16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 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.
James 1:16-17 (ESV)
In 1941 C. S. Lewis penned The Screwtape Letters, in which a seasoned demon, Screwtape, counsels his young nephew, Wormwood, on how to tempt a new believer. In one letter the diabolical uncle urges Wormwood to lure a Christian into a false humility: “Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be.”1 Screwtape knows the “Enemy” (God) will oppose such an attack: “Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all.”2
No opinion of his own talents? Sort of. According to Lewis, the Christian should be able to build the best cathedral in the world, know it is the best cathedral in the world, and yet be just as happy to have the cathedral have been built by someone else. In other words, the Christian should be able to truly rejoice in his gifts as well as the gifts of his brother or sister in Christ. To dabble with false modesty, denying the goodness of one’s work (when it is quite obvious the work is good), is to assume the appearance of a virtue one does not possess. This is hypocrisy, and it is deadly to the Christian soul.
James offers readers an explanation for why there is no room in the Christian life for this brand of hypocrisy: a perfect God is the source of every good and perfect gift. In the context of James chapter one, this is really a staggering claim since the subject matter of these opening verses has been tests, trials, and suffering. These are hardly the good gifts about which one is tempted to be falsely modest.
Nonetheless, the teaching of verse 17 is clear. God is the giver of “every” good and perfect gift. This includes the gift of regeneration (verse 18, God “brought us forth by the word of truth”), the gift of wisdom (verse 5, “[i]f any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God”), and every gift in between. King David credited God as the source of every material blessing, “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chron. 29:14). Jesus told the disciples that God is not only the source of physical goods, He gives righteousness (Matt. 6:25-34). Likewise, James wanted his readers to keep their eyes on the sure, reliable, and generous God. Thus, that new car and the ability to work that earned the car come from Him; He is the source of both good gifts. This is the doctrine taught by James.
Screwtape explains to young Wormwood how God would try to keep the believer from false modesty, and it has everything to do with bringing to mind the doctrine found in James 1:16-17: “The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings—the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair.”3
Thus, there is no room for false modesty. This kind of hypocrisy is simply precluded from the Christian life. The fact of the matter is the glorious God of the universe has chosen to bless His children with extraordinary gifts. Some of them have gifts of leadership, some gifts of teaching, some gifts of encouragement, some gifts of administration, and so on. Nonetheless, when a true achievement is pointed out, Christians too often reply, “No, no, it really was not that good!”—a response designed to elicit more praise. Indeed, false modesty—hypocrisy—deadens the Christian soul by subtly turning the attention to oneself and one’s talents and away from the giver of all good gifts.
1 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942; repr., San Francisco: Harper, 2001), 70.
2 Ibid., 72.
3 Ibid. Italics added.