Giving Birth to Death


This is the Boulder River in Montana. I’ve lived near this river for many years, and fished it too many times to count. It’s beautiful, cold, and clear. But I’ve now read that it is closed to all recreational activity, along with all other tributaries of the Yellowstone River.

It’s closed because a parasite has been found in thousands of dead fish along the Yellowstone River. This particular parasite enters the fish through the gills, and eventually causes kidney failure. It’s really sad, and it will impact many, many people.

It’s just like sin. Speaking about sinful desire, James says, “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Fishermen and floaters are being encouraged to thoroughly wash their equipment in order to kill the parasite and prevent it from spreading to other waters. I guess that’s why John Owen said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”

Slow to Speak

James memorization, Week #9: James 1:19-21

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear,
slow to speak, slow to anger;
for the anger of God does not produce the righteousness of God.
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness
and receive with meekness the implanted word,
which is able to save your souls.”

Earlier this week I was struggling with what picture to post about being slow to speak and slow to become angry. This picture (above) was the only one that came to mind. If you are asking, “why?” you have a legitimate question. Here’s the answer: the mouse in the middle of the picture, which, as you can see, is cleaning up after someone failed to wash their supper dish.

This little fellow came around our campsite a couple of times on our backpacking trip two years ago. It was quite bold! If I remember correctly, there are two or three other guys to my left (I am taking the picture, and they are to the left of the mouse), but still within six or eight feet of the mouse, and the campfire is half that distance from the mouse (you can see the smoke from the fire causing some interesting effects in the photo).

Normally, such a sight would cause commotion (especially if found in your home!). In fact, I would guess that you might immediately begin speaking (or shrieking?) in a loud tone of voice. But this was quite a sight for us that evening (along with a deer peeking through the trees, and “Socks,” the little rabbit that came to visit us). Rather than speaking or shrieking, we were all instantly quiet as we watched the mouse. Just a few seconds later it was scared away by a popping sound in the fire.

Our frequent camp guest - "Socks"

Most of us react to situations in life as if we were seeing a mouse. We speak without first hearing or act without thinking, and we become angry over the smallest of infractions. James tells us that we ought to be different; we should be characterized by truly hearing, being quick to listen rather than be first to speak, and also be slow to become angry. Why? Because responding appropriately develops within us the righteousness that God expects.

We ought to allow the word of God that has been implanted within us to have its proper effect, a cleansing effect that washes and renews and generates the fruit of the Spirit. So the next time you are tempted to speak before hearing, or to be angry over a small thing, respond as if you’ve been visited by sweet “Socks,” even if in reality it is a mouse.



He Is Willing

This isn’t good. We’re only eight weeks in, and I’m already so far behind in my posting that this week’s passage is online on Friday! Better late than never…?

James memorization, Week #8, James 1:18

“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth,
that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

This verse is perhaps better translated in this way: “Because he was willing, he gave birth to us by the word of truth, in order that we might be a sort of firstfruit of his creation.” This translation places the emphasis in the proper place: on the nature of the giving. In other words, God’s giving birth to us was done willingly.

In saying this, God is emphasizing that He acted freely in birthing His people. He was under no obligation or constraint to act; instead, He acted willingly. But how does God “birth” His children? The means God uses to accomplish this act is “the word of truth.” His word is the instrument through which God brings spiritually dead people to life, and thereby adopts them as full-fledged sons.

What a picture! James has just implied that God “birthed” the universe (He is the “Father” of lights, most likely referring to the sun, moon, and stars). Having “birthed” the universe, God now “births” his own special people, called by His name.

There are two amazing theological points here. The first is that we do not “become” God’s children by virtue of who we are, or what we do. Goodness does not matter; morality plays no part; being religious is of no value in entering God’s kingdom. In addition, since man cannot enter again into his mother’s womb (so argued Nicodemus!), God must be the agent of new birth for us to have any hope.

Secondly, how amazing is the grace of God! Consider that He was willing to give birth to us. We, who were dead in our sins, are given new life through the word of truth because God was willing to act on our behalf.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful not just for the word of truth, but for the God who was willing to give me new life through it!

Father of Lights

James memorization, Week #7, James 1:16-17

“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights with
whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Most of us enjoy stability. We are comforted when life is the same; the same routines, the same regulations, the same people, and even the same sins (although we should not be comfortable with that!) enable us to be settled and comfortable. The antithesis is also generally true: we detest instability in life.

James has been addressing trials and temptations in chapter one. Interestingly, trials and temptations both come from the same root word. One, James argues, is good and positive because it develops steadfastness in our faith. The other is negative because it plays upon our sinful desires and leads us down a pathway to death.

Which of the two–trials or temptations–would you imagine to be a normal, stable presence in the life of a believer? I would guess that most of us would consider the temptations part of the stability of life. They are normal; we are used to them; we deal with them everyday. But the trials? Now there is instability!

How ironic is it, then, that in God’s perspective, the trials bring stability (or steadfastness) to our faith? It is the temptations that bring instability! God has no part in tempting His people with evil. That is not part of His character. He is the epitome of stability; He does not change. The shadows may move and shift throughout the day according to the placement of the sun, but God does not shift or move. He is stable, unwavering. We must not think that God is part of the instability of temptations.

On the other hand, His good gifts to us, those to which James refers, include making us like himself. He develops steadfast stability of faith in us through trials. That’s another reason to count trials as a joyous opportunity to grow! God’s work of chiseling us into the perfect shape to mirror Him is filled with such good and perfect gifts.  So the next time you are inclined to grumble about a trial, give thanks for that good and perfect gift from the Father of lights to bring stability into your life and faith.


James memorization, Week #6: James 1.13-15

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’
for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin,
and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

I love fly fishing. There is nothing else like it, and once you’ve experienced the joy, other kinds of fishing fail to compare. In a way, it involves what some would label a primal urge to seek out prey – to stalk, to lure within reach, and to finally succeed in capturing the prey.

With fly fishing, this is accomplished by tying feathers and threads and other things to a hook in such a way that it appears like a delicious little bug in the eyes of the fish. Making the fly “dance” upon the water, or appear to “swim” through the water only makes it appear more lifelike. And…the more lifelike, the greater the likelihood that the fish will be attracted to the fly.

Fly fishing plays upon the fish’s innate need to feed (and noticing the feeding patterns will help the fisherman!). By placing an apparent bug before the fish and making it appear lifelike, the fish’s natural tendency to eat can be triggered. The picture above is of a fish that had just snatched up the fly from my line.

James uses this picture to illustrate the sinful tendencies of human beings. In the same way that the fish’s natural tendency to eat causes him to go after a fly that is really a hook, we have natural tendencies to go after that which appears enticing but in reality is sinful. And…just like the fly before the fish, it may look quite innocent to us. At that point, it is merely an enticement. But, if (and, unfortunately, it is often “when”) we give in to the enticement, it is because we have given in to our sinful desire. We can’t blame God for that, nor can we even blame the devil; it is our own turning to sin.

The greatest problem, though, is that sin is not an end in itself. Left unhindered, it brings death. For the fish, the enticement of the fly may lead to a frying pan. In the picture below, you can see that this fish is in danger of just such a thing, and it still has the fly in its mouth (and yes, I do use barbless hooks!). The cause of its enticement is still evident.

I returned this one to the water to live and eat again. In a similar way, God does not instantly condemn us when we sin. Thankfully, He is faithful and just to forgive us when we sin! But James’ warning is good – sin left unfettered is dangerous. Be on watch for the desires of the flesh that lead to sin. What often looks enticing may bring death…


James memorization, Week #5: James 1.12

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial,
for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life,
which God has promised to those who love him.”

This was the stark view out the window as we drove to the trailhead for our backpacking trip a couple of years ago. I remember traveling this same small, bone-crunchingly rough road about fifteen years ago, about a year after a forest fire destroyed the area. What was once a full, dense forest of spruce and pine had been reduced to thin, black, unmoving sentinels standing without voice, but yet full of speech.

The beauty of this picture is not so much in those still-steadfast sentinels, but in the new, fresh, green growth at their feet. Wind and fire had raced through this canyon, but in the midst of that trial, the ground was prepared for new life. Fire is good for the forest. No, not every year, or even every decade. But occasionally fire is needed to thin the trees, or in some cases, to even enable new growth (for example, some varieties of pine trees require fire to crack open the nut-casing so that the seed can germinate). As you can see in this picture, without the trial of fire this lush new growth would never have been seen.

This is the way it is with God’s people, James declares. Trial comes (and we should count it joy!), and with the wisdom that God provides to walk through the trial, our faith is strengthened and proven so that we become like steadfast sentinels. And the day will come when we receive the reward that is real, true, lasting life.

Almost makes you desire the trials, doesn’t it? Okay, maybe not! The fire is painful, but the reward, we discover through James, is worth the pain so that we can count it all joy.

Fading Away

James memorization, Week #4: James 1.11

“For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass;
its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.
So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.”

This is one of my favorite pictures from the Milwaukee Mitchell Park Domes. I’m no horticulturist, so I can’t tell you what kind of plant this is. I only remember that it was taken in the “desert dome.” Take a minute and look at the picture. Can’t you imagine that this small, delicate plant is clinging with all its ability to life? It is surrounded by rock and dryness, almost as if everything around it is passing away while it struggles to live. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think that this plant will soon be gone.

That’s the picture of the person who holds tightly to the things of this world, James instructs. He specifically uses wealth as his example, but the same could be said of other things, too. If we are holding tightly to the riches of this world, then all of a sudden it will all be gone, and so will we.

On the other hand, this plant could also picture the lowly person who is boasting in his exaltation. Life is harsh and full of trials (imagine trying to grow when surrounded by rocks and dead branches!), but there is joy to be found there, too. And your Lord will produce steadfastness in you as you ask him for wisdom to thrive in the desert.