The 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma traces the effects of the digital age on individuals and communities, highlighting how social media has led to a breakdown of trust and larger social instability.
In it, computer scientist and design ethicist Tristan Harris makes an important observation: technology itself is not necessarily the threat.
“We’re all looking out for the moment when technology would overwhelm human strengths and intelligence,” Harris says. He goes on:
When is it going to . . . replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there’s this much earlier moment when technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification, the entire thing. . . . It’s technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society and the worst in society brings the existential threat.
In other words, while technology may create the conditions, the spark that sets the world on fire is . . . us.
Although he probably doesn’t realize it, Harris is echoing what the apostle James knew in the first century. In James 3:14, he writes that “bitter envy and selfish ambition” fuel “disorder and every vile practice” (v. 16). In the next chapter he says it this way: “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you?” (4:1). Bitterness. Envy. Vile practices. Wars and fights among us. Sounds a lot like the present moment, doesn’t it? But just a few verses prior, James also says this: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness . . . setting on fire the entire course of life” (3:5–6 ESV).
According to James, we are the ones who light the fires with our knee-jerk reactions and our constant need to be right. But James isn’t addressing simply what we say. He’s addressing the deeper realities of our heart, because what we say, write, and profess reveal what’s happening within us. We wage war on the outside because we have passions waging war on the inside. “The source” of all the fighting, of all the fires, isn’t “out there” with some person or group we disagree with. It is “in here.” The spark is the sinful passions and desires within the human heart, both yours and mine. Our mouths simply give them a voice. As Jesus put it in Luke 6:45, “[the] mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”
The danger isn’t simply that we struggle to know and say what’s true, but that too many of us don’t want the truth in the first place. The problem is that we’re interacting with other people from fleshly hearts that are full of “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” Technology has created a combustible environment, sure. It has made it easier for us to be terrible to each other. And that is something to mourn and resist (many tech experts will tell you that was done on purpose). But what James holds up in front of us is this: the desire to be terrible in these ways, regardless of environment, has always been smoldering within us. Our environment can only fan the flame of destruction because the flame is there in the first place.
Fire safety and heavenly wisdom
When I think of a raging fire, I think of my father-in-law who worked as a forester for four decades. Throughout his career, he managed hundreds of acres, partnered with landowners to steward and cultivate their properties, and battled the forest fires that would inevitably break out. In fact, my husband tells of a childhood punctuated by “fire season” — a period of several months in spring and fall when forest fires are common due to environmental factors like dryness, bare trees, and high winds. During fire season, my father-in-law couldn’t travel outside a prescribed radius, needing instead to stay close to his work truck, ever ready, ever vigilant, should a fire break out. Because all it took was one spark. One match, one flame could set the hills ablaze.
While my father-in-law’s work demanded vigilance during fire season, he spent the rest of the year reducing the risk of fire through things like reforestation, prescribed burns, and teaching fire safety to the larger public. (When the moment called for it, he wasn’t above donning a Smokey the Bear costume to remind folks that “Only you can prevent forest fires!”)
The idea behind fire safety is simple: you can’t control the elements. You can’t control how much rain will come and how dry the forest will be. But you can control your behavior. You can choose to make wise choices about when and where you start fires and whether you’re careless with matches. You can conduct yourself with wisdom instead of foolishness.
After warning us about how the tongue can set the world on fire, James asks this question: “Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom” (3:13, emphasis added). And with this, James sets up a contrast between those who pursue wisdom and those who indulge their sinful tendencies. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart,” he continues, “don’t boast and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3:14–15). Simply put, there are those who fight the fires and those who start them. There are those who seek heavenly wisdom and those who act out of earthly wisdom.
So what would this heavenly wisdom look like? How can we tell the difference between the wisdom that is from above and “wisdom” that is simply enabling, excusing, and encouraging our human weaknesses and fleshly desires?
First, heavenly wisdom is counterintuitive. Biblical wisdom has a way of confusing us at first because it challenges the assumptions that emerge from our sin nature. This is what Proverbs 14:12 means when it says that “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” Our instinct or gut feeling about how to respond to a situation or issue is not enough — neither is “feeling peace” or a “lack of peace.”
Instead, we are pursuing the “renewing” of our minds (Rom. 12:2). We are inviting God’s Word and God’s Spirit to make us into the image of God’s Son, to conform our thoughts and words and deeds to his likeness. So, as we explore what wisdom looks like in these times, expect to be surprised. Welcome the experience of feeling challenged. Why? Because this is exactly what the Scripture tells us will happen when we’re being changed.
Second, heavenly wisdom is knowable to all who seek it. Wisdom is not the exclusive property of a select few who have discovered a secret memo, a secret meaning, or a secret cabal. In fact, in James 1:5, the Scripture invites “any of you” who lack wisdom to come to God, promising that he will give it to all truly seeking him. The challenge of wisdom is not that only a few can “know” what is true or real. The challenge is that wisdom requires hard things of us. It disrupts and confronts us, so many of us simply choose to look away from it. We don’t want to look at “the source” of the wars being waged among us, namely, our own sinful passions and desires.
We resist the invitation because doing so would also mean admitting that we are part of the problem. To face our inner arsonist and drag it into the light would take an enormous amount of both courage and humility. This is why James warns us that coming to God for wisdom will require singleness of heart. Anyone can come to God for wisdom; but only those humble enough to believe that God’s ways are better than our own will find it.
Third, heavenly wisdom is countercultural. Those seeking heavenly wisdom are seeking the “narrow way” that leads to life and flourishing — a narrow way that many other people won’t necessarily understand (Matt. 7:14). Even other Christians. Even their fellow citizens. In fact, heavenly wisdom will likely disrupt the status quo because it seeks the kingdom of God rather than a kingdom on this earth. In this way, heavenly wisdom challenges both our personal assumptions and our cultural and social assumptions. So don’t be surprised if, in pursuing heavenly wisdom, you find yourself swimming against the current in unexpected ways. Don’t be surprised when what you once thought to be common wisdom turns out not to be wisdom at all.
Fourth, heavenly wisdom points to the gospel. Rather than reinforcing our sense of righteousness and self-reliance, heavenly wisdom challenges us while leading us to repentance and grace. After all, if Jesus is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), his ways, works, and words will align, teaching us how to live out the gospel in practical ways. Even more, lives based on heavenly wisdom will bolster our claims that Jesus himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Living in foolishness, on the other hand, will undermine our gospel witness because the disconnect between what we say and what we do will be glaringly obvious to anyone watching.
Consider how Paul calls out the partiality and segregation that was occurring in the church at Galatia — when certain Christians separated themselves from their brothers and sisters. He says that “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14 ESV). The way they were mistreating those of a different background reflected earthly values and earthly wisdom. Heavenly wisdom, on the other hand, calls believers to behavior that embodies Christ and his cross.
And finally, heavenly wisdom seeks union and reconciliation. Listen again to the words of James: “But the wisdom that is 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” (3:17–18 ESV). The goal of heavenly wisdom is not simply to separate those who are right from those who are wrong. The goal of heavenly wisdom is to identify and heal the brokenness in our midst. The goal of heavenly wisdom is reconciliation. And while it’s true that some may resist that reconciliation, those seeking heavenly wisdom will not. Those truly seeking to live like Christ understand that the goal of the gospel is reconciling us to God and each other.
Excerpted and adapted with permission from World on Fire. Copyright 2021, B&H Publishing.