James does a great job of presenting the contrast in wisdom:
Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace. (James 3:13-18 HCSB)
The key phrase is But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart…for it spells out what is going on behind the scenes of the play we write for public consumption. Notice the principle characteristics of heavenly wisdom tie in nicely with Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, 23. Human wisdom hates hypocrisy when it’s made public and someone else but practices it without batting an eye when the spotlight is diverted. Those exposed as acting (which is what hypocrisy means) in public displays of righteousness while being somewhat or wholly other than in private are crucified on the cross of public opinion and scorned. Unfortunately, many doing the crucifying and scorning hide similar or even worse attributes behind their stage curtains and backdrops. Which means they are using the misfortune of someone else to divert attention away from themselves.
The believer lives out in the open for the most part. Oh, we shouldn’t trust just any person off the street with our hearts or inner struggles since the world has a tendency to turn on anyone who displays weakness. Jesus declared, “By their fruit you will know them.” If we display the characteristics of the world’s desire for blood when dealing with sinners, then we are no different. It’s no wonder so many people become bitter about the message of the gospel when its self-proclaimed practitioners fail to show the key ingredients grace and mercy.
Yet here’s the kicker: What do we expect out of sinners? What do we expect out of even those sinners washed in the blood and saved by grace?
Our expectations set us up for disappointment when applied to fallible, fallen and recovering sinners, even those saved by grace. What we believe should almost always stand juxtaposed with what is. Again, what we believe ought to be the norm often flies in the face of what exists and has never changed since the beginning of the world.
Those who follow my blog might remember the entry from Ecclesiastes where Solomon declared, Don’t be excessively righteous, and don’t be overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Don’t be excessively wicked, and don’t be foolish. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp the one and do not let the other slip from your hand. For the one who fears God will end up with both of them. (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18 HCSB) What else can this mean except that we should acknowledge both traits reside in us–albeit not peacefully. Paul claimed the two natures were at war with one another (see Romans 7:22, 23). If this is the state of every follower of the Way, then who has any advantage over anyone else? And if the Word of God declares all sold under sin and no one righteous without the blood of Jesus, who has the right to condemn anyone else?
This being the case does this mean we throw in the towel and give up trying to change ourselves or the world for the better? No. Yet neither does it mean we expect the impossible. Where sin affects the reasoning power the perspective skews to a lesser or greater degree. It’s impossible this side of glorification to find an un-skewed POV anywhere on the planet because everyone’s affected–or infected might be a better term. The moment someone begins their advice to me or anyone else within my hearing with words like “If the world or church would just…” I realize I’m listening to either a power-monger or an idealist.
According to the gospel, in order to get rid of oppression we must get rid of sin; to get rid of sin we must purify the human race. How do we purge the sin out of a race of practicing sinners? What sin goes first? Who’s sin gets targeted as the worst of offenses?
Again, to get rid of lying, cheating, murder, sexual deviancy, abuse, or any other evil infecting the human race to its ruin we don’t get rid of the people, ideology, or make stricter laws governing behavior but focus on the core cause of these. Behavior grows out of the thought life and inner reality a person is either educated to or chooses to believe. Culture is just a name we put on a lifestyle/modus operandi for a group of people who live in a region. They (and we in our own) develop beliefs, ethics and social structures based on the most powerful and, thus, influential voices among them.
Understandably we don’t think of the historical development of our culture because it happens so gradually the changes appears natural–or as naturally as those in control of an area present it. I’m not being cynical merely as realistic as I know how to be in order to point out what makes things “right” or “wrong” in a given context. I am amazed how little we notice the reasons for the changes made in society. For instance, why do women wear burkas in certain Middle East cultures? We could say it’s because they come from Muslim backgrounds and that’s what that religion/culture does, but that would be inaccurate since some Muslims don’t make their women wear it.
So what would be the reason behind a burka or dress style in any given culture? Many different factors could contribute to a current style or pattern. The climate, religious affiliation, family ties, government structure, and a host of other factors contribute to said culture. Now take into consideration the fact that those in power are just as often capricious, willful, self-absorbed, conceited, highly opinionated and, in some cases, ignorant in a cosmopolitan world sense, as they are just, well informed and open to diversity and you have the makings for oppression and ignorance being dictated to the ruled. What if one of the early advocates of the burka realized that his wives didn’t get noticed and stolen as often? Quite understandably that leader would be anxious to protect his “property”, posterity and sexual outlet. Look at the reasons why the ultraconservative leaders of the Islam object to an uncovered woman and you’ll see lust at the bottom. Just like blaming the woman for the gender of the child, the determination of which has been proven beyond a doubt to reside in the male sperm, blaming lust on a them removes responsibility for a man’s behavior or choices and puts it on others.
American Christianity is no different since there are sects who declare “modesty” is the best prevention of lust. If I, as a man, don’t have a problem with lust, a woman should be able to go naked in front of me and cause no alarm. But men lust after women with clothes on so it’s a no go situation and completely not the woman’s fault. I’ve seen women dress conservatively and still get lustful looks from men. So blaming others for my internal attitudes, once I have the reasoning power to choose what I will believe, is a lie.
Still, the burka could have started out as a way for women to protect their skin from the harsh desert sun. The poetry of ancient Arabic cultures speak of the milky tint of a woman’s skin as desirable so it would follow that the early Bedouin women would probably have begun wearing a scarf to cover all but their eyes in order to preserve their skin. It’s not that farfetched to reason some of the attitudes about women began quite innocently only to develop into laws of decency much later.
Just take a moment to think of habits, family traditions or accepted norms within the society or subculture in which we were raised. The reasons might not have meaning or any good purpose other than preference behind them. Which, in hindsight, almost takes the joy out of some of our most cherished traditions, making them seem shallow in light of how seriously we hold to them now as the “right way” in contrast to others. In this context our vehement defense of our methodology or tradition as “just the way it’s done” is defensible only as it pertains to a harmless practice of preferences but really contains no moral authority over those who live differently. Yet we will defend the imposition of our ethic, social structure or religious belief to the death and often decide to go to war with those who believe a diametrically opposed viewpoint as means of conforming the world to our preferences.
Comfort has a lot to do with our actions. We have no way of knowing if the person doing the dictating might be mentally disabled, the child of violence or sexual abuse, or a lack of education resulting in holding onto superstitious beliefs based on a hallucination or drug induced vision. How do we know? The aristocracy of Europe were, for the most part, the only ones educated to read and write, yet look at the atrocities and oppression they brought about.
In the church I come from the “prophet” was hit in the face by a rock when she was young which left her sick for a long time. During the 1840s she had visions which might or might not have been really from God but since the evidence of her past points to brain damage it’s more likely these were brought on by a damaged frontal lobe. I honestly don’t know at this point, neither will I argue for or against her visions because my point is we give trust to the outspoken far too easily.
The moment someone declares a revelation from God I start looking for the motivation behind it. What’s in it for them? Prestige? Power? Pleasure? Redemption? Hope? There’s an old saying which goes something like this, “When a preacher shakes your hand keep the other hand on your wallet.”
You see, humans don’t do anything from uncomplicated motives. Even the best of us, if we’re willing to delve into our psyche, make our choices out of a mixed bag of motives or reasons. Even if no hidden agenda can be discovered, the reasons we choose to go with one option over another grows out of a history of choices, biases, teaching and socioeconomic pressures.
The only thing to rescue us from bent choices is heavenly wisdom. Of course receiving daily doses of it and immersing ourselves in the source manual doesn’t guarantee we will be wise for that takes submission–coming under the mission of–to Christ and what He stands for. We can be defeated before we are even out of the starting gate by latching onto meanings without fact checking or testing the spirit with which we came to our conclusion.
Pure wisdom from heaven filters through human minds which are full of distorted images and misdirected truths to be interpreted by our biases. Denying the possibility is unwise; denying it happens with all of us is downright foolhardy, a lie we first tell ourselves then foist on others. If you don’t believe me, just count not only the number of denominations within the supposedly “unified” church of Christ but all the world religions and try to find some unifying factor. The only common thread will far too often be a complicated reasoning based on obscure motives. Almost always people accept or reject a “truth” based on their bias of the moment. The few who actually do their homework might escape it but usually default to whatever thought process fits their current comfort zone.
A believer who values truth above everything else will admit the biases and prejudices which run him or her. The only people I trust to give me good advice are the ones who I know recognize their own faults and are in the process of taking steps to grow away from them. Anyone who displays the pride of comparison or condescension not only loses my respect (for the their opinion not as a person) but my trust. When I see someone abusing the authority which God established (again, not specifically for them but the benefit of all) that person will lose both my respect for their authority and counsel.
The servant of Christ is a purveyor of peace and gentleness. One who preaches purity or any other truth without these traits has the form of godliness but without the power of the Spirit.