Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 1:16-18



1:16 – Continuing on from his admonition that God does not tempt anyone, James strongly warns his audience against being deceived regarding the nature of God. His warning is well taken; it is often a misapprehension of God’s nature that leads to most of the errors in both doctrine and practice for individual believers and even whole denominations. One commentator on this verse suggested that the problem was that some Christians choose to over-exaggerate certain attributes of God’s character, such as his love, while others might exaggerate his wrath against sin. But this commentator’s estimation does not quite hit the mark. The problem is not one of exaggeration: in point of fact, it is entirely impossible to over-exaggerate any aspect of God’s character. All that God is, he infinitely is. The scope of God’s love (or holiness, or justice) is so vast that one simply cannot ever say too much about it. It cannot be exaggerated. The error that the commentator was trying to hone in on, though, is a very real danger: the error of emphasizing one of God’s attributes to the neglect of others, as if they were separable aspects of his character, some of which can be ignored. But God is not customizable to our tastes, and it’s a rather good thing that he’s not. Some Christians make the error of so emphasizing the wrath of God against sin, and neglecting the doctrine of his love, that they end up with a vision of God as a glowering judge in the heavens, who is fastidiously keeping track of all of one’s mistakes. As such, the practice of such Christians tends to be legalistic, narrowly focused on checklists of sins to avoid. On the other hand, some Christians fall into the opposite error: emphasizing the love of God while neglecting his wrath against sin, they end up with a vision of God in which he is simply shrugs away our sins, counting them as being of no consequence. Now, one might conceivably think that a God like that would be rather nice—a God who would casually overlook my many misdeeds does seem appealing. But when one looks at the state of our world, and considers all of the pain and suffering caused by human sinfulness, then we must ask: do we really want a God who shrugs all this off, and treats it as being of no consequence? Of course not. We need a God who is holy and just, who understands the gravity of sin and suffering, and who is able, through necessary measures, to make all wrong things right again. Thankfully, we have such a God—but we can only see him as he is when we hold both his love and his wrath against sin together. His attributes are not separable; they are united expressions of his singular, indivisible nature. Thus his love is rooted in his holiness and justice; and in the same way his wrath against sin is rooted in his love for us, much the same way as a good father would hate the addiction that enslaves the son he loves. If he did not hate the addiction, he would not truly love his son. God’s love and his wrath are two sides of the same coin, and both perfectly expressed in the mercy of the cross: where God dealt with all the terrible gravity of sin rather than shrugging it off, and where his limitless love for humanity was forever displayed in all his splendor. So although there is a temptation to cherrypick our favorite Bible verses and ignore the rest, to focus on some attributes of God and neglect the others, we cannot do so. We need to let the voice of Scripture and Christian tradition continue speaking to us, challenging our narrow, finite views of the infinite God. “Do not be deceived.”

1:17-18 – Instead of a view of God as a source of temptation, James says that God is the giver of all good things. Everything good, and beautiful, and true comes from him. There is nothing in the beauties of nature, art, music, or philosophy that is not underlain by the great and abiding goodness of God. James draws a parallel between God and “the heavenly lights” to make his point. The sun bestows its bright, clear, life-giving rays upon the earth, though sometimes things get in the way of our experience of those rays: changing seasons, times of day, clouds, or other obstacles can change our experience of sunlight, making it seem a transitory thing, something characterized by “shifting shadows.” But nothing could be farther from the truth. Though clouds may get in the way, the clouds do not change the fact that the sun’s rays remain entirely bright, clear, and life-giving. In the same way, we may allow some things to block our experience of God’s goodness: temptations, our own sinfulness, our limited perspectives and petulant attitudes when undergoing hardship. But though these things might block our subjective experience of God’s outpouring, radiant goodness, they do not in fact change the fact that God remains the ultimate source of all good. The clouds do not make the sun less powerful, nor do temptations diminish God’s great goodness. It is we who must take responsibility for keeping the ways clear for God’s good gifts to shine on through. James then underscores the goodness of God by listing the greatest example of his generous love: the fact that he has given us birth by his word—a reference not to our mortal existence, but to our spiritual rebirth in Christ. We who are born again in Christ are the firstfruits of something far bigger that God is doing—the restoration and re-creation of all things. Our coming alive in the moment of our salvation—the time when, as Paul says, we became “new creations,” is itself a herald and presage of the great moment to come, when all of creation will experience its liberation in God’s re-creation, the new heavens and the new earth. God is so good that he does not make us wait until the end of time to be a part of this end-times new creation; no, he lets us live in that moment even now, on the threshold of his coming Kingdom, as the firstfruits of God’s new creation. Indeed he is the giver of all good things.

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