The Demonic Nature of Self-Importance

“You see, lacking this kind of gentle humility is not just unhealthy or problematic. It’s demonic.”    

Many of us have had that strange experience before. The one where you hear a Bible verse from a book you’ve read multiple times and you think, “I’ve never heard that before in my life!” It’s a little disconcerting, especially when your job is to study the Bible and you’ve read the thing cover to cover countless times. It’s even more disconcerting when the verse falls in a book that you’d consider yourself extremely familiar with. But that’s exactly what happened to me recently.

I was with a few friends in a discipleship/bible study setting when the topic of relationships, wisdom, and gentleness came up and one of those friends opened to James 3 and read this:        
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
- James 3:13-18

I have no idea how I missed it. I’ve taught Bible college classes through James 1, I’ve had multiple conversations about James 2 and the relationship between faith and works. I even use both the beginning of James 3 and the beginning of James 4 regularly in counseling. But, somehow, this passage never stuck out to me (or I conveniently ignored it) until that recent day.

As an aside, I love how God does that. It is absolutely true that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). But it’s also true that the Word of God is so beautiful and complex that it never cuts the same way twice. In its “living and active”-ness it always has more to offer, always more to discover and more to apply, regardless of how familiar it is.

But back to our passage. I love wisdom. I long for it. I lack it far too often, but I cherish it when it’s gained. I’ve seen over and over again (in my life and in the lives of those around me) how wisdom produces so much fruit, and how a lack of wisdom can be so destructive. I know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10) and that it’s to be sought after diligently (Prov. 2:1-5). But this passage taught me a few things about wisdom that I’m not sure I’d ever fully appreciated before. Or at least it helped me appreciate them in a fresh and unique way. You see, the personification of wisdom isn’t just different from that of Folly (Prov. 9:13-18) in that she carries a different message. Wisdom carries with her a completely different tone.

Heavenly Wisdom is applied in meekness

“By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”

Meekness is a lost virtue in our world. I can’t remember a single time I’ve heard someone praised or even affirmed for their meekness. If we’re honest, I’d assume that it’s such a foreign concept few of us even know what meekness is. Our concept of meekness is so superficial and unused that we have trouble even understanding what is virtuous about it.

But the lexical definition of the word translated here, meekness, begins this way: “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.” Well now we’re onto something. And it’s something quite significant. A sense of self-importance is one of the chief idols of our age. Everyone wants to feel special and important, and the vice of being overly impressed with oneself is often seen as a survival skill in our culture. But, that’s exactly what James is calling this tendency: a vice.

Conversely, the virtue is meekness. It’s a humility that understates one’s own impact or importance not out of a humble façade, but out of a genuine lack of concern or attention given to one’s standing.

Earthly Wisdom is demonic

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts….This is…demonic.”

You see, lacking this kind of gentle humility is not just unhealthy or problematic. It’s demonic. James is not saying that sometimes your petty jealousies or self-focused ambitions may be influenced by demonic forces. He is saying that every time you’re motivated by jealousy or selfish ambition you are always functioning in line with Satan’s agenda.

This has implications everywhere. Obviously it applies to the workplace and your relationships with co-workers and bosses. But it also applies to your relationships with roommates, parents, children, and spouses. In every relationship we have there is the potential for jealousy and ambition. We want something they have. We hope to get something they can grant.

But, when we’re motivated by these demonic goals we shouldn’t be surprised when it produces “disorder” and even produces other sins in our lives that we never expected. Why do you yell at your kids in anger? Why do you seethe at your roommate? Why do you lust after someone else’s spouse? Why do you lie (even little white ones) at work? “There will be disorder and every vile practice.”

Heavenly Wisdom brings peace

But, what really threw me in this passage was this incredible description of the meekness of wisdom. This provided for me a new measuring stick to determine whether I was functioning out of eternal wisdom or earthly. It described not only the content of wisdom I long for, but the tone.

But the wisdom from above is:
·      pure
·      peaceable
·      gentle
·      open to reason
·      full of mercy
·      [full of] good fruits
·      impartial
·      sincere

Every time I read this passage it calms my soul. Every time I read this passage it also convicts my soul. But it’s a calming conviction. Too often my wisdom doesn’t look like this. Too often my wisdom is tainted, argumentative, strong, convinced, etc. But James here describes the kind of man I long to be, and the kind of child of God I long for you to be, too.

Because of the grace of Christ, the conviction of this passage doesn’t have to be hopeless. In fact, it can be life giving. We can be reminded again of the kind of man Christ was, and the kind of men and women he is making us into. Wisdom doesn’t only provide godly content, it comes in a godly tone, one that is completely foreign to our competitive world. But that’s just another way God is calling us to live in his upside down kingdom: exuding meekness in a world that doesn’t even know what it is.