of war, envy was the answer. But what does envy actually mean? Envy is an unhealthy craving that we attach to something we do not possess. It is a strong desire to gratify oneself and can include sensual pleasures, material possessions, or esteemed positions. Envy adds a harsh edge to covetousness that uses or abuses others for self-centered purposes.

Wisdom from Below Opposes God

James 3:15–16
This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.


Descendeth — comes down (the action is ongoing)

From above — from heaven (i.e., from God)

Earthly — of the earth, earthbound; belonging to the world; produced by people opposed to God

Sensual — in contrast with what is spiritual; from reasoning and feeling that are natural to fallen humanity

Devilish — coming from unclean spirits, demons; the opposite of wisdom sent from God

For — because; for this reason

Disorder — disturbance; confusion; chaos; disharmony; instability; unruliness; revolt; riot

Evil — wicked; base; bad; foul; vile; worthless

Work — matter; event; affair; action; practice

The “wisdom from below” is also characterized by selfish ambition (strife). In the days of Aristotle, strife often described a greedy, self-seeking politician pursuing political office by unfair means. Strife is a craving for self-glorification and is often seen in a jealous leader who forms a group and withdraws either emotionally or physically from the rest of the church. James says that if a believer harbors these attitudes in his heart, he cannot claim to be filled with the wisdom from God. This wisdom is not from above!

So, what is the origin of this pseudo-wisdom, if it does not come from God? James lists three sources, which are progressively specific and damaging. First of all, this wisdom is earthly. In other words, it is “from below.” It fails to account for God and spiritual realities. It is merely human thinking that is not influenced by divine revelation. It does not consider God’s character or will in the matter of decision making and therefore handles issues and differences with a wrong spirit.

Secondly, this wisdom is sensual. Those operating according to this wisdom base their decisions on human reason or desires apart from the guidance of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Jude warned that sensuality characterized these leaders. “These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit” (Jude 1:19).

Finally, it is devilish, referring to demons or unclean spirits. This could mean that demons are inspiring this kind of wisdom or that this wisdom follows the way a demon thinks and acts. In either case, James detects the work of demons in disrupting the harmony and life of the church through the wrong kind of wisdom.

In summary, worldly wisdom discounts God, goes for what feels good, and thinks like the Devil. This “wisdom from below” is a way of thinking that flows directly from our three primary enemies: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. No wonder James is concerned that this mindset not characterize our everyday choices.

James contrasts this negative type of wisdom with the wisdom that is from above, which is demonstrated by a spirit of meekness. In chapter 4 James commands God’s people to forsake this envy and selfish ambition by resisting the Devil and submitting themselves to God. It is instructive that God commands Christians to submit ourselves to Him and resist Satan. The Lord knows that our flesh is bent the opposite way—to resist God and submit ourselves to Satan. The Devil’s wisdom is doubly appealing to us when we consciously choose not to submit to God and His wisdom. When we ignore God and go with our own reasoning and instincts, we are opening ourselves up to demonic thinking.

¹ Discourses 3.13.9, cited in Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 183.

This post is from Wisdom from Above: A Study in James by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2015 by BJU Press. Printed by permission of BJU Press.

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Steve Pettit traveled for many years with the Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team before becoming president of Bob Jones University. His ultimate goal for BJU is to prepare students to serve and love others, no matter their vocation.