After delving into the differences between living faith and dead faith in the previous chapter, James continues this kind of comparison in the context of wisdom: wisdom that descends from above and earthly wisdom. James takes the time to describe demonic wisdom for the sake of his listeners to understand what it is and to steer clear of it.
Earthly, sensual, and demonic wisdom is found where the individual has bitter envy and self-seeking in his or her heart. It’s a kind of wisdom that’s self-focused, using what it knows to promote self and seek the place of others, and sees achievement as something in which to beat others. Envy includes seeing others as competition or obstacles to getting what one wants, instead of the fellow brothers and sisters they actually are. Self-seeking shows the possessor is not walking in love, because the focus is on oneself instead of God and others. When envy and self-focus are in the heart, James warns, do not take this as an opportunity to “boast and lie against the truth” (James 3:14). Earthly wisdom, like earthly knowledge, can be used as an excuse for arrogance and an inflated view of oneself; this is a lie, though, and distorts reality.
Envy and self-seeking are not standalone sins: “Confusion and every evil thing are there” when these two are held in the heart (v. 16). Instead of “good fruits” (v. 17), earthly wisdom brings countless sufferings, evils, and distortions in its train. Like most things in the great controversy, these are not two options for wisdom that are “kind of good” and “kind of bad”: there is one that leads to untold misery and evil and another that leads to peace and righteousness.
Tragically, worldly wisdom can still look like real wisdom—in part. It can be charming, enticing, successful by the standards of the world that humanity is constantly bombarded with. It can look really good. Again, this shows the importance of the fruit of the life. What fruits are borne from the wise person’s life—both on stage and off? What happens when they are challenged? Do they listen, consider, and are they “willing to yield” (v. 17)? What happens if they are misunderstood? Do they seek clarity and mutual understanding, or does their fire-and-brimstone response give evidence of a different spirit?
The condition of the heart shows what kind of wisdom has taken up residence there, and the condition of the heart is displayed in the life.