Wise Humility

James 3:13–18   13Who among you is wise and intelligent? Let him by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast and lie, contrary to the truth. 15This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but it is worldly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16In fact, where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and every bad practice. 17But the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then also peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who practice peace.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. All who do his precepts have good understanding. (Ps 111:10, EHV)

Two weeks ago, my mom suffered a stroke. All three of us children left our job and family responsibilities and gathered at the Aurora Hospital in Grafton. My sister, Brenda, left her Alpaca farm and family in Stevens Point to spend days in the hospital with mom. My other sister, Dawn, flew from Vermillion, South Dakota, to be at the hospital. I was able to move things around to stay a few days, too.

After a week in Aurora, as mom got healthier, she was moved to the Sacred Heart Hospital in Milwaukee for physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Since Dawn is a Division 1 Women’s Basketball coach, she spent the most time with mom. She knows how to communicate well with people, take notes, get things done, and deal with stubborn parents. She did a fantastic job.

In the middle of this week, as Dawn was driving from a recruiting trip in Green Bay back to Milwaukee, she received a phone call from her husband back in Vermillion that their daughter, Lexi, had suffered an avulsion fracture while playing high school soccer. An avulsion fracture is an injury where the tendon or ligament pulls off a piece of the bone. It is extremely painful.

Dawn pulled off the road in Oshkosh to try to figure out what to do. She could drive west to go home to be with Lexi or drive south to be with mom. She called my mom and my mom asked her to stay with her. That’s a big deal for my mom. She’s never asked for help. And so Dawn, put aside the needs of her daughter to tend to the needs of her mother.

I think that is an example of wise humility.

St. James writes: “Who among you is wise and intelligent? Let him by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility.”

What is “wise humility?”

To answer that, it would be good for us to figure out what is not “wise humility.”

There is “false humility.” That’s when you start thinking, “Boy, am I humble. I’m the most-humble person I know.” False humility is on display when someone compliments you, but then you reply, “Thank you, but I could have done better.” That’s pride masking as humility.

There is “experiential humility.” This is when you think you’re really good at your job … until the boss lays into you and you are demoted. Or when you think your soccer team is really good … until you get blown out in the next game. You weren’t planning on humility, but you were humbled.

Many people believe they are humble because they focus on feeling badly about themselves – their looks, their weight, their intelligence, their abilities, whatever. This is not humility at all, but pride, once again, masking as humility. Self-hatred, self-pity, and a constant feeling of low self-esteem are all focusing on yourself instead of focusing on Christ. Any type of self-focus is not humility.

C.S. Lewis wisesly wrote: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Our problem, our sin, our spiritual sickness, is not that we think too little of ourselves. It’s not even that we think too highly of ourselves – although, that’s much closer to the truth. Our problem is that we spend way too much time thinking of ourselves, period.

On any given day, our thoughts, our emotions, our inner evaluations of where we stand in comparison to others, all revolve around the ego. We might conclude that everyone else seems better at things than we are, so we feel mediocre, or a failure. Or we might conclude that we’re more physically fit than the beer guts around us, our job is better, our home is bigger. Or, if we admit that someone is better, wealthier, smarter than us, than we mentally or verbally tear them down so that we can feel superior. Life becomes a competition of winners and losers.

There is no room for humility in this game. This is a game of pride, of ego, of self-importance.

This is the opposite of humility. This is the wisdom of the world. St. James writes: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast and lie, contrary to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but it is worldly, unspiritual, and demonic.” A life full of bitterness, envy, and selfish ambition, is no wisdom at all, but pompous gas. It is not heavenward but earthbound, not of God but of Satan, not of the Spirit, but unspiritual. James says that the obvious conclusion is this: “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and every bad practice.” Earthly wisdom is not only inadequate; it is deadly to our faith, and therefore dangerous to our eternal souls.

St James asks: “Who among you is wise and intelligent?” Wisdom and intelligence sound like synonyms, but they’re different. “Intelligence” focuses on intellect and factual knowledge. “Wisdom” is practical, real-life experience. James isn’t saying that intellect is unimportant, but his primary point in this section of his epistle is about what we do. “Let him by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility.” Wisdom will be evident in conduct.

James contrasts the two kinds of wisdom: earthly and heavenly. The uncoverted have their own kind of wisdom. Just look at our world and you’ll see envy and selfish ambition, disorder and every kind of evil practice. These are the fruits of a bad tree (Matthew 7:18). These are the poisoned fruits of pride. Always seeking oneself.

Thankfully, God has shown us another kind of wisdom. This wisdom is not found in philosophical writings, mathematical formulas, or even in the experience that comes from living life. It’s a wisdom that comes from heaven and has been revealed in the Holy Scriptures. This wisdom is much more than the accumulation of information or the acquisition of insight; it is a way of life. Heavenly wisdom is experiencing Christ in Word and Sacraments. True wisdom that comes from above “is first pure, then also peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere.”

This wise humility can be seen perfectly in the life of Jesus Christ. St. Paul writes of Christ’s humility: “Though he was by nature God, he did not consider equality with God as a prize to be displayed, but he emptied himself by taking the nature of a servant. When he was born in human likeness, and his appearance was like that of any other man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Though Jesus spoke all of creation into existence, He humbled Himself to become a baby that had to learn to talk. Though the heavens cannot contain the Son of God, He humbled Himself to be contained within the womb of a virgin. Though He owns the heavenly mansions, He humbled Himself to have no place to lay His head. Though He was the Master of the Universe, He humbled Himself to wash His disciples’ feet. Though He had never sinned, He humbled Himself to submit to the sinner’s cross.

Wise humility is always putting someone else first. Jesus was always putting others first. He was always doing His Father’s will. He followed that will to put our needs, our illnesses, our salvation first.

The wise humility of Jesus was demonstrated in His mercy toward sinners, in His submission to His enemies in the Garden of Gethsemane, in His patience with His disciples, and finally in His selfless sacrifice on the cross. Jesus not only shows us the way to live in wise humility, He was born, suffered, and died for our false and experiential humility. He gave His wise humility to us to cover over our pride and ego.

The Lord’s view of wisdom involves deeds done in … humility. And that’s where Christ comes in. When you stand at the foot of the cross, when you understand that it was your sin for which Jesus died, when you realize that your life is full and fresh and forgiven because of what your Savior has done on your behalf – that’s when real wisdom begins. That’s when you begin to see your life as a beautiful chance to thank the Lord for what He has done. That’s when you begin to see your life as a precious string of opportunities to thank your Savior by touching the lives of others.

A life of wise humility is a life where we are living not for ourselves, but for Christ. Wise humility is not putting ourselves in the center, but the periphery. It is putting Christ as the center, the focus, the foundation of our faith and life. Wise humility is not thinking too highly of ourselves or thinking too lowly of ourselves, but forgetting ourselves completely as we are so focused on Christ.

This is where the wisdom of Jesus shines through. Over and over, He caught His disciples comparing themselves to each other, squabbling over which of them was alpha. When Jesus caught them arguing about who among them was the greatest He taught them: “If anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all” (Matthew 9:35). His counterintuitive answer to them was to turn their expectations upside-down. You want to be great? Be little. You want to be first? Be last. You want to lead? Serve. You want to follow Me? Take up your cross. You want to be recognized? Be a child of faith.

Then he took a little child and placed him in their midst. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes not just me but also him who sent me” (Matthew 9:36-37).

In other words, if you want to be something, be nothing. Forget about how great you think you are, how much you want to succeed, and instead of focusing on yourself, focus on The Other. Paul puts it this way, “In humility consider others better than yourselves,” (Philippians 2:3). Find your importance, your purpose, your goal outside your ego. Find it in your neighbor’s need. Become the best human being you can be by esteeming others as people you are called to serve, to help, to love.

Wise humility is putting the other person first. It is reflecting the love of Christ who always put you first.  

When the Holy Spirit leads us to understand who Jesus is and what He has done for us, wise humility is born in our hearts. This wise humility leads us to put away all bitter envy and selfish ambition. It helps us see through the false wisdom of this world that is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic, and to follow Jesus by sowing peace so that we too might raise a harvest of righteousness.

As Christians, when you take care of your ailing parents; when you set aside a work project to play catch with your kids; when you swallow your pride and wash the dishes for your siblings or make lunch for your spouse or cut the grass for your elderly neighbor – that is wise humility. Closing your mouth and opening a listening ear. Biting your tongue and offering a kind word. Taking a moment to fill a need. That’s wise humility.

Following Christ, being a servant, becoming child-like. That’s wise humility. Amen.

“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and might belong to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 7:12, EHV)