We talked last week about God as the Father of lights, the giver of every good and perfect gift, with no variation, no shifting or change, in his goodness; in particular, we talked about the significance of that for our view of the trials we face in life, that we can be certain that he sends us only what is good for us, and that his faithfulness to us continues even in the hard times. What we didn’t have time to get to is the other way James applies this truth. He says, “Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters; every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” not just to underscore and give reason for his comments about trials and temptations, but also to set up his next comment: “He chose to give us birth”—the Father gave birth to us; this is strange, striking language, designed to catch the ear and grab our attention—“through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
Several things here. First off, the example James holds up to prove his assertion is—us; or more precisely, God’s creative work in us. Whether this means the physical creation of human beings, recorded in the first chapters of Genesis, or whether it’s intended spiritually, referring to our new birth into new life in Christ, James doesn’t specify; for my part, I’m inclined to think he means both. Why? Well, he says the Father gave birth to us “through the word of truth.” What does that mean? Part of it, obviously, is the word of Scripture, the Old Testament Law and the New Testament Gospel; but the deeper meaning here is Jesus, through whom both our physical creation and our spiritual re-creation were accomplished. Jesus is, as John tells us, God’s Word through whom all things, including us, were created; and he is the Word made flesh, the Word incarnate, through whom we have been re-made, made new, born again from above to new life in him. He is the Word of God made human, revealed to us through the word of God written, the Bible, through whom and through which we have been given birth.
But what about that language, “gave us birth”? We shouldn’t press that too far, as if we might claim to share God’s DNA; one of the reasons the Bible uses male language for God is to keep Israel and the church from moving in that direction. Goddess worship tends to follow that track to its logical conclusion and assert that we ourselves are divine, gods and goddesses in our own right, and there’s just no room for that here—the Scriptures are careful not to leave any room for that at all. And yet, it’s quite easy to fall off the way of truth in the opposite direction, into what we might call the equal and opposite heresy of distancing God from his creation. This is the heresy of modern Western rationalism, which might believe there’s a God in some abstract sense but feels free not to give a rip about him on the grounds that he really doesn’t give a rip about us, either. To this, James’ language gives the lie. How we imagine a father giving birth, I’m not sure, but this makes it very clear that God is personally, intimately involved in our creation, both our physical creation and our spiritual re-creation.
The reason for this is set out in the last part of verse 18: “so that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Literally the first part of the harvest, the first things that could be taken from the fields, and thus the promise of the full harvest to come, the first fruits were dedicated to God under the Old Testament law, and so also came to be understood as God’s special possession. Both these things are in view here. All of us as human beings belong to God in a special way, for we are capable of relating to him in a much deeper way than the rest of the created world; those of us whom he has saved through Jesus Christ are firstfruits of his creation in another way, for we are the beginning of his redemptive work, which ultimately will encompass the redemption and renewal of the whole created order. We are important and valuable in ourselves, but also as signs of what is to come, as the first fruits of the work of Christ on the cross.
Which means that we have a responsibility to live accordingly; and so James says firmly, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” The world tells us, if you want to understand yourself, if you want to know yourself, look at yourself—look at your desires, your impulses, your strengths, your weaknesses, and go from there. But while all of that is valuable, the Bible tells us we need to begin not with ourselves, but with the God who made us. If we have indeed been given birth through God’s word of truth, then to know who we are and how we should live, we need to under-stand that word of truth; which is to say, we need to stand under it, to place ourselves in position to receive and accept it. We must be quick to listen and slow to speak; we must receive and absorb the word of God, chew on it and swallow it and let it change us, rather than spitting it out whenever we don’t care for the taste.
Too often, however, we reverse this—we’re slow to listen and quick to speak. Too often we see ourselves not as the receiver but as the judge, standing over the word of truth to critique it. There are, for instance, those who feel they have the right to disregard or reject the parts of Scripture that say things they don’t like; but really, you can’t do that without rejecting all of Scripture, because the Bible itself won’t let you do that. Once you start doing that, you have rejected the word of God as the word of truth, and have instead set it up as something to be used when convenient to support what you already believe, or would like to believe. Others of us, though we might not go quite that far, still have something of that spirit in us as we read the word—we just resist more subtly, is all.
Now, none of this is to say that we have to believe everything anyone tells us is biblical; clearly, there are a lot of bad interpretations floating around out there along with the good ones. It is, however, to say three things. First, even when confronted with a view of Scripture which we think is false, we should listen carefully, to see if perhaps there’s a grain of truth to it which we haven’t considered; which is often the case. It’s only the arguments opposed to our own, after all, which can show us the flaws in our own views. Second, we aren’t free to resolve our issues or problems by throwing out the Scripture, for to do that is to hush the voice of God in our lives. Third, in all of this, we must be slow to anger, as James says, for human anger does not produce the righteousness of God. Anger over disagreements, anger over being challenged, does not lead to right relationships, either with God or with each other, and must be set aside in the normal course of life. Therefore, James says, we must put aside everything in us that resists the word of truth and receive it meekly—we have already been given it, but we must open our hearts and welcome it, and the transformation it brings.
We’re called to become doers of the word, and not merely hearers. What matters isn’t how much we’ve heard, or how much we know (or think we know), or how good we are at talking the talk—what matters is how much the word has changed us, how much it’s expressed in our lives. This is the first appearance of a theme James will consider in more detail in chapter 2, the connection between faith and works, which will lead him to declare that faith without works is dead. But what does it mean, to be doers of the word? It means that if you say you believe the gospel, and it doesn’t change your life, you don’t believe it. If you listen to the preaching of the word, and you nod your head and say, “Good sermon,” and you don’t go out and put it into practice, you don’t believe it. If you read the Bible, and you understand what it’s telling you, and you don’t do everything you can to live accordingly, you don’t believe it. It’s not enough to say the right things, it’s not enough to sing the hymns, it’s not enough to repeat the Creed, it’s not enough to think all the right thoughts—if you don’t do it, if you don’t live this book, then you’re missing something. You might be saved for later, you might have your ticket to heaven punched, but if all this never leaves your head, if it never reaches your hands and your feet, then you aren’t living God’s life now.
You see, we aren’t here just to think certain things, or even to say certain things; it’s not enough just to know God’s word. That phrase “doer of the word” is an odd one—James here is writing in Greek, but he’s thinking in Hebrew. The Greek verb there is poieo—the noun version, poiēma, is the word from which we get our word “poem”; it can mean “to do,” but its basic meaning is “to make,” and in normal Greek, this would have been read as “maker of words”—in our terms, “wordsmith,” or “poet.” To take the typical Hebrew phrase, “doer of the word,” and just import it into Greek the way he does creates a very interesting bit of wordplay—and a profound one, I think. As Christians, we’re called to be in a very real way God’s poems, to write out his words with our lives, so that people who look at our lives can read his message to them in us.
Put another way, we’re supposed to incarnate the word of God—to make God’s word real in our lives, to wrap the flesh of our lives around the bone of his will and his commands, to become walking examples of his teaching; as we follow Christ, who was the Word of God incarnate, we are called to be “little Christs”—that’s what “Christians” means—to be copies of Christ, copies of the word of God, walking around in this world. The Bible is the word of God written, presenting us with Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh; and our job is to become the word of God acted out, lived out, in 21st-century America. It’s true, as many have said, that you are the only Bible many people will ever read; it’s also true, says James, that that ought to be enough. If you are the only Bible people have ever read, that ought to be enough to tell them who God is, and who Jesus is, and why they ought to follow him. That’s what it means to be a doer of the word, and not merely a hearer of the word. That’s what it means for your life to be a poem for God. That, says James, is what it means to be a Christian.
Now, for our lives to look that way, every part of our lives ought to express the love of God and the grace of Christ and the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit. Those gifts ought to be the guiding and governing realities of our daily lives, and everything we say and everything we do should bear them witness. But how do we do that? If we live like that, what does that look like? It’s all well and good to say, as I’ve said and others have said, that the Christian life is all about being in Christ and following Christ; but being produces doing, and following Christ means going in a certain direction, and at some point you have to put your shoes on and start walking—which way?
This is why James, at the end of this chapter, defines religion very practically, and very concretely; and it’s why he’ll come back to these points later on in the letter to expand and reinforce them. What’s true religion? Restrain your tongue, for starters; keep a tight rein on it, and don’t let it wander off the path. Gossip, backbiting, insults, angry speech, lies, all of that, anything that doesn’t help and encourage and build up the body of Christ is right out. For another, there’s something here, I think, that our translation doesn’t catch. The Greek here is problematic—you can either go with an unusual word meaning, or disregard the grammar; the NIV chooses the latter, but I’m inclined to follow Luke Timothy Johnson and do the former instead. He reads verse 26 this way: “If anyone considers himself religious without bridling his tongue and while indulging his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” I think that makes the most sense of the flow of the passage, because it sets up the turn into verse 27, with James emphasizing that indulging our own desires rather than taking concern for the needs and wants of others is un-Christlike. There’s just no room in that sort of approach to life for the one who traded in the glory and perfection of heaven for the mess and pain of life on this planet, and who then voluntarily submitted to a torture-death he didn’t deserve.
Instead, James says, true religion is to take care of those in need—here again, as we’ve seen before, the emphasis is on the most powerless and vulnerable, the fatherless and the widow—and keep oneself unstained by the world. Rather than falling into the world’s ways of thinking and living, rather than being doers of the world whose lives look just like everyone else’s, we need to hold fast to what Scripture teaches—all of it, properly understood—even when that puts us solidly against the world around us. A religion which conforms itself to the ways of the world, which indulges us in our desires and doesn’t challenge us to control our tongues and watch what we say, is worthless, and no thing of God.
Such a person, who hears the word of God but doesn’t do it, James compares to a man—and yes, he specifically says man here, as in “male human”; the women of the church can make of this what they will—who catches a mirror out of the corner of his eye as he’s walking along, takes a quick glance at himself, and keeps on walking, immediately forgetting what he looked like. Confession time: that’s me, most days, with my mind on something else, so I can relate to that. The thing is, that’s not how we’re supposed to use God’s word. Instead, we’re supposed to look into it deeply, to absorb it and let it shape us.
It’s like the story you may have heard of a boy growing up in New England who saw a face in the mountain, a kind, wise, gentle face, and wanted to know whose face it was, so when the boats came in, bringing people to the village, he would go down and watch their faces, and sometimes ask if they knew whose face it was. All his life he did this, until one day he asked someone getting off the boat if they recognized that face, and the person looked at him and said, “Yes—it’s you.” He had spent so much time looking at that face, it had transformed him. That’s what James calls us to, to spend so much time looking at God through his word that he becomes the vision we have always before us, always fixed in our minds, so that we are transformed.