17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
We are going to be spending the next couple of weeks looking at the book of James. James is one of those books that people either love or hate, depending on your theological background and your current walk with Jesus. We know that the great reformer Martin Luther did not like James. He called it an “Epistle of Straw,” which is to say that he didn’t think that it was very substantive. Luther thought that James was weak theologically and that’s in large part because Luther really liked the Pauline letters. So if you really like Paul’s letters and Paul’s theology, you may not like James. I’ve even heard that Luther tried to remove the entire book of James from the Bible when he was translating the Bible into German.
So why the big struggle between the letter from James and the letters from Paul? Paul talks a lot about grace. If you know much about Luther you know that Luther had a conversion in his way of thinking when he focused on salvation by grace through faith. Paul also has a number of beautiful theological statements in his letters. But James gets down and dirty. James talks about ethics. Surely Paul talks about ethics and James does theology and grace, but the emphasis seems to be different in each of the letters.
There is not universal agreement on this, but most people assume that James was written by James the brother of Jesus. James was a leader in the early church, and this letter reflects a lot of Jesus’ teachings as if he might have had some first-hand experiences with the man himself.
Some scholars claim that James and Paul didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on a few things. If you read the second chapter of Galatians you find that Paul is not happy with Peter because he believes that Peter has been influenced bit too much by James and his teaching. (Come on Peter, you’re sounding like James!) The 21st-century church isn’t the only one with issues! So there are those that believe that James was written to correct Paul’s theology, or perhaps the other way, Paul may have written to correct James’ theology.
Who was right? I think that they both were and are correct. And I believe that we need both Paul and James’ theology today. There is a good reason that they both are in the Bible. And I don’t think that their theologies are incompatible. They simply have different emphases. Like the Body of Christ today, one is a hand, the other a foot. Without one, the body would be less healthy.
To put it in theological terms, Paul focuses on justification while James focuses on sanctification. Paul focuses on God forgiving us for the things that we have done while James focuses on not making those mistakes again. So who is right? Yes!
Let’s start today by looking at a small part of James’ epistle and compare it with some of Paul’s writings to see what we can learn from this two-millennia-long discussion.
Every good and perfect gift is from above. Can we just think about that short phrase for a second? I’m not sure if James is saying that in order for us to be assured that a gift is from God that it needs to be both good and perfect or if he is saying that good gifts and perfect gifts are both from God. The difference is not insignificant. Are my children a gift from God? If James is saying that every good gift and every perfect gift is from God, well then I would have to say that they meet the criteria to be considered a gift from God. But if James is saying that a gift from God is both good and perfect, I might have to question whether or not my children are a gift from God or not! Most of the time they are good, but I wouldn’t claim that they are perfect! Let’s just come out and say it. They get half their genetics from me, so they are destined to be a lot less than perfect.
Of course my children are a gift from God. So is my wife, and so is my congregation. I consider you all to be a gift from God, even though none of us are perfect.
The point that James is making here is that good things come from God, so we need to be sure to give credit where credit is due. We know we should be doing this, but often we fail because we just forget. My wife has been struggling with a respiratory issue for the last couple of weeks, which means that she wakes up every couple of hours coughing, which means I wake up every couple of hours to her coughing. But Wednesday night my wife slept through the night. I know that I sound like a parent of an infant, excited that my child slept through the night and I finally feel rested. But rather than my child, it is my wife who slept through the night. We are all so proud; they grow up so fast.
That healing is a good thing. And James is simply reminding his readers that all good things – all good things – come from God. The fact that I woke up today at all is a gift from God!
So why am I emphasizing something that you already know? Because I need to point out that the opposite is not true. James’ statement that all good things come from God does not imply that all things are a result of God willing them to happen. And it surely doesn’t mean that the bad things that happen in life are a result of God causing them to happen.
James seems to be writing this to correct some bad theology that says that God is the cause of all things, even bad things like temptation. Evidently someone was teaching that God tempts us, perhaps to make us stronger. But James writes in verse 13-14, “For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”
God isn’t tempting you. God doesn’t want to see you stumble! It all comes back down to freewill. Are you going to give in to your own desires that are against the will of God or are you going to be strong and faithful in the middle of the storm?
I can get pretty frustrated with well-intentioned individuals that try to be helpful in times of trauma by dropping pious religious phrases. I remember all too well standing in line to greet a family at the funeral of their teenage son who died in a car accident. The person in front of me said to the grieving father, “It was his time. God took him from us too soon, but God is good.”
Oh, I believe that God is good. And I believe that all good things come from the Father in heaven. But that doesn’t mean that bad things come from the Father as well. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
God’s plans benefit us. They are not plans to harm us or to take us to heaven before we are old enough to shave. God wants us to have hope and a future. Yes, there are examples in the Bible where God does cause something that we might consider harmful, but more often we find God allowing things to happen.
The young man that died a death way too soon made some bad decisions. He was in a single-vehicle accident, hitting a tree while driving too fast. He was given the freewill to drive too fast, and he did just that.
In that moment when I was waiting in line to meet the family of the deceased boy I realized that the words of the man standing in front of me were helpful to the family. They nodded their heads in agreement. And during the funeral I heard similar theology coming from both the father and a sister that shared about their lost loved one. So even though I disagree with that theological statement, I also want to acknowledge that there is a time and place for the discussion that we are having right now. And that time and place is here now, not there then.
When the father agreed that God had taken his son too soon, I wanted to say, “Stop blaming God! God doesn’t cause these bad things to happen! It was your son’s fault!” But I didn’t. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t. As James reminds us here in verse 19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” We will come back to that in future message when we focus on James’ words about taming the tongue. My word of advice for you all today is simply to know that it is okay for someone to hold to bad theology if it is helpful in times of trauma. But we need to stop spreading that bad theology because what happens when the younger sister grows up and starts to think back on this devastating event from her life and reflects on what it means for God to take her brother when he was a teenager? What happens when she starts to blame God for taking her brother rather than using this bad theology for comfort? I can’t imagine that this would help her faith blossom and grow.
My theological construction has its own shortcomings, I realize that. But I believe that there is a huge difference between God causing bad things to happen and God allowing bad things to happen.
I often think about the book of Job when I ask the question of why bad things happen. This book of the Bible answers a lot of questions, but it also raises a number of concerns as well for me! The overarching story of Job tells us that there is this healthy and prosperous man named Job who loses it all. He loses his family, is livelihood, even his own health. We find chapters of this book that are dedicated to monologues from Job’s friends as they try to figure out why Job is suffering. They are sure that he has done something to anger God. Surely he has sinned. Surely he has done something that has caused God to punish him so severely. But Job assures them time and time again that this isn’t the case.
And Job is right. As readers of this text, we are allowed to see that there is more going on behind the scenes. It isn’t God that is causing all of this suffering at all. It is other forces in the spiritual realm that are afflicting Job. Yes, God allows it to happen, but God isn’t causing it. And in the end, Job is given credit for staying strong in his faith throughout his time of suffering.
Here is what I know: God is the giver of all things that are good. But God is not the one that causes suffering and pain. Some views of divine providence would have you believe that, but I don’t buy into it. My understanding of providence does not name God as the one who causes suffering, but my understanding of providence does say that God allows suffering. And why God allows some suffering to take place, I cannot say.
So where do those people that say God causes everything get that idea from? From Paul, of course! I want to say that they misunderstand Paul, but they would probably say that I misunderstand James.
Romans 8:18-21 is a common go-to passage for people that want to say everything happens as a direct cause from God. The passage reads: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
One way of understanding this is that Paul is saying that our present sufferings are a result of God subjecting creation to pain and decay. All of this is done to show the glory of God and the sinfulness of humanity.
Paul will go on to say in chapter 11 verse 36: “For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” From God, through God, and for God all things are. Similar little phrases can be found in 2 Corinthians 5:18 and Ephesians 1:11.
So here is my problem(s) with this deterministic understanding of God’s providence. First, if you find people quoting these passages, usually you find one verse, like Romans 11:36, without quoting any of the surrounding verses. Because to say “For from him and through him and for him are all things” obviously means that everything that happens is a direct result of God willing it to happen?
Obviously, my friends, context matters. Paul is talking about Gentiles becoming a part of the Christian movement and he is simply saying that the grafting in of the Gentiles is something that God has done and can do for his own glory. Paul is asking if God can bring Gentiles into the body, and Paul is saying that God can do whatever God wants. What he isn’t saying is that God causes everything that happens, no matter how good or bad, to happen.
There are more passages that seem to say the opposite, that say that God does not force everything that happens to happen. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9 both tell us that God wants everyone to repent and follow him: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 P). God doesn’t want anyone to perish. God wants everyone to come to him, to follow him. But does everyone follow God? So if God causes everything that happens to happen, why doesn’t everyone follow God?
In the Mennonite Church we talk about reading scripture through the lens of Jesus. If two passages seem to disagree, like the words from James and the words from Paul, we use Jesus as the tiebreaker. And in Matthew 23:37 Jesus says this: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Jesus, God in human form, wants to gather all people together under his protective wing. But people are not willing. If God has determined everything, good or bad, God has determined that certain people will not join Jesus in his mission. But as we see in these passages, God wants to save everyone, to gather everyone, to redeem everyone. God does not cause people to reject him. We have the choice.
Finally, I just want to say that God causing everything to happen, good or bad, just doesn’t make sense. It is unreasonable. Now I’m not the most reasonable person in the world. I believe that a man born of a virgin died and came back to life again and that his followers won’t kill each other. I’m unreasonable, I know! But if God causes all things to happen, then God causes every miscarriage, every act of violence, and every broken heart. We don’t even need to talk about the Holocaust or Hiroshima to know that the God who is love didn’t cause that to happen. Why God allowed it to happen is another issue altogether. God didn’t cause my friend’s son to die in a car accident. God didn’t take him.
All good and perfect gifts are from our father in heaven. Let us give him praise for that! But let us not blame him for our own mistakes.