For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. James 3:16 New International Version
For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. James 3:16 New Living Translation
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. James 3:16 English Standard Version
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. James 3:16 New American Standard Bible
For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. James 3:16 King James Bible
Luther considered James, “the Epistle of straw” and had little use for the book. He felt it was much too legalistic and contradicted the clear statements of Paul on grace, redemption, and righteousness. However, over the years Biblical scholars have come to see the book as not a contrary view of grace from that of Paul, but instead a different perspective and emphasis.
To understand a little better what the text is saying we should look at it in context to the verses around it. This little paragraph, verses 13 through 18, is sometimes called “the two wisdoms,” and what that means will become clear as we look at the verses.
The paragraph starts out with verse 13;
13 “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
The flip side of this verse is that the unwise don’t have understanding and don’t reflect wisdom in the quality of their life, in how they act and lack humility. The wise person, on the other hand, manifests understanding and lives a life that reflects humility and love. James calls these qualities the “good life,” and so it is.
Verse 14 continues, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” This verse is very reminiscent of Galatians 5:13-15:
13 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
Notice the comparison between James 3:14 and Galatians 5:15 where bitter envy and selfish ambition ends up in biting and devouring each other. We are not to use our freedom to indulge the “flesh” (sinful nature) but to serve “one another humbly in love.”
When we compare these two passages from James and Galatians it becomes clear that a lack of wisdom is manifested in selfish living and true wisdom leads to selfless living. None of us, of course, does this well or completely, but the point both James and Paul are making is that the goal of Christianity is to live out our lives in love.
James 3:15-16 further clarifies the points made in the preceding two paragraphs of this post:
15 “Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Again these two verses could have come right out of Galatians 5. Also, we should note that James states that envy and selfish ambition come from a deeper place than simply our own ambitions and desires.
He lists three sources for wrong wisdom (self-centered wisdom): earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. By earthly he is referring to the world around us and the influences that play upon our heart. Our desires for culturally significant manifestations of success such as wealth, perfect bodies, fame, etc., give us an insight into the earthly.
The unspiritual is when we transform our relationship with God into a “non-spiritual” life such as indifference, skepticism, all in the name of wisdom. We have all come up against people who reject Christianity on the basis of “science,” or “logic” or “reason.”
Christianity is a supernatural faith system that works in the world of miracles, healings, and signs and wonders that simply boggle the scientific mind that is pre-disposed to believe such things. Let me give you an example. Last evening I was with a friend and he was reminding me of the time a number of his coins were taken in a move while living in British Columbia.
Seventeen years later living on the east coast of Canada God reminded him of those stolen coins. My friend felt God telling him, “I want you to trust me,” go down and look at the bag where the coins were.” My friend went to the place he kept such things and took out the bag and there were the coins. Now he had looked in that bag many times in the seventeen years from their theft till that day and they were not there. To the “unspiritual” my friend is either lying or they were never missing. But, if you know my friend, you know his word is as good as gold, so how do you explain such a thing?
Lastly, our lack of spiritual wisdom sometimes comes through demonic influence but that is a topic for another time.
Now let’s look at the last two verses of the paragraph and notice the contrast between the wisdom from earthly things, unspiritual beliefs, and demonic influence.
17 “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” James 3:17-18
Once again these two verses remind us of the fruit of the Spirit passage in Galatians and aspects of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). While wrong wisdom (self-centered) comes from earthly, unspiritual, and demonic and does not come down from heaven (James 3:15), true wisdom does come down from heaven. We should remember at this time that wisdom is often the personification of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30; Psalm 1:7)
James is telling us that true wisdom leads to a good life built upon the humility that flows through us in love for others. This reflects itself by living in accordance with the character of Jesus. How is that possible? It is to live a life pure, peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, sincere and bearing good fruit. This sums up the character of Jesus and also the character of a Christian who walks according to the Spirit. Galatians 5:16-17
Of course we are not talking about perfection, but instead the grace of God that transforms us from a total world of selfishness to a life of reflection upon His wonder, mercy, and grace. And through the Spirit that transforms us and uplifts us to new heights.
Yes, we stumble and fall and make a mess of it at times but that is not the point. The point is that as born again Christians we walk in the Spirit and our motives, desires, and dreams are changed by the majesty of Christ who lives within us through the Spirit.
“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing”, James 3:16 (NASB), but where heavenly wisdom dwells we “reap a harvest of righteousness.” James 3:18