“Put first things first and second things are thrown in.
Put second things first and you lose both first and second things.”  C. S. Lewis

This month’s article is written by Bill McDonald. Bill has a PhD in Old Testament and Hebrew (2005, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), and he is a Ruling Elder at Highlands. 

The New Testament book of James is a crash course in how to live out the gospel in the every day grind of life. It begins with the familiar, “Consider it all joy, my brothers (and sisters) when you encounter various trials. . . .” Then, a few lines later, we read this:

Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of his will he brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among his creatures. (James 1:16-18, NASB)

These words taken by themselves may seem rather stream-of-consciousness. But close attention to context reveals the connection with previous lines. James has just explained the truth that hangs as a rubric over the whole letter, that is, that the Christian life is a pilgrimage of growth and maturity hammered out through tough times. Now he takes things a step further, when he says,

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights . . .

He has told us that trials are necessary for spiritual growth. But now, is he actually saying that trials are good?

Remember the lyrics to the Pete Seeger song, “To every thing, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” (Younger readers might need to Google this.) These lyrics are based on the original poem given by the Teacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. In that poem, the Teacher concludes,

He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time.

The poem is teaching that a thing is beautiful, not because it satisfies our sense of “beauty” but because it is ordained and purposed by God. This is James’s point as well.

Herein is a critical lesson for Christians today living in the grind of life. We should derive our standards of “good” and “beauty” from God. Most often, things are good or bad, ugly or beautiful, happy or tragic, because of how comfortable or uncomfortable they make us feel. To the contrary, the Scriptures teach that the events of life are good or beautiful because they come from God, and because they come from God in his perfect timing.

James’ first point, then, is a reminder that everything God does and everything he gives is good; because, God himself is good.

. . . with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.

The second point James makes is that God is unchanging. Have you ever said, following some happy occurrence, “God sure is good!” But then what happened when things went south? Was God still good?

Unlike shadows that shift and turn and come and go, God does not change or vary from day to day. Our circumstances change daily and moment-by-moment. At one point, we may be comfortable and secure in our circumstances and thus affirm that God is good. In the next moment, we may suffer a change in circumstances and question whether God is good after all. In those moments, James says, we must remember that God has not changed. If he was good yesterday, he is good today. Our circumstances may (and will) change, but God never does.

In the exercise of his will he brought us forth by the word of truth . . .

God, by deliberate action, “the exercise of his will”, brought us into new life through the power of the gospel, “the word of truth”. He birthed us to new life in Christ; and, he did so willfully and deliberately, by his choice.

In this third point, James may be combating the notion of fatalism. These new believers may have been tempted to believe that they were victims of an arbitrary and capricious fate, subject to the turning of Fortuna’s wheel. James says, to the contrary, God is actively at work in their lives to bring them to completion (echoing Paul in Ph. 1:6). He has not and will not abandon them (or us).

. . . so that we would be a kind of first fruits among his creatures.

Finally, James reminds us that we are preeminent among God’s creatures, as human beings, women and men; but, most importantly, we are the first fruits of the gospel. James and his contemporaries literally were the first Christians. But in the overall history of redemption, believers are the first to be redeemed within a creation that will itself one day be redeemed, when God makes all things new.
So, as we go through the stuff of life, James shows us four essential things to understand about God.

  1. God is good, and everything he does is good.
  2. God is unchanging. He is as good one day as he is the next, although our circumstances change.
  3. God willfully and deliberately redeemed us and is actively bringing us to completion.
  4. God delights in us as the first among all his creation.

This is the God in whom our faith rests. He and these infallible truths about him are the object of our faith; and, this kind of faith is what James means when he says that when endurance has had its perfect result, we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.