"Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace." - James 3:13-18
I wonder about James: how well did he know human nature? "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom." Okay: on a good day, a really good day, I might manage that. Momentarily.
"But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts…." Okay, so he was well acquainted with human nature, after all. One of my mentors often quoted Augustine: "Never look on evil as something that arises entirely outside of yourself."
In a study group, someone brought pictures of a new grandchild. We oohed and aahed. One exclaimed: "Pure innocence!" At the exact moment another said: "A bundle of perdition!" There it is: the spectrum along which we slide every day.
Please don't take James literally. Yes, human nature includes envy, selfishness, disorder. So much so that James exaggerated, positing that true wisdom comes not only from outside us but from far, far outside us. Yet that otherworldly wisdom gets revealed in entirely earthly, embodied ways. It's a paradox of fecundity: the compost that turned unpleasantly ripe in my kitchen soon enough became sweet, rich nutrient. The heart that is vulnerable to partiality and hypocrisy is exactly the place where good fruits are planted, and righteousness harvested.
God, by your grace, give me strength today to offer gentleness: to choose to yield where yielding brings peace. Grant me courage to acknowledge what is bitter and small, and over-plant it with peace. Amen.
John A. Nelson is the Pastor of the Niantic Community Church (UCC/UMC) in Niantic, Connecticut.