Teaching series from James

Spirituality and Our Relational Lives

James 3:1-13-4:3

Teaching t22016


James is writing this letter to people who (like us) believe that spirituality is important, and that they are spiritual—but who are substantially self-deceived.  So he seeks to wake them/us up by describing what genuine spirituality looks like in real life, and by exposing false spirituality.

In this passage, James does this by probing the way we relate to other people.  Here he uses “wise and understanding” as a synonym for “spiritual.”  Read 3:13-18.  It is possible for me to think I am spiritual—but to have my relational life prove that I am self-deceived.  James speaks of two very different kinds of wisdom—like two different “seeds.”  Each wisdom produces its own relational dynamics—or relational “sowing.”  And this sowing results in two very different relational “harvests.”  Let’s start by looking at these “harvests”...

2 different relational “harvests”

One wisdom results in a “harvest” of “righteousness and peace” (3:18).  James uses both of these words in their Old Testament sense.  “Peace” (shalom) does not mean the absence of all conflict or merely no overt enmity.  It means the successful integration of your life with others, including relational closeness and stability with your spouse, your children, and your friends.  “Righteousness” (tzadeqah) refers not primarily to private morality, but to right relationships—“right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life.”   This produces moral health and wholeness.

The other wisdom results in a very different “harvest”— “disorder and every evil thing” (3:16).  “Disorder” means “disturbance,” “confusion,” “chaos.”  It refers to a pattern of broken relationships and/or to relational superficiality.  And this relational disorder spreads a host of other personal and social problems (e.g., psychological problems; effects of divorce; addictions as substitutes for relational health; eating disorders; etc.).

Obviously, everyone wants the first harvest, and no one has this harvest perfectly.  But ask yourself: Which “harvest” predominates in my relationships (marriage, children, at work, brothers and sisters in Christ)?  Are you increasingly able to build peaceful relationships, and to maintain them most of the time?  Or do you see a pattern of relational disorder (active or passive)?  Do you often find yourself disappointed/frustrated with people (“Good people are hard to find?”), or cynical about 3:18? 

God can change your “harvest” no matter how bad it currently is!  But if you want to see a different harvest, you must start sowing a different seed...

The wisdom from below

A disordered relational “harvest” comes from the wrong “seed”—which we will call “the wisdom from below” (3:15).  Satan is the originator of this “wisdom”—that’s why James calls it “demonic.”  He spoke this “wisdom” to Adam and Eve in Gen.3, and ever since they embraced it, it has become our default perspective as fallen people.  It is an egocentric belief-system, and it has the following key elements:

“I do not trust that God is good and wise—so I ignore him, or I re-make him to my specifications so I can use him to fulfill my agenda.”  (See Satan’s suspicion of God in Gen.3:1,4,5.)

“I trust my own thoughts and desires—and I expect my way.”  (This is the significance of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in Gen.3:5.)  I view myself as a ruler/king.

“I depend on other people/things to meet my core needs (IDENTITY, SECURITY, SIGNIFICANCE).”  (This is why Eve needed what the tree offered in Gen.3:6.)  Paradoxically, I also view myself as a needy/orphan.

New Christians are often more able to see and admit that they have been operating from this wisdom (ME WITH AYN RAND).  But long-time Christians know that this wisdom is wrong—so they deny to themselves that they are operating from it.  But James says that if your relational “harvest” is characterized by “disorder,” you have been using bad “seed!” 

James also says you can know what kind of “seed” you’ve been using by the relational “sowing”you employ.  Because this wisdom leads to a relational posture that is focused on how I can get what I need.  It has several elements:

I don’t depend on God to meet my core needs, I will have inordinate demands and expectations on the people in my life.  This is what James explains in 4:1-3 (read).  “Passions” and “desire” here both refer to self-centered expectations.  I may expect my wife to protect my life from interruptions.  I may expect my children to behave so that I feel significant/successful as a parent.  I may expect my friends to always approve of me and not disappoint me.  When they do not fulfill my expectations, I react with anger by manipulating and/or punishing them (actively or passively).  This brings destructive alienation and conflict into these relationships. 

In 3:14,16, James uses other words to describe this unhealthy relational “sowing” that comes from the wrong “wisdom”/”seed.” 

If my world revolves around my agenda, I will relate with “selfish ambition”—I will be self-absorbed (e.g., complaints) and self-promoting (e.g., boasting) in my interactions vs. blessed self-forgetfulness and delight in discovering.

If I am depending on other things to meet my core needs, I will relate competitively with people about these things (“jealousy”)—and I will be upset when they get more of what I need (e.g., colleagues who they succeed in ministry).  And I will be “bitter”—I will resent them and be glad (secretly?) when they fail (because they “got what they deserved”).

If I am relating to people this way, I will also be self-righteously dishonest (3:14b).  I will be dishonest about my motives (“I was not trying to punish you with my long sighs”), and defensive about my faults in the conflict (“I wouldn’t treat you this way if you gave me what I wanted”).  In conflict, I will focus on the other person’s faults and be blind to my own faults (Matt.7:3).

If you have a “disordered” relational harvest, the biggest reason is not the people who screwed you over—it is this relational posture.  And the reason why you have this relational posture is not because other people made you this way—but because you have been operating by the wisdom from below.  That’s why real relational change begins by embracing a radically different wisdom...

The wisdom from above

A good relational “harvest” starts with good “seed”—which James calls “the wisdom from above” (3:15,17; see also 1:17,18).  This is the belief-system revealed by God in the Bible.  Paul calls this wisdom “the gospel,” the message that God sent his Son Jesus to die for our sins.   It has the following key elements:

“I am a rebel who deserves God’s judgment—but God gave his life to forgive and accept me. (Rom.5:6-11)”  This wisdom lowers my estimation of myself and raises my estimation of God’s undeserved love.

“I trust that God is good and wise—so I embrace his will for my life. (Rom.2:5; 12:1,2).”  God’s amazing grace is the foundation for trust in his character, which leads to voluntary submission.  I quit pitting God’s will against my welfare—and I vacate the throne and become a willing servant.

 “I depend on God to meet all of my core needs (Phil.4:19).”  I am no longer an orphan who has to get what I need from other people and things.  I am a son/daughter that my Father will look after.

How do you embrace this wisdom so that it begins to grow a new relational harvest in your life?  It starts by humbling yourself before God, asking him to forgive you for your ego-centric rebellion, and by receiving his forgiveness through Jesus’ death.  Have you done this?

When you receive Christ in this way, God begins to impart his love to your soul.  And as you walk in his love for you, this leads to different “sowing”—God teaches, motivates, and empowers you to begin to relate to others the way he relates to you (1Jn.4:16,19; “Love one another as I have loved you”).  James describes this new “sowing” in 3:17:

You relate increasingly with “purity” and “without hypocrisy.”  This is the opposite of self-righteous dishonesty.  Because God knows me fully and still loves me, I can begin to be open and honest with others.  I can tell people what I want without being demanding.  And I can admit my weaknesses and sins without being defensive.

You relate increasingly with “gentleness.”  This means strength used with self-control for others’ good (SURGEON’S HANDS).  Because God has used his strength to save me instead of crushing me even though I deserve to be crushed, I can begin to do the same with others.  I will not be passive or weak in relationships.  I may reprove or refuse to be manipulated—but this will be for their good, not to insist on my way.

You relate in an increasingly “reasonable” way.  This means “not unduly rigorous or controlling.”  Many of us are very controlling in order to get a sense of security.  But when I trust God to watch over me, I can relax and be other-centered.   Many are very uptight and intolerant of people’s foibles.  But when I appreciate God’s forbearance with me, I can begin to extend this to others.

You relate with increasing “mercy.”  This means “kindness toward the unworthy and despicable” and choosing to forgive offenses from the heart.  How unworthy and despicable have I been to God?  And yet he responds to me with incredible kindness and forgiveness.  This motivates me to do the same with those who are offensive to me.


The more you trust God’s wisdom, the more you are motivated and empowered to relate to others in a self-giving way.  And the more you relate to others this way, the sooner you begin to experience a good relational “harvest”—close, healthy relationships, a deepening health in your soul, and the satisfaction of helping others down this same path!  Is this what you want? 

One of the most practical steps toward this “harvest” is getting personally involved in Christian community (PROMOTE HOME GROUPS).  This is where you see models who inspire you and help you down this path.  This is where you can practice this wisdom with people who want to go the same direction.  Are you in a home group?  Are you truly engaged?

Alec Motyer , cited in Tim Keller, Generous Justice (2010), p.10

In 1Cor.1, Paul is likewise addressing relational discord (1:11).  Like James, he sees relational discord as a symptom of operating from “the wisdom of the world” and applies “God’s wisdom” (“the word of the cross”/”the gospel”) as the remedy (1:18-31).