The Features and Fruits of Hellish Wisdom

Continuing from yesterday, we are considering a key New Testament passage on wisdom, James 3:13-18. We already noted that meekness is a key mark of the wise person. Today, we examine the features and fruits of worldly wisdom explained in verses 14-16.

14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

Verse 14 begins with But. This presents a contrast. In other words, if our behavior is not characterized by the meekness of wisdom then it means we are being controlled by worldly wisdom, which comes from below, from hell. If we are controlled by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition then that is evidence that we are not walking in the spirit of meekness and humility, according to godly wisdom. Instead, we are under the influence of hellish wisdom, the wisdom that comes from below. These are strong words, but it’s what James teaches. What is this hellish wisdom like? How do we know if we are guilty of being governed by the wisdom from below?


James says that the wisdom from below has 3 features…

  1. It is earthly – Hellish wisdom is built on human knowledge that excludes God. Earthly wisdom is worldly wisdom that does not take into account the revelation of God in His Word. It merely operates on what might be called “common sense.” Or in more contemporary lingo: “Just follow your heart.” In contrast, the apostle Paul consciously avoided worldly wisdom because he wanted the faith of others to rest on Christ instead (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
  2. It is unregenerate – The word James uses here is from psychikos, which is always used negatively in the New Testament (1 Cor. 2:14; 15:44, 46; Jude 19). It refers to that which is natural or carnal—the opposite of what is spiritual. It characterizes life without God. That’s why the ESV translates it “unspiritual.” It refers to that which is devoid of the life of God (1 Cor. 2:14). Since God has given us the riches of wisdom by means of Christ, His Word, godly counsel, and prayer; why should we seek the counsel of the ungodly? Indeed the righteous man described in the first psalm “does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1).
  3. It is demonic – Hellish wisdom is that of a superficial religion, which results in no change of heart and life, and is demonic. Adherence to earthly wisdom cooperates with the work of Satan. Peter was under the influence of hellish wisdom when He forbade Jesus from going to Jerusalem to be killed. Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” [Matthew 16:23]

From this we may conclude it is possible for a believer in Christ to fall prey to the devil’s schemes when he governs his life by earthly wisdom instead of the wisdom that comes from God. Therefore, we must repent of the ways in which we have allowed worldly wisdom to influence how we think and live.


Hellish wisdom bears rotten fruit. We see 4 rotten fruits of worldly wisdom…

  1. Bitter jealousy – Bitter jealousy, or envy, denotes a sour attitude toward others whom you see as being more blessed than you are, or who occupy a position you crave. Basically, we may define envy this way: Envy is the discontent feeling you get when you see the advantages of others. If you are filled with envy then you don’t want others to be blessed. Essentially, you want only yourself to be the object of God’s affection and blessing. Envy is an evil attitude resulting in evil actions toward others. One commentator writes, “Envy is the enemy of Christian living. It is the opposite of grace, for it wants to grasp rather than to give. Envy is the opposite of caring for the needy. Envy sees only its needs and desires. Envy thinks other people should care for themselves. Left to ourselves, we all live for ourselves and envy what others have.” (Daniel Doriani)
  2. Selfish ambition – This may also be translated “rivalry.” The term “seems to be that of one who, for personal advantage, works to promote a definite cause in an unethical manner” (D. Edmond Hiebert). It refers to the man who vies for a position that does not belong to him. Kent Hughes calls selfish ambition the “wretched twin” of bitter envy. Notice where James says that envy and selfish ambition exist, “in your hearts;” that is, this is first and foremost an internal problem, not external  (See Mark 7:21-23). What is the cause of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition? We see the answer in the command: “Do not boast.” Arrogance is the cause. To boast, James says, is to “be false to the truth.” Why? Pride makes us think we are something when God really knows that we are just dust.
  3. Disorder – Where envy and selfish ambition exist, there will be “disorder;” that is, a disturbance, trouble, or instability. James corrected the disorder which is caused by prideful people who come into a peaceful situation exalting themselves above others, thus creating a party spirit which destroys unity. The church at Corinth is an illustration of this, where it resulted in a church split (1 Cor. 1:10-13). Because worldly wisdom stems from the flesh it produces fleshly results.
  4. Unlimited evil – Hellish wisdom leads to “every vile practice,” which refers to that which is bad, foul, or vile. Arrogance is contagious. When envy and selfish ambition, which are the fruit of hellish wisdom, reign in the heart they will lead to all kinds of trouble.

Those are the characteristics of hellish wisdom. No wonder James urges us to turn away from it. Tomorrow, we will take a look at heavenly wisdom.

[This 3-part blog post series is based upon a sermon preached at Cornerstone Community Church in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, entitled “Wise Up.”] Search on the sermon title here.

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