Selfishness is biblical foolishness

by Kyle
published November 2, 2013


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There was a king who loved this woman. He wouldn’t do anything without first consulting her. When he started one of his greatest construction projects, he consulted her first. She helped him with every decision on how it should be built. They worked side-by-side. She was perfect and he loved her. And what they built together was perfect ...

... and there is no “but” to this story. There was no conflict between them. He still loves her today. I suppose the only problem is that no one else seems to love her the way they should.

Proverbs 8 says her name is Wisdom, and the king’s name — really the King of Kings — is “I Am.” The construction project? We live on it.

Solomon, who is credited for the book of Proverbs, employs a literary device throughout the book called “personification.” That’s when you talk about an inanimate thing as if it wasn’t. Someone I used to work with used to think his computer was out to get him, and it would mess up his work on purpose. That’s personification.

Solomon was trying to communicate the value of wisdom. Everything God does lines up with what God defines as wisdom.

That brings us to the book of James. God’s wisdom — the beautiful woman Solomon talks about — is not the only fish in the sea. In chapter 3, verses 13-18, James encourages his church to choose God’s better, though perhaps not obvious, kind of wisdom.

James uses two lists of qualities to compare God’s wisdom that “does not come down from above.” Not-from-above wisdom, according to James, is “earthly, natural [and] demonic,” while God’s wisdom is “peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering [and] without hypocrisy.”

The key to understanding not-from-above wisdom is the last word James uses, “demonic.” Now, I know there’s a lot of weight attached to that word. It seems like it rolls off some people’s tongues too easily, but in fairness, perhaps it doesn’t roll of other tongues easily enough. I think James means it here in its plainest sense; as the adjective form of demon. That is whatever is characteristic of demons.

Do you remember the “wisdom” of the first demon? “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Does that sound familiar? (Genesis 3:4b-5) In fact, according to Isaiah 14:13-15, Satan’s main problem was that he thought he knew better than God.

My main problem is that sometimes I think I know better than God, too. That’s how not-from-above wisdom is demonic. It’s not because it’s from Satan, but that it’s like his wisdom. I choose to think that way, and when I do, all I ever consider is what I can see right before me. That’s how it’s “earthly.” Not-from-above wisdom is also really easy, and it comes to me, well, “naturally.”

The problem is that not-from-above wisdom is not any of the things God’s wisdom is. It changes based on my personal interests instead of pure, it is tumultuous instead of peaceable, blunt instead of gentle, emotional and selfish instead of reasonable, ruthless instead of merciful, vacillating instead of unwavering, and completely hypocritical.

So if God’s wisdom is like a beautiful woman, the wisdom you and I make up is like her ugly sister. She has the same last name, but they look nothing alike. How do you know you’re with the beautiful one and not the ugly sister? It’s all in what you do and say.

Remember that context is everything. James has just finished talking about the way we use our mouths and criticized how we praise God and curse men at the same time. So often, we judge wisdom by what people say. If they’re quoted on a motivational poster, they must be wise.

God holds a different standard for wisdom. James sums it up in James 3:13. “Show it.” Even if your talk sounds good, James says, wisdom is in what you do.

So how do you do wisdom? Do you remember what James said in the very first chapter of his letter? “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (James 1:22) Not only is living out the truth of the Bible obedient, but it is also wise.

If you haven’t found the time to read through this whole column, let me just sum up the behavior God calls wise. Always seek the interests of others before you seek your own. Recall that Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-40). Notice how Jesus, though mentioning the way we love ourselves, doesn’t actually tell us to love ourselves. In fact, Jesus tells us to let go of our own lives for the sake of others (Luke 9:24).

Nestled right in the middle of James 3:13-18 is the gem of the whole passage. When I use not-from-above wisdom, I am always seeking my own interests. James 3:16 says disorder and evil come from looking out for “No. 1.”

Here’s the hard question: If wisdom involves seeking the best for others, what do you call it when we as almost a cultural institution so ardently seek the best for ourselves?

Don’t be foolish.

What do you think?

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