Being Wise and UnderstandingSermon passage: (James 3:13-18) Spoken on: June 17, 2012
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James
Sermon on James 3:13-18
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” James started today’s passage with a question, and it is a rhetorical one. It is rhetorical because James isn’t genuinely asking and wanting to know who the wise and understanding ones are. It is rhetorical because he knows everybody is wise and understanding in their own eyes. Not everybody says it. But everybody thinks it. The opponents of James think they are wise and understanding. The supporters of James think so as well. James makes no pretensions that he also thinks he is the one that is truly wise and understanding.
The wisdom and understanding we are talking about here is not about textbook knowledge. Otherwise, we would just resolve everthing with a pop quiz. The issue here is about our different perspectives on matters and reality. What is the right thing to do? How should we deal with a situation? Who has the best advice? On issues like this, everybody is wise and understanding in their own eyes. This is the reason we quarrel and argue. This is the reason we fight and battle. Sometimes, there is an opposite effect. Our wisdom and understanding disallow any form of fighting or quarreling. But the underlying disagreement festers and decay anyway. This can be worse than actual fighting or quarreling. Everybody remains wise and understanding in their own eyes.
You might wonder why a community, expecially a Christian community, can persist in such self delusion. As it turns out, we often explain our opponents away in the same manner. “The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they're ignorant. They don't have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they're going to see the light and come on over to our team. They will see that my way of dealing with things is the best way. When that doesn't work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they're idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. They just need more explaining and convincing. And when that doesn't work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.”  We conclude that maybe they are proud and refuse to admit their mistake.
This is self-righteousness. And it is what sometimes divides a Christian community. Yet, we cannot avoid thinking that we are wise and understanding. Do you know why we often get stuck in this feeling of being right? Because even when we are wrong, it feels like being right. “Most of the time, we don't have any kind of internal cue to let us know that we're wrong about something, until it's too late.” Worse still, it actually feels like being right. This is the first reason. But there's a second reason and it is culture. From young, we are told about those who get things wrong. “It's the dumb kid, the troublemaker, the one who never does his homework.” So you grow up learning “that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.” This may be a great motivation to work hard. But it also makes us “freak out at the possibility that we (could have) gotten something wrong. Because according to this, getting something wrong means there's something wrong with us. So we just insist that we're right, because it makes us feel smart and responsible and virtuous and safe.”
The conclusion to all this is that we all feel wise and understanding in our own eyes. As a human, we are limited by our senses to live in the present moment, and to see the world through our eyes. We also live in a bubble of feeling being right about everything most of the time. If we had sense that we are wrong about something, we would have corrected ourselves and the bubble continues. Not only do we contantly live in this bubble, we also want and desire this feeling of being wise and understanding. The world tells us that it is better to be right than to be wrong. And when somebody disagrees with us, we quickly dismiss them as ignorant or stupid or evil. We continue our perception of always being right.
But many times in our lives, this perception will be seriously challenged. We have to determine one single decision, or to set on one course of action. We can't be all right. How we resolve our conflicts of perception? Well, if we can’t all be right, then might is right. In the man’s world, the one with the bigger fist is right. In the company, the one with the bigger chair is right. In the family, the one with the bigger paycheck is right. These days, we speak less of military power and more of economic power, and so the customer is always right. Is the customer always right? It has come to the situation where politicians, even in anti-populism Singapore, have to bend over backwards for your votes. In a Church where God should come first, we now see changes where the needs of the people come first. So who is right? The one with a bigger say is right.
Some of you might say, hold on, pastor. We are civilized and rational beings. We have come a long way from the days of “might is right”. We are not apes who defeat our opponents with the biggest coconut. We have reasoning faculties that allow us to present our arguments, and to resolve our disagreements in an orderly manner. Furthermore, since the days of science and empiricism, the best form of resolution is to test our conclusions. Where there are disagreements, let the evidence speak for itself. The judgment of reason and verification will testify who is truly wise and understanding. The scientific and rational mind is our guide for truth, and we have certainly come a long way since the Age of Enlightenment.
While I certainly agree that Reason is a much fairer judge than Might, there are 2 obstacles to it being the ultimate solution to all conflict. Firstly, unlike the laws of science, many other fields of knowledge are subjective and multi-faceted. Morality and ethics is often a complicated issue. Theology and the arts goes beyond the expressive capabilities of language. In post-modernity, we have come to acknowledge the relativity of truth. Unfortunately, there are those that continue to hammer away their point of view, using the modern tool of reason. If it makes sense to me, then it must be the absolute truth. But I often see their opponents hammering just as relentlessly at them as well, convinced on their own truth. Yet both can be right and the quarrel never ends. My previous sermon on justification by faith or works is one such unending quarrel. Just go to any internet forums on any controversial topics to see such futility in action. Raise taxes or curb spending, destroy the unions or empower them? You can even bring out facts and figures and the argument continues. Reason alone is never enough.
Secondly, reason neglects the human element. We may picture ourselves as dispasionate arbitors of justice, and I don't deny that some are more impartial than others. But we are human, and an argument is never just an argument by itself. Every issue reflects the things we care about, and our decisions and judgments affects the lives of others. We cannot detach people from their emotions, just as we cannot detach our personal biases from our conclusions. The Church is a community of love, and we cannot deliberate without our concerns for people's feelings. We cannot run it like a business where only the bottomline matters, we cannot run it like an organization where the chain of command decides authoritatively.
How then do we resolve the issue of everybody being wise and understanding in their own eyes in the Church? James has a very simple solution: show it with your deeds. The fruits from the deeds will determine if it is true divine wisdom or it is worldly demonic wisdom. If it is true wisdom, your deeds will result in peace. If it is not, you get disorder and evil practices. Test it and you will know, it is that simple. James' solution overcomes the 2 obstacles that reason alone cannot overcome. Sometimes arguments alone appear contradictory. Justification by faith and by works appear different. But in practice and testing it out, you find that they are two sides of the same coin. James' solution resolves multi-faceted truths. James' solution also considers the human element. Because you reap whatever you sow, any human elements that are embedded in our arguments are manifested when we put them into deeds. Your bitterness and ambitions will transform into disorder, your love will transform into peace. Instead of arguing till the cows come home, just test your wisdom with the results of your deeds.
At this juncture, it is important for me to clarify what is peace. We often have a misunderstanding in Christian circles that peace means “the absence of obvious tension”. And so in the name of peace, we sweep our differences under the carpet. We appease those who are more argumentative or aggressive. We shy away from controversies for the sake of keeping a happy appearance. You know what people feel about churches like that. “People put up a facade. Relationships are basically superficial. Most of the time people are not sincere. But there are plenty of people who are caring. But it feels artificial. People are really “nice”. They want to avoid conflict.”  Jubilee as a traditional Chinese church (以和为贵) is in danger of becoming like this. But this is not peace. When James says peace, he means the Jewish concept of Shalom. Shalom, which is represented by our handshake during worship, means to be whole, to be healthy, to be complete. It means that the community must reflect the nature of God. It involves harmony, but it also includes righteousness and justice. There is love, but there is also honesty and truth. If there is no quarrels and fighting, but there is resentment and unhappiness, that is not the biblical peace.
So let's not avoid our differences. We are all wise and understanding in our own eyes. It is inevitable. But just as we are inspired by our wisdom, whether it is good or bad, let us test it with our deeds. 心动就该行动。At the very least, actualise it in your mind. And then you will see if your intentions are pure. Some of us may have bad intentions without knowing it. I assume none of us are knowingly evil. However, we are often caught up in our zeal of self-righteousness. We habor ambitions of more people joining our cause and seeing things our way. When such wisdom are transform into deeds and you see the disorder it brings, I hope you now understand why those so-called wisdom is not from God. “Disorder and evil practices” can come in many forms. People start taking sides. Feelings are hurt, but there is no forgiveness. People becomes lost because of divided leadership. The wisdom does not benefit the unity of the community. When you have tested your deeds and observe this, you know you had been self-centered, because the effects speaks for itself. It is not peace. The next time you think that you are the wise and understanding one, well, it may be wiser to reconsider.
But if your intentions are pure, your deeds are purely out of love for others, there are no self-centeredness, you will get the biblical peace James speaks of. It is hard to imagine effects that are otherwise. Wisdom from above are well “considered”, that means you care about the feelings of others more than yourself. “Submissive” means you respect the authority of God and the community. “Mercy”, “sincere” etc all speaks of actions that will benefit others. Even if it is discipline, it is discipline that builts, and not discipline that condemns. You can be tough and determined. Nobody says being a Christian means being a doormat or pushover. But the effects of the deeds should bring about peace, God's peace. That's when you know you were wise and understanding. Not just in your own eyes, but also in God's eyes.
One theologian  also has a simple test to determine who is wise and understanding. He says when you see a Christian coming towards you, do you feel happy or would you rather evade the person? Chances are you will enjoy the company of the peacemaker, and avoid the one who is self-absorbed. The attribute that you desire is the wisdom that you seek.
 Kathryn Schulz: On being wrong. Watch the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QleRgTBMX88&feature=player_embedded
 David Nystrom, James, NIV Application Commentary, p.212
 Tom Wright, Early Christian Letters for Everyone, p. 25
James 3:13–18 (Listen)
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.