I asked a favorite seminary professor how we know that something is a "good gift" and a "perfect gift" "coming down from the Father" (James 1:17). He replied that a gift from God is anything we can see as a gift from God.
That's very helpful. It gives me permission to see the bruised purple of a sunset as having my name on it. The universe is suddenly all personal, all supernatural. The God who composed sunlight of a spectrum of colors-who lengthened its beams at day's end so that more violet and blue is scattered along it-is aware of the pleasurable effect on my eye and mood. If He is aware, He has intended it.
The professor's counsel also eliminates my "outcome-based" criterion for judging what is a "gift." That's all to the good, because if you are looking for outcomes in order to evaluate whether a new development is from God, you are necessarily suspending judgment until you see how the thing pans out.
There are several problems with that: One is that if you are suspending judgment about whether something is a good gift from the Father, then you are not thanking Him or praising Him for it at the moment. You are in fact never thanking God in the moment because you are never sure about anything. You have your thanksgiving on hold until you see (or decide) that the event or development was "good."
But how do you, myopic man, know what is "good"? How often has God brought things to us that did not seem beneficial at the time but that we presently are grateful for?
Another problem with suspending judgment about whether something is a "good gift from God" until we know the outcome: How do you know, oh finite man, when you have reached the final outcome? There is always another ripple in the pond.
A few years ago, when the café closed and I was suddenly out of work, I happened to run into a long-lost acquaintance. She happened to know of a job opening that she thought would be perfect for me. A gift from God?
After reflection and prayer, I took the job-and failed miserably at it. What shall I say now? That it was not the gift from God that I had thought it was? Should I retroactively withdraw my thanksgiving to God for this gift, which now I esteem to be not a gift from Him but a mistake on my part?
But what if my failure at that job brought about other good things in my life that would not have come to me otherwise? (It did.) What if it was a necessary stepping stone to better things, materially or spiritually? Do I now reverse my reversed opinion and say that meeting Joan in the supermarket was a good gift from God after all? You can see that there is no end to the second-guessing method.
Yesterday afternoon a friend on my porch swing prayed for me to see God's love in the details of my day. That evening I happened to arrive at a carnival with my granddaughter-just in time for the fireworks. (Thank you, Father!) Later, a young man leaving the carnival picked me out of a crowd to bequeath his extra amusement park tickets to. (Thank you, Father!) Then I found a willing teenager to accompany my granddaughter on a ride that would have made me vomit. (Thank you, Father!)
Today I unexpectedly came into free tickets to the ballet Romeo and Juliet. (Thank you, Father!) At intermission there was a long queue at the ladies' room and my granddaughter's condition was urgent. A well-placed usher slipped me into a service elevator leading to the catacombs of the "Academy of Music" and an available lavatory. (Thank you, Father!)
Little meaningless coincidences or little favors from God? I choose the latter.
To be clear: If a married man asks me for a date, or if I gamble my savings in Atlantic City and win, I will not see those as "gifts." The professor knew he didn't need to nuance everything with me. Which made his discernment a gift of God as well.