The juxtaposition of and sudden shift from verse 13 to verse 14 indicates that James is contrasting some others with those who are wise and understanding. In place of good conduct, and works done in the meekness of wisdom, he finds envy, bitterness, selfish rivalry, ambition and strife.
The word translated ‘jealousy’ (zēlos; ζηλος) can have either positive or negative connotations. Positively, it might refer to zeal, ardour, or enthusiasm; negatively, it might speak of indignation, envy, or jealousy. Literally, it means to have ‘ferment of spirit’ (Friberg), signifying an inner life active and generative, boiling and bubbling away; but what is being produced? James obviously uses the word in its negative sense, pairing it with another word pikros (πικρος, cf. v. 11)—bitter—which has the sense of being pointed and sharp, and used figuratively as it is here, refers to a resentful attitude that may also be harsh or cruel.
‘Selfish ambition’ (eritheia; ἐριθεία) means just what it says, though it also carries the sense of rivalry or factionalism. Moo notes that it is a comparatively rare word:
In its only pre-New Testament occurrences (in Aristotle), the word refers to the selfish ambition, the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. This meaning makes excellent sense here in James (Moo, 133).
Together these terms portray individuals or even groups within the congregation at odds with one another, striving not with but against one another, seeking an advantage over the over, and jealous or resentful of any success that the other may achieve.
James sees these attitudes and attributes as lodged in the heart, at the centre of one’s personality. Vlachos (122) notes that James’ language indicates that his listeners are ‘harbouring’ these attitudes in their hearts. If this is the ‘spirit’ at work in a person’s heart, they are actually far from wise and understanding. Rather, these attitudes are evidence of an ‘arrogance’ or ‘boastfulness’ that James prohibits (mē katakauchasthe; μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε), an expression of the belief in one’s superiority over others, and as such the very antithesis of the ‘meekness of wisdom.’ Such a person claiming to be wise and understanding is in fact ‘lying against the truth’ (pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias; ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας): their very attitudes and resulting actions betray them. It is not surprising, then, that James prohibits these attitudes. He is calling upon his hearers either to stop this behaviour, or more generally, to avoid becoming these kinds of persons at all (Vlachos, 122-123).
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the little word zēlos which is used by James. Zeal in itself can be a commendable quality, if one is zealous for the right things in the right way. Titus 2:14, for example, exhorts believers to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’ One can be zealous for the things of God, for his word, his truth, his justice, and his mission, in ways that are life-affirming and kingdom-oriented. But it is also possible that this commendable zeal might tip over to become the kind of harsh and bitter zeal that James condemns here.
The problem is that zeal can easily become blind fanaticism, bitter strife, or a disguised form of rivalry and thus jealousy; the person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth (Davids, 151).
How does this occur, and how might it be avoided? James would teach us that if we become convinced of our own rectitude in such a way that we are now against others, if we become partisan and competitive, angry and jealous, ever more determined to press our understanding upon those with whom we disagree, we have already passed beyond the tipping point. James would call us to return to the meekness of wisdom that displays itself good works kindly intended and executed.