God’s Word for You
James 3:14-15 Every. Single. Day.
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, August 8, 2020
14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, stop boasting about it and lying against the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.
Look at the way James coaches us to deal with sinful motives. He doesn’t just condemn them and leave us wondering what to do when we find such sins in our lives. Am I just lost if I notice this kind of sin or temptation? Does this mean I’m like a foolish virgin who let her oil run out? Am I lost and condemned?
No. James doesn’t give an “If this is so, then this is so” condition. He says: “If you have this, then stop boasting about it.” James is a true Christian coach, a pastor who loves his people and who wants to help them. When we are tempted by our own selfish impulses—envy, ambition, lust, or whatever they might be—we need to begin by not being proud of them or boasting about them. We need to take them to the cross of Jesus and ask God’s help in resisting them. If they attack us every day, then we need to pray about them every day.
Every. Single. Day.
By boasting about your envy or your ambition, you would be lying against the truth. That phrase, “Lying against the truth,” is remarkable. Look at it closely. The “truth” against which we would be lying is “the word of truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:5); “true instruction [that] was in his mouth; nothing false was found on his lips” (Malachi 2:6). Bitter envy is to sinfully desire something that someone else has; it is coveting. Selfish ambition is to sinfully aspire for something within one’s grasp but outside God’s will, and this is a way of looking at coveting from another point of view. Envy gawks, selfish ambition has tunnel vision, but both have their gaze on what is not theirs to take. The truth of the gospel is humble, as we saw in the previous verses. The wisdom of humility only desires to be faithful with what God has given. If the Lord has given me two minas or talents, I should not envy the one who has been given five (Matthew 25:15), but I should “do all I can to help him keep it,” and “help him to improve and protect his property and means of income” (Small Catechism, explanations to the Seventh and Ninth Commandments). I should put my wisdom to work at how best to use what I have been given, and I will rejoice that the Lord saw fit to give me what he gave. I will be more apt to be in awe and ask, “Why me at all?” than to ask, “Why not more?”
James our coach doesn’t dispute about the definition of ‘wisdom.’ He just says that wisdom that is envious, jealous or ambitious doesn’t come down from above. It’s earthly, unspiritual, and devilish. “Earthly” means it is of the fallen, sinful world, corrupt in its motives and its desires. “Earthly” in this case does not mean the world as a neutral or natural thing, a part of God’s planned creation, but those things that oppose God’s will, as Paul says about those who are enemies of the cross of Christ: “Their mind is on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).
“Unspiritual” really refers to what’s left over when we remove the redeemed spirit from the equation of man: it is his sinful flesh. The soul of fallen man is the real seat of sin and wickedness, but when this has been covered by the blood of Christ through faith in Christ, the flesh remains as infected with original sin, and therefore is in opposition to God. Paul addresses such a man in a similar context when he says: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and worship of angels disqualify you for the prize… his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions” (Colossians 2:18).
Finally, “devilish” means that the origin of these covetous sins is the devil (the Greek word daimoniodes could equally mean “demonic”). He who does what is sinful is of the devil (1 John 3:8). When we give in to temptation, we are doing the devil’s work for him, but the devil is never our friend. His soothing words, spoken over and over again until they sound like the truth simply because they are familiar, are only a trap. Coach James wants us to avoid the trap, to build one another up in love and the truth of the gospel, and to live for Christ our Lord. Remember the explanation to the Second Article: “All this he did that I should be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he has risen from death and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.”
Let’s go back to praying about our temptations and sins. God invites us to come to him for help. He sends the Holy Spirit to give us rebirth, to put down the Old Adam in us and say, “I want to live my life in line with God’s will today and every day. Help me to do this, O Lord. Drive away the devil and his devilish plans. Teach me through your Holy Word and fill me with your Holy Spirit.” And if it helps, don’t forget to sing:
Create in me
A pure heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence
Or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
And uphold me with your free Spirit.
(from the historic liturgy, based on Psalm 51:10-13)
Pastor Timothy Smith