James Week 4

Who Is Wise Among You? James 3:1–4:10

By David Nienhuis

Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: James 3:1–4:10


Week 4
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Today’s reading is divided into three major sections, the first two (James 3:1–12, 13–18) building on what has come before, in order to come to a dramatic climax in the third (4:1–10). Thus far James has implied a good deal about the dangers of speech (1:13, 19, 26), but 3:1–12 will explain the problem in detail. We’ve been told that enduring the trials of life will require wisdom from God (1:5), and 3:13–18 will help us understand more precisely the difference between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. After this, 4:1–10 will begin with some uncomfortable questions and conclude with a memorable call to repentance designed to send us to our knees, where real faith in God begins.

Controlling the Tongue

James obviously considers himself a teacher (3:1), so he knows what he’s talking about when he warns people against the job. We all make mistakes — and James is particularly worried about the mistakes our mouths lead us to commit. Indeed, he makes the amazing claim that those who can control their speech can control everything they do (3:2).

Earlier we were told, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (1:19–20). Rather than speak our words, we are called to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that is able to save our souls” (1:21). Close your mouth, humble your heart and mind, and listen to God’s word. That’s James’ wise prescription for what ails us. Teachers, of course, can’t get the job done with their mouths closed, so they are facing stricter judgment — from God as well as from their hearers, who will be quick to notice potential hypocrisy.

But what is the problem with speaking? Clearly James has a major issue with anyone who puts too much stock in talk. Notice how James has had the previous negative examples of faith say something (1:13; 2:3, 14, 16, 18). And then, of course, there is the last line of the first chapter, which connected the failure to “bridle the tongue” with having a deceived heart (1:26). Later, James will condemn those who “trash-talk” others (4:11) and those who boast about big plans (4:13). The point must be stated clearly: James insists that speech is dangerous, for it is the primary means by which we deceive ourselves and others.

As Chapter 3 progresses, one cannot miss the basic point: we would be fools to underestimate the power of this little, unassuming tool. Note how 3:6 repeats the words stain and world we encountered earlier in 1:27. With this line we come to understand why James is so concerned. The “unrighteous world” that “stains” us isn’t just “out there” — it is actually “in here” as well, in me and in you. The world I need to avoid actually resides in my mouth. Worse, the tongue is a fire that “is itself set on fire by hell,” the realm of Satan. Let’s state it plainly: The person whose speech is uncontrolled is doing the work of the devil.

James has learned this seemingly incredible notion from his brother Jesus.

“[O]ut of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.


“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. [W]hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (Matthew 12:34–37; 15:10, 18). [Author’s Note 1]

Now, suddenly, we understand why we must “receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save” us (James 1:21) — our words can send us to hell! But James has more to say: the tongue is “a restless evil” (3:8) — the same Greek word used earlier to describe the doubter who is “unstable in all his ways” (1:8). This echo to the notion of being “double-minded” is intentional, for it is precisely where James goes in 3:9–12: The double-minded person can be identified by his “double-tongue.” He praises God one moment, and the next he bad-mouths humans made in God’s image.

The implications of what James is saying here are huge: Cursing humans is, by extension, cursing God. The dishonor paid to the creature is transferred to the Creator. Of course, those familiar with the Bible will not be surprised by this close association between God and humans, for it is present in various ways throughout Scripture. [Author’s Note 2] We love God by loving others. We curse God when we curse others. It’s a hard truth, and few of us can escape the charge.

Demonstrating Wisdom

But James does not leave us there. What follows in 3:13–4:10 is designed to press the charge home in order to drive us to the altar of repentance. The section opens with James throwing down a challenge, one that parallels the earlier “What good is it if you have faith but not works?” (2:14). Here he asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” His answer is the same as before: “Show me!” (2:18; 3:13). The truly wise are known by their “works shown in the meekness of wisdom.” This echoes the earlier call to receive the implanted word “with meekness” (1:21), which was contrasted with talkativeness, refusal to listen, and anger (1:19).

The reference to “wisdom” here might also lead us to remember 1:5, which invited those who lack wisdom to ask God for it. Turns out, the wisdom James has in mind is not something that comes naturally to us; it is a gift from God, who is the generous and kind giver of perfect gifts “from above” (1:17). Christian wisdom likewise comes down “from above” (3:17). [Author’s Note 3]

But there is a problem. An alternative “wisdom” competes with the one that comes from God. It is called “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (3:15). Like the wisdom from above, it is also known by particular fruit: jealousy, selfish ambition, and boasting. Luke Timothy Johnson has noted that the terms used here were commonly grouped together in the ancient world under the governing vice of “envy.”

For writers such as Aristotle, Plutarch, and Plato, the one plagued by the vice of envy has over-identified being with having. For this individual, not having threatens the self and produces a string of vices such as covetousness, strife, factionalism, warfare, arrogance, and boasting. James especially points out that it produces “disorder” (3:16), which is yet another repetition of the Greek word translated earlier as “unstable” (1:8) and “restless” (3:8).

James is beginning to tie his various strings together. In the worldview he depicts, our behavior is driven by an overall, “governing” perception of reality. There is a wisdom to the way the diaspora world works, and a wisdom to the way God’s people are to work. The world operates according to the logic of envy-fueled competition, partisanship, greed, coercive speech, hostility, and strife. It does so because it does not conceive of the world as governed by a good and gracious Creator who gives good gifts to all who ask. It assumes we live in a system of limited resources in which deference must be given to the rich and powerful (recall 2:1–7), and only the strong survive.

By contrast, those who live according to the logic of God’s wisdom are shown to be “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good work, without uncertainty or insincerity” (3:17). Paul, likewise, associates the absence of the Spirit with the presence of factionalism, partisanship, and hostility (see especially 1 Corinthians 3:1–3 and Galatians 5:19–21). Put another way: The wisdom from above bears fruit in a community of peace, one that makes reconciliation a top priority; the wisdom from below creates, well, the world we live in — one governed by acquisitiveness, inequity, self-interest, party politics, slander, manipulation, and the worship of money and celebrity. The difference between these two ways of being could not be clearer.

Praying With Right Motives

Now that James has made the contrast clear, he points the finger right at our community and asks, “What causes wars and fighting among you?” (James 4:1). In a dog-eat-dog fallen world, most of us follow the model of Adam and Eve, and blame someone else for our troubles (Genesis 3:12–13) — the government, the immigrants, the terrorists, the gays, the politicians … fill in the blank with your pet scapegoat. But, as we’ve come to expect, James places the blame right where it belongs – at our feet: “Do they not come from the cravings at war in your members?”(4:1).

This recalls 1:14–15, where we were told that temptation does not come from outside but from inside, by “one’s own desire.” Once again, James insists that the “world” that threatens us is not “out there” but dwells inside us. We desire things (materialism) or particular societal structures (ideology), and we’re willing to sacrifice a lot and dehumanize people in order to shape the world accordingly (4:2).

Instead of fighting for the way we want the world to be, James reasserts the presence of a giving and generous God. “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2). Before anyone has a chance to retort, “But I have asked God!” James asserts, “You ask and you do not have because you ask [kakos], in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). Most translations have “you ask wrongly,” but if we’re not careful we might misunderstand, thinking that the prayer technique is wrong. The plain-sense meaning of the Greek adverb kakos is “evilly”: These askers are coming to God with ungodly motives; they are asking for desires, not needs. According to the logic of 1:14–15, such a person is seeking to entice God into becoming an ally in acquisitiveness, a partner in sin.

With this, James ups the ante and denounces his readers as “Adulterers!” (4:4), calling to mind Old Testament prophets who condemned idolatrous Israel using the metaphor of an adulteress. [Author’s Note 4] The image is both powerful and crucial: praying to God for things that only increase conflict and division is idolatry. God cannot be tempted and does not tempt anyone (1:13), so the person who offers up such a prayer is praying to a false god, an idol, a deity made in the person’s own image. No, when it comes to these two wisdoms, the peaceable one “from above” and the envious one “from the world,” there is no overlap: “whoever wishes to be a friend with the world becomes an enemy of God” (4:4; compare 1 John 2:15).

James 4:5 is hugely difficult to translate [Author’s Note 5], but the Scripture that follows in Verse 6 clearly functions as a kind of summary proof-text for the entire letter: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34). You want God to be on your side? Better get on your knees and ask to be led to God’s side.

To make the point absolutely clear, James unleashes a bombardment of imperative commands in four short verses (James 4:7–10). It is altar-call time! We “submit to God” by renouncing the arrogant way of the world. Doing so will help us “resist the devil,” because — and here’s the key point — the devil cannot conquer those who humble themselves. If we “draw near to God” then God will draw near to us, cleansing our hands and hearts from the worldliness that stains us.

Verse 9’s demand that we lament, mourn, weep, and let our laughter and joy turn to dejection probably requires some explaining for those of us who are used to thinking that God wants us to be happy. Calls to lament, mourn, and weep are common in Old Testament descriptions of Israel’s response to God’s judgment. [Author’s Note 6] Jesus picks this up in the Beatitudes when he says things such as, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), and, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh (Luke 6:21), and, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25). One also hears these terms echoing through the rich people’s response to the destruction of the evil city “Babylon” described in Revelation 18.

What can we make of this? Two things, I think — one more positive, the other more negative. Negatively, in view of these terms’ connection with judgment texts, it seems that James is calling us to acknowledge in advance the judgment we deserve. One thinks of the verse in 1 Peter that informs suffering Christians that “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). We are given a choice: weep in repentance now, or do it at the judgment day when it may be too late.

More positively, however, we might say that the call to a repentance of weeping and mourning is an invitation to “wake up” to the reality of suffering in our world and join in solidarity with those who are weeping and mourning right now because they suffer marginalization (James 2:3) and lack of daily bread (2:16). When we walk in the way of the wisdom from above by humbling ourselves in true repentance, we will find ourselves in company with those who are “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom God has promised to those who love him” (2:5).

The aphorism of 4:10 closes the section by linking up with the Proverbs proof-text quoted in 4:6. This is both the climax of the call to repent and the ultimate summation of the wisdom from above: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” We might even say it is a summation of the entire biblical call! The notion is common in the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Samuel 2:7; Job 5:11; Psalm 10:17–18; 18:27; 34:18; Isaiah 2:11; Ezekiel 17:24; 21:31; Hosea 5:5; 7:10; 14:9), it’s a key component of the gospel Jesus preached (e.g., Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 18:14), and it forms the centerpiece of how Peter (1 Peter 5:5–7) and Paul (Philippians 2:5–11) understand the work of Christ and the call of discipleship.

The way of the wisdom from above is, unsurprisingly, the way of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled himself even to the point of death, who did not grasp after god-like status but emptied himself in service to others (Philippians 2:6–7). James insists that the journey to Christ-likeness truly begins only when we find ourselves on our knees in repentance.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Jesus said, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Matthew 15:10). Though we are often trained to think of worldliness as existing “out there” among people who were different than the Christians in our communities, James wants us to conceive of worldliness as an internal reality, as something in us that is trying to break out in sinful speech. Take some time to reflect on your speech habits. Do you struggle to hold your tongue? Does speech get you into trouble? Of course, James is thinking of people who talk too much — but perhaps your reality is the opposite?  Is your speech controlled by something else? Is your voice shut down by forces other than God’s will? Do you fail to speak up when you should?
  2. Drawing from 3:9–10, Dr. Nienhuis asserts, “Cursing humans is, by extension, cursing God. The dishonor paid to the creature is transferred to the Creator.”  Amazingly, when we “trash-talk” others (even those we think deserve it!), the offense is felt by God!  How would your life, and particularly your speech habits, change if you kept this reality in the forefront of your mind?
  3. Re-read 3:13–18. How does James define the wisdom of the world versus the wisdom from above? What does it look like to pursue the latter over the former?
  4. “The one plagued by the vice of envy has over-identified being with having.”  Of course, identifying being with having is a major point of the “wisdom” called capitalism, where the self is extended by means of material possessions. Companies spend billions of advertising dollars a year to generate desire and envy in our hearts for goods and services we often not actually need. What habits and practices in your life expose your heart to these forces of commercialism? What might it look like to guard yourself from the vice of envy?
  5. Re-read 4:9–10. What does Dr. Nienhuis make of the call to lament? In what ways is this a counter-cultural message, and what would it mean to embrace its realities?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Of course, Jesus learned it from reading Scripture. See, e.g., Psalm 5:8–9; 34:12–14; Psalm 140:1–3.


Author’s Note 2

See, e.g., Proverbs 14:31; 17:5; 19:17; Matthew 6:14–15; 25:40; James 2:13; 1 John 4:7–12.


Author’s Note 3

Indeed, the description of its characteristics recalls both Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) and Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1–8).


Author’s Note 4

E.g., Isaiah 57:3; Jeremiah 3:6–10; 13:27; Ezekiel 16:38; 23:45; Hosea 3:1; 9:1.


Author’s Note 5

There are two problems, actually: Does the phrase about “envy” refer to God, or to the human spirit? Is God somehow jealous over us, or is it the human spirit that experiences jealousy? It has to be the latter, for though God can be described as “jealous” in the Bible, the particular word used here is closer to “envy” and is always applied, and applied negatively, to humans, never to God. In fact, given the themes of the letter thus far, applying the envious spirit to humans makes more sense.

The other problem, of course, is that we can find no Scripture text that corresponds to the one supposedly quoted here. Luke Timothy Johnson resolves the problem by arguing that the envious spirit belongs to the human, and the “scripture” spoken of is the one that comes in the next verse. Hence, he translates 4:5-6 as follows: “Does the scripture speak in vain? Is the spirit God made to dwell in us to be used for envy? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (quoting Proverbs 3:34).” 


Author’s Note 6

See, e.g., Isaiah 22:4; 24:4; 33:9; Jeremiah 4:13; 9:18; Hosea 10:2; 12:5; Joel 1:5–10; Amos 1:2; Micah 2:4; Zechariah 11:2–3.



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Discussion and Comments

2 Comments to “Who Is Wise Among You? James 3:1–4:10”

  1. Bill Osborne says:

    Where is this weeks podcast on iTunes?