On one vacation we took when our children were younger, we planned for a long drive one day and we told the children, “If you don’t fight, don’t ask, ‘are we there yet,’ and quietly watch the scenery or read a book, we will stop for a treat in the middle of the afternoon.” It worked pretty well. The strategy was to tell them that if they were good they would get a reward.
How different the motivation for being good in another situation I observed a few years ago. She had been caring for her aging parents. She went to see them regularly and when her mother got sick and was moved into a personal care home, she continued to care for her regularly. Over time, I watched her provide care as her mother passed away and as her father’s health deteriorated. She continued to care until he also passed away. Somewhere in the middle of this, I asked her why she spent so much time with her parents. I was concerned that she would burn out from spending so much time caring for them. She responded by telling me about all the things her parents had done for her over the years, about how much they loved her and that she loved them. She assured me that she willingly did all she could for them.
The motivation for doing good in this case is almost opposite. Instead of “be good and you will get a reward” it was “I have received so much good that I am gladly willing to do good.”
How is it in regards to our relationship with God? Are we good because we will receive a reward or are we good because God is good? Today I want to challenge all of us to “be good for God is good.”
The text which will help us think about these things is James 1:16-21.
I. God Is Good
A. Don’t Be Deceived
Satan is a liar. He has always been a liar, in fact, Jesus said in John 8:44b, "…When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
Satan lies to us and sometimes we believe those lies. Some of the lies that Satan tells us is that God is a spoil sport who likes to make things hard for us. He lies when he says that God brings hard times and through those hard times causes us to be tempted. It is also a lie when he persuades us to believe that God brings temptation and tests us in order to make us stumble. The upshot of these lies is one more lie and that is that God is not trustworthy. The sad thing is that we believe these lies.
In the verses preceding our text these lies are exposed when James says in James 1:2, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” and verse 13, "When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” When facing trials, or temptations we are enticed to wonder, “Is God good?”
James encourages his dearly loved brothers and sisters that they should not be deceived by these lies.
B. God Gives Good Gifts
Whenever we face such temptations to believe the lies of Satan, we need to remember the words of Jesus in John 8:32 that, "…the truth will set you free.” What is the truth?
James 1:17 declares the truth that God is good. The text expresses it this way, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." What this verse tells us is that what we can expect from God is good.
When the text says “every” it means that all that is a blessing, all that is good has its source in God. When the text talks about a gift, it means that all we experience comes as a present from God. He gives gifts to all people. God is the source of the sunshine and the rain and the plants and the beauty of the earth. God is the source of life and family and every joyful blessing we experience on this earth. He gives gifts to His people – wisdom, spiritual gifts and so much more. When the gift is described as good and perfect, it means that whatever God sends is sent as a positive thing, not a negative thing. So the truth is that what comes from God is a good thing which does not destroy.
The reason we can count on the goodness of God and the blessing of His gifts is because He is the “Father of lights.” To describe God as the “Father of the heavenly lights” is to refer to the nature of God. Genesis 1 says that God is the creator of light. He made light and then He made the sun and the moon. God is the source of light. Jesus is described as the light that came into the world in John 1 and Revelation 21 declares that the heavenly city does not need the sun because God is the light in it. If God is light that means that there is no darkness in Him. In a metaphorical sense it means that God is the source of all moral and spiritual light. In consequence Ross asks, “How can the Father of lights ever lead His creatures into darkness?”
C. He Doesn’t Change
I came into the living room one day and the sun was shining brightly onto the carpet and in the middle of that patch of sun our cat was sprawled out enjoying the warmth. A while later I came into the room again. The cat was lying in the same spot fast asleep, but the sun had moved.
Where is the sun? To answer that question depends on what time of day it is and what time of year it is. The sun is the brightest light we have, but it is constantly moving and every day it disappears completely for a few hours.
The text uses this kind of language to describe that God is not like that. God does not change like the sun. He is not present in the morning, but gone at night. He is not present in summer, but absent in winter. With God there is no changing or “shifting shadows.” This means that God is not whimsical or capricious. His goodness does not come to us only when he feels like it. His goodness isn’t present one day but evil the next day. There is a steadiness about His character that implies that we can count on Him. The book of Hebrews assures us. Speaking about God Hebrews 1:12 says, "…you remain the same, and your years will never end.” Speaking about Jesus Hebrews 13:8 assures us that He, "…is the same yesterday and today and forever."
II. God’s Best Gift
The ultimate proof of the consistent goodness of God is revealed in the greatest gift He has given.
Whether you read NIV which says, “He chose us” or Good News which says “By His own will” or go with the Greek, which simply says, “willingly” the message of these opening words of verse 18 are not to be missed. It is the first volley of a clear message which indicates the goodness of God when it tells us that there was nothing which compelled God to give us this gift.
The greatest gift that God has ever given us was given not to please someone or to get someone to do something for Him or even as a reward for goodness. It was His will, motivated by His love which moved God to demonstrate His goodness by giving us this amazing gift.
B. He Gave Us Birth
The gift which God has given us is the gift of birth by which is meant the gift of the beginning of life. Every family which has its first baby understands the amazing feeling. I remember it well. We were living in Steinbach. I had finished seminary and we were anticipating a move to our first church. Carla was very pregnant already, but life went on almost as normal. For three years we had been married and life had been about us. But on June 9, 1977 our son was born and suddenly our whole world changed. Someone who had not existed before suddenly came into existence. Our whole world changed because there was another person on earth and we were responsible for him.
What God’s gift implies is that we did not have life before the gift was given. We were lost, we were condemned to death, but with the gift of birth, we came to life and by faith in the Word of God which promised that Jesus had died for our sins and given us eternal life, we suddenly came into spiritual existence.
The imagery of birth with its implication of moving from non-existence to existence tells us powerfully of the goodness of God who has chosen to give us this gift of life.
C. To Be His Firstfruits
The language which the writer uses is interesting in that it speaks of birth, which is reproductive imagery. He then goes on to speak of firstfruits, which is also reproductive imagery.
The imagery of firstfruits comes from the Old Testament. There the people of God had been instructed to bring the firstfruits of their harvest to God. Leviticus 23:9-11 describes, "The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the Lord so it will be accepted on your behalf…"
The firstfruits of the harvest had two implications in that context. Firstfruits were an indication of more fruit to come and firstfruits were brought to God as an offering and implied that they belonged to God.
Both of these ideas are relevant here. God’s goodness is demonstrated in that every believer is a kind of firstfruits implying that others will yet come to Christ. It is a picture of the blessing of God to “bring many sons to glory” as Hebrews 2:10 says.
“Firstfruits” also implies dedication to God. We who were enemies have been given life and so are dedicated to God in order that we might be able to continue to experience the blessing of His goodness.
So the message of James 1:16-18 is that God is good. Don’t let Satan every deceive you or convince you of anything else. The gift you have already been given is a clear demonstration of the goodness of God.
III. For Goodness Sake
As we move into verse 19, there is a connection between what has preceded and what is to follow. Once again there is an imperative coupled with the appeal to “my dear brothers.” The connection is that in light of the truth that God is good, there is something we ought to know. What we ought to know is that it is natural and reasonable to respond to the goodness of God. What James is saying in the following verses is, “Be good for God is good.” Tasker puts it this way, “…you are aware of…the heavenly origin of your new birth, but you must see to it that it reflects itself in your personal conduct.”
In James the implications of the new birth are described in numerous places in the book but this morning, we will look only at the few which are mentioned in verse 19-21.
A. Listen More Than Speak
Since God has been so good to us, we ought to be good by being quick to listen and slow to speak.
We all know that speaking can get us into a lot of trouble. There are lots of sayings which reflect this trouble. One of my favorite is, “The only time he opened his mouth was to change feet.” I read another saying that “It takes a child two years to learn to talk--it takes a man all his life to learn how to keep his mouth shut.”
If we are to be good in the area of speech, the first rule is to be a good listener. Herb Kopp writes, “It is always better to be known for listening than for speaking.” So it is commendable to be a person like those in Luke 15:1 who spent time listening to Jesus or those in Acts 2:42 who “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.”
The second rule is to be slow to speak. Do you remember when Rick did the children’s story a while back? He had several children squeeze toothpaste out of a tube as fast as they could. It was set up to be a contest. Then the second part of the contest was that they were supposed to put the toothpaste back into the tube. What a powerful illustration of why it is wise to be slow to speak.
That does not mean that we should always keep quiet, but rather that when our words come out, they should be measured by wisdom and grace and the compassion of Christ.
May we be good with our words by listening well and speaking carefully because God is good.
B. Be Slow To Anger
Another way to be good because God is good is to be slow to anger.
Anger in itself is not sin and is in fact an important emotion. We sometimes think that anger is sin, but anger is simply an indicator that something is wrong that is why it does not say “don’t ever get angry.” Ephesians 4:26 also allows a place for anger, but warns that when we are angry we should not sin.
However, it is important to be slow to anger because anger is also dangerous. I have seen scientific evidence that has demonstrated that intelligence decreases as anger increases. When we become angry, we usually aren’t thinking carefully and we can get into a lot of trouble. We have heard about the careful efforts that were put into place so that the breach of the dam on the Assiniboine River would not destroy the whole dam and spill too much water onto the land. How destructive it would have been if they had not been careful about that. Proverbs 17:14 which says, "Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out." That is the danger of anger. It is so hard to stop and control once it has entered our heart and become active.
Because of that danger, James goes on to explain that “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
I understand that saying very well.
There was a doctor we were trying to get to know so that we could share our faith with him. We invited him over for supper and had a good time. As we tried to share faith with him we got into a theological argument. I still am embarrassed when I think about how I got angry in the middle of that argument and I am sure that becoming angry did not bring him closer to faith.
I can also think back over many church meetings and I can think of many times when anger surfaced in the midst of those meetings, but I have never yet seen God’s will accomplished when anger was present.
I also know that at times I have become angry because important Biblical truths were being discarded. At times like that I have thought, “Now I have reason to be angry, it is righteous indignation.” But I can never remember seeing Biblical truth advanced because of my anger. I have seen much more effective discussion of truth and true progress in understanding when calmer heads prevailed.
These are some of the things I have experienced which have convinced me of the truth of this verse that the anger of man does not indeed bring about the righteous life which God desires. Matthew Henry said, “Whereas men often pretend zeal for God and his glory, in their heat and passion, let them know that God needs not the passions of any man; his cause is better served by mildness and meekness than by wrath and fury.”
So being good by not becoming angry is an important response to the goodness of God which we have been received.
C. Clean Up
James broadens the implications for those who have experienced the goodness of God in the next verse. Here the imagery is that of cleaning things up.
Last week when I spent some time helping people with flood clean up, I came home and was glad to be able to jump into the shower. Do we have the same zeal for cleanness because of the goodness of God we have received? As people whose hearts have been cleaned by the goodness of God’s gift of new birth, it is so clear that whatever is filthy in our life and whatever is evil in our life has no place in it.
They say that graffiti is less likely to happen on a clean wall than on a dirty wall. In a similar way, when any kind of moral filth or dirtiness begins to taint our life, it is much easier for it to multiply and get worse. That is why we must be constantly vigilant and not allow any dirt of any kind to enter our lives. Instead, we are called to be good because God is good.
D. Accept the Implanted Word
So if we want to be good because God is good, there are some things that have no place in our lives. In order to be good, we must find ways of getting rid of these things.
But the final word of this passage encourages us and challenges us further to be good by accepting what God is doing in our life. We are invited to “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
If we want to be good, we need to be humble. If we have a warrior mentality about building righteousness into our life, we will suffer under the delusion of our self sufficiency. If, on the other hand we have a child-like mentality we will recognize that we are not able to be perfect. Humility brings us to the place of recognizing our need.
The good news is that God’s word has already been planted in us. The Old Testament speaks about the promise that God will replace hearts of stone responding to an external word with hearts of flesh responding to an inner word. God has already planted His word in us by the work of salvation and by His Spirit.
In humility, it is up to us to allow God to do His work in us. We need to accept the work He wants to do in us by humbly acknowledging that we cannot do it and accepting His help. We need to accept the implanted word and allow it to transform our lives. I like the way Peterson puts it in The Message – “In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.”
You have heard it said “it’s not what you know it’s who you know.” I would like to suggest a slight change in that saying to “It’s not what you know, it’s what you know about who you know.” This is certainly true about God and what we know about God is that He is good. If we know that God is good, we know what we can expect from God. We can expect good and we can know that He is filled with compassion, that He does good things for all and that He is trustworthy. We know that in His goodness He has given us birth and that we belong to Him.
The question is, “do you know this?” Satan has tried to deceive us, but anything that takes away from acceptance of the truth of the goodness of God is a lie. Please be assured that in whatever you are experiencing, you can count on the truth. God is good!
Since God is good and since we have experienced such unprecedented goodness from God, we are invited to respond. Since God is good, we are called to be good. Since God is good, we are safe to be good. Since God is good, it is our joy to be good. Therefore, let goodness fill your life. Specifically, listen more than you speak, don’t let anger get the better of you because it won’t accomplish God’s plans, get rid of all wickedness and moral evil. Instead, let the Word of God implanted in you influence you to become a new person.
Simply put the lesson for today is, “be good for God is good.”