I know that the above aphorism is really popular, but is it true? Let’s look at it with the cold eye of logic for a moment. What do people usually mean when they say it? Maybe something like "When you receive a gift, it may not be what you wanted or like, but at least the person thought about you enough to actually give you something." I remember several years ago when someone gave me a gift card to a store I never frequent. They did their best, but not knowing my interests, quite frankly their gift didn’t do a lot for me except give me warm thoughts towards them. Intention trumps whether the gift is actually something we need or want. And of course this leads to the ever-present phenomenon known as “re-gifting,” very popular at “White Elephant” Christmas parties.
But even though people sometimes give less-than-perfect gifts and none of us have perfect motives, there’s one case in which both the gift and the Giver’s motives are perfect. That brings us to today’s passage.
Before we get to verse 17, which talks about God’s gifts, we should keep in mind verse 16, which connects to the first part of the chapter. James is talking about trials and temptations and how they relate. God might bring bad circumstances into our lives, and if we listen to the Enemy’s lies, he’ll tell us that our Father isn’t really good to us, that he doesn’t really care about us, that he’s holding back something good from us. That’s turning a trial into a temptation.
He’s lying to us, hence his title as the “Father of Lies.” Verse 16 tells us that when the Devil tries to whisper in our ears about our Father’s supposed lack of goodness to us (which was his lie to our original parents), we have to decide not to be deceived. To say that our Father’s been good to us is a huge understatement.
“Every good and perfect gift”—what does that mean? Are some of God’s gifts perfect and some of them merely good? I guess that makes sense. His gift of salvation (with all the ancillary gifts such as adoption, making me his heir, the gift of the Holy Spirit, etc.) is perfect. In contrast, if the Lord decided to financially bless someone, that’d be a dangerous gift at best and a hindrance to his salvation at worst. Spurgeon said that apparently the Lord doesn’t really value monetary wealth all that much, since he frequently gives it to those who’re under his wrath. Good health, popularity, money, power, intellect, and plenty of sex all have their downsides at best and can easily become a person’s downfall. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with temporal blessings, but they’re certainly not perfect like the blessings we get via Christ under the umbrella of “salvation.”
Well, actually, “Every good and perfect gift” might not be the best translation. I checked the NET Bible, and here's what it says: “The first phrase refers to the action of giving and the second to what is given.” That’s why the NET renders it as “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above.”
Either interpretation is fine with me, since they both lead to the same point: Every good thing we have ultimately comes from God. You might think “Well, I for one work hard for my money.” But who gave you the ability to work? Or if I get sick and a doctor treats me? Even if you weren’t healed miraculously, it’s Yahweh Rapha who provided your body with the immune system to heal, and it’s the Source of all Wisdom who gave that doctor what he needed to treat you, not to mention all the doctors and researchers behind that treatment.
And unlike people who change, he never does. Even the best of people with the best of intentions fail us at times. As Alistair Begg puts it, “The best of men are men at best.” Picture the stereotypical politician who puts his finger in the wind and changes his “heartfelt beliefs” and principles the moment they become inconvenient. That’s the polar opposite of our Father. He doesn’t change like the shifting shadows. He doesn’t change at all. All of his gifts, even the ones which really hurt at first, are good because he is, and he always will be.
This is proved by the best gift he’s ever given us or anyone else. Through Christ, he chose to give us new birth. That’s what we had to have in order to enter his presence. It’s not mentioned in this verse, but let’s not forget what’s contained in that statement “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth.” What did it take for him to be able to do that? The very blood of his Son.
And what’s the result of this new birth? The result is that we’re “a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Think of the term prototype, the first of a new kind. Once again, I’m sure that I could try to say it better than MacArthur, but that’d be a wasted effort. Talking about the word “firstfruits,” he says “Originally an OT expression referring to the first and best harvest crops, which God expected as an offering (cf. Ex 23:19; Lev 23:9-14; Dt 26:1-19). Giving God that initial crop was an act of faith that He would fulfill His promise of a full harvest to come (Pr 3:9,10). In the same way, Christians are the first evidence of God's new creation that is to come (cf. 2Pe 3:10-13) and enjoy presently in their new life a foretaste of future glory (Ro 8:19-23).”
Christ is the “firstfruits” of the new humanity, the first and the Head of a new “race” so to speak, and by faith we all become part of it. God chose to give that to us, and that’s the definitive, conclusive, and final evidence of his goodness towards us. How dare I not trust him?
Father, I do trust you, or at least I try to. You’ve given me nothing but mercy and grace and love, and my love for you is so cold and fickle by comparison. Fill me with you, so that there’s less room for me.