Several weeks ago we noted that the pursuit of wisdom has been a universal concern of humanity. The greatest philosophers have endeavored for centuries to figure out the best and most honorable ways of living. All of them have agreed that if we are to be successful in life, we must know what it means to be wise.
Though the pursuit of wisdom is something to be commended, history testifies that much of humanity has found “wisdom” without ever finding God. The apostle Paul condemns the wisdom of this world, for it is those who live according to earthly wisdom who despise and reject Christ (1 Cor. 1:18–31).
Like Paul, James understands that there is a vast difference between earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom. Yesterday we saw that true wisdom displays itself in meekness (James 3:13). This is the “wisdom from above” (v. 17), about which we will speak tomorrow.
Earthly wisdom does not understand that heavenly wisdom is characterized by humility and meekness. Earthly wisdom finds its roots in jealousy and selfish ambition (v. 14). Thus, it is the result of inordinate desires for things that do not belong to us or from a lust for power. It is “demonic” wisdom (v. 15) precisely because the selfish ambition and jealousy that create it in human beings are the same things that motivate Satan in his attempt to thwart God’s will.
The qualifier, “unspiritual,” in verse 15 helps us to see that with the use of “earthly,” James is not disparaging all things that arise from the physical order. Rather, “earthly” here refers to a mind-set that does not consider God’s sovereign rule, or His will, for creation. Such earthly wisdom, unlike true, biblical wisdom, is not rooted in the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).
James also reminds us today that jealously and selfish ambition produce every kind of vile practice. Here again we see the connection between outward behavior and inward motivation. Unlike the good works produced by the heavenly wisdom flowing from true faith (2:26; 3:13), the earthly wisdom flowing from false faith produces “every vile practice” (v. 16).