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SHIFTING SHADOWS

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1.17).


Shadows are not permanent. They change according to the light and position of the sun or moon as they shine upon an object. Depending on the time of the day when the sun shines on us, our shadow may be long or short or even, in the middle of the day, hard to see at all.


Shadows are significant in the worldview of some cultures. Among the Kewa of Papua New Guinea and with whom we lived for a several years, the shadow of a person represented their “soul.” I found this out early in language learning when I inadvertently stepped on someone’s shadow. I was advised that I was stepping on their wasupa, a word that meant more than simply “shadow.” When the word was combined with kone, it became even more powerful. The concept of kone represents the way the Kewa think and behave, their way of life, and therefore one’s kone-wasupa is the essence of who they are and what they believe.


In the NT we read that people felt that Peter’s shadow had a mystical quality: “people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by” (Acts 5.15).


In the verse quoted above from the book of James, “shadow” is a metaphor for how something changes. God, the creator of the heavenly lights, does not vary and change like a shadow. He is always the same and His light casts no shadow.


In the English language, when something is “in the shadows” it has not yet appeared clearly. It is waiting and ready, like a “shadow government,” which in the parliamentary system of politics mimics the structure of the real cabinet.


There may also be someone “lurking in the shadows,” waiting for an opportunity, perhaps to attack or do something wrong. If the person is waiting to attack us, he can be compared to Satan, waiting in the shadows for an opportunity to find us. He is never far away.


The word “shadow” shows up in a number of our idioms, such as:

  • That person is afraid of his/her own shadow=he/she is a timid person

  • He is a shadow of his former self=he may have lost weight or interest

  • It is true beyond the shadow of a doubt=it is absolutely true

  • He casts a long shadow=his influence is great

  • He suddenly came out of the shadows=no one expected him

  • He has a five o’clock shadow-he needs a shave

  • She is living under her mother’s shadow=her mother’s influence

  • He takes the shadow for substance=he is easily fooled


Isaiah showed that the Lord would do as he promised by appealing to a shadow: “Isaiah answered, ‘This is the Lord’s sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: Shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or shall it go back ten steps?’” (2 Kings 20.9)


Trees and other objects, with their shadows create shade and it is refreshing to sit in their shade on a hot day. We read in Psalm 80.10 that “The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.” I am reminded of the large live oak trees we have at the back of our church and how pleasant it is to sit in their shade when we have church outdoors.


Metaphorically speaking, the Lord watches over me: he is “your shade at your [my] right hand” (Psalm 121.5) He is “a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding place from the storm and rain” (Isaiah 4.6).


Remember how Jonah made himself a shelter and sat in its shade because God had provided the leafy plant and made it grow? However, Jonah was unhappy about God’s provision, just we can be unthankful as well. Instead, we should enjoy shade, like the birds that come and perch in the shade of the mustard tree (Mark 4.31).


Shadows and shade: not magical perhaps, but important in the cultures of some people. What do you think about them?


Karl Franklin