James 2:14-26 – Faith Works

What good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)

Genuine authentic faith is more than mere sentiment and head knowledge. Faith without works does not work. Strong robust faith is active and can withstand adversity.

The rhetorical questions the Apostle James asked were meant to awake his readers to the reality that true faith is always active. In other words, inactive faith is not really faith at all. In his letters to the churches, the Apostle Paul typically talked about the relationship between faith and works before a person converts to Christ, whereas the Apostle James emphasized the role of works after a profession of faith in Christ.

St. James was getting at the heart of how a believer in Jesus ought to live. And he did this by giving an illustration of the relationship between faith and works: If someone is in need and a person expresses a sentimental feeling, even if that feeling is sincere, without backing it up with action – the expression is merely an expression, nothing more. 

I once came home after a long day at work on a Valentine’s Day several years ago. I had picked up some flowers at a drive through flower shop. I walked into the door and handed my wife the flowers with an “I love you.”  Then, I sat down in a heap and turned on the television. My dear wife’s response was not so favorable to my sentimental overtures. I did not really put any thought or action behind Valentine’s Day, and she knew it. My words of “I love you” just did not sync with my actions. 

Just so you know, I redeemed myself the next year by winning a contest on a local radio station for a spouse’s best love note, and it got read on the air several times throughout the day for my lovely wife to hear. My commitment and actions were were nicely aligned so that when I said “I love you” at the end of that workday, there was no doubt about it.

Faith requires that actions sync with words. For example, when we say “I will pray for you” it needs to be more than an expression of concern – we need to spend the time and commitment it takes in praying for them.

Faith involves emotions yet ought not be limited by them. Faith can neither exist nor survive without deeds. Christian works are not an added extra to faith any more than breathing is an added extra to the body. Both faith and action is needed for the Christian life.

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts in real life situations. Faith is more than a checklist of right beliefs to sign-off on, as if it were some fire insurance policy against hell. Frankly, as a Pastor, I have heard some pretty lame justifications over the decades for failing to help others, give to the poor, be involved in justice work, and just plain serve in the church, like, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “That’s what we pay you to do,” and the ever-prolific, “This church is not meeting my needs.”

Those in the habit of complaining without an intent to boots-on-the-ground helping do not yet have an active faith. Each person is to do their part in serving the common good of all. And we all suffer when that does not happen. Bifurcating faith and action leave us with a false faith. 

If faith without action is okay, then so is the entire demonic realm. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible leads me to think that the devil has the entire thing memorized and knows it well from Genesis to Revelation. Yet, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Information by itself is useless unless it is accompanied by gracious and loving action. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Salvation is a term Christians are familiar with. In the Christian tradition, it refers to being saved from sin, death, and hell. Sanctification is another term most Christians recognize. It means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart” for God. Sanctification is not an event but a process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given without works, sanctifying faith requires a great deal of effort. A lot of energy is expended to live the Christian life. The late Dallas Willard used to often say, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.” 

The Apostle James dealt primarily with the sanctifying faith every Christian needs to exhibit. It is as if we have been graciously granted a full-ride scholarship to a university (salvation) but now the real work begins (sanctification) to learn, grow, and obtain the degree. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at some point throughout their education and wonder if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge. Indeed, a lot of blood-sweat-and-tears goes into our spiritual studies so that our faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of active loving service.

For example, the Old Testament character Abraham was saved from an empty way of life in a pagan country and given a gift of grace to move to the country God would show him. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor.  God just chose him (Joshua 24:2-3). Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God. Abraham faced a monumental test of faith when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).

Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did. Testing of faith is necessary so that we become mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:3-4). The way for authentic faith to develop and grow is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship. Spiritual maturation, holiness, and a well-rounded faith come by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab and the Two Spies by Unknown artist

To press the significance of faith and works, the example of the Old Testament character Rahab is highlighted. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the red-light district of Jericho. St. James was doing something profound and important – he took two extreme examples, one a giant of the faith, and the other an almost overlooked example of faith, to demonstrate we all are candidates for real faith.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked harmoniously. She genuinely believed the city of Jericho was going to be overcome by God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-11). Methinks we must expand our understanding of faith to include persons others might exclude. Some may be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot sanitize Rahab as something other than what she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself (Matthew 1:5).

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. In Christ’s new egalitarian society, all are welcome, all are equal. Together, we work on our sanctifying faith by submitting to adversity as our teacher; finding solace in God’s Holy Word and Spirit; praying for and with others; worshiping God like there is no tomorrow; leaning into faithful relationships; keeping our eyes open to what God is doing; being patient with the process of sanctification; and embracing unwanted change as our friend.

Faith works, my young Padawan. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Energize it.

James 2:8-13 – On Mercy and Against Favoritism

“Benevolent Mercy” by Iowa artist William Butler

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (NIV)

One of my bedrock foundational unshakable beliefs is that God’s big world spins on the axis of grace. Without grace we would all be living in some nightmarish dystopian novel just trying to survive. Grace is the force which overwhelms and overcomes everything. 

When I was growing up, we had a dog named Sam. Sam loved being on the farm. More than once he tussled with a skunk. In those times, I could barely get close enough to clean him up because he stunk so badly.  Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. God is going to clean us up when smelling the stench of discrimination on us.

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence the dog is running away from the bath of grace. To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice. Favoring the rich over the poor stinks because God cares about those trapped in poverty. When Jesus began his ministry, he lifted-up the importance of poor folk by placing himself in the position of extending grace to them:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18, NIV)

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was a pervasive reality (and still is!). The various reasons for poverty range from being born into poverty, being lazy, or being oppressed and/or in slavery. The types of poor persons run the gamut from simple beggars to the pious and humble poor.  These spiritual poor persons were called in biblical times the anawim” (Hebrew עֲנָוִ֣ים). The anawim are humble and gentle folk caught in grinding poverty with no other option but to put their trust in God.

The mistreatment, exploitation, and inattention to the needs of the poor are a chief reason why Holy Scripture is filled with references about how to treat them. The anawim are dear and near to the heart of God:

“Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, CEB)

“If you hire poor people to work for you, don’t hold back their pay whether they are Israelites or foreigners who live in your town. Pay them their wages at the end of each day because they live in poverty and need the money to survive. If you do not pay them on time, they will complain about you to the Lord, and he will punish you.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEV)

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the Lord has sworn this oath
    by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
    the wicked things you have done!” (Amos 8:4-7, NLT)

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Unknown Dutch artist, 1580.

Nothing gets God’s hackles up more than unjust and unfair favoritism which is devoid of mercy and grace toward the poor. It all stinks to high heaven, and when God smells it, divine egalitarian power is not far behind.

It is the poor in spirit with no trust in stuff and ingenuity who will enter the kingdom of heaven. The humble person gives grace to another even though the person cannot offer something in return. It is easy to be merciful to people who have a deal with you about scratching each other’s backs. However, it is altogether a different thing to be gracious simply because it is the right thing to do and pleases the heart of God. 

God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts. Inattention to the poor and needy only betrays a heart of unjust favoritism – a materialistic heart full of greed. A 2012 Boston Globe article asked the following question: Does money change you?

The Globe article stated, “most people are convinced that gaining a lot of money … wouldn’t change who they are as people. Yet, a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you would behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you are probably wrong: These are not just inherited traits but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.”

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found in their research that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to view some groups of people as inferior to others.  Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds. Their research concluded, “If you win the lottery and you want to avoid becoming an insensitive jerk, there is a simple solution: Give at least half the money away.” 

Some poor people, as in the days of the Apostle James, are willing to put up with being treated unfairly so they might get a piece of the rich person’s pie. Favoritism ignores the sin in others to gain something from them. God says that is stinking thinking.

Favoritism is flat out a violation of God’s law. The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God and love neighbor. Favoritism violates our neighbor, and therefore, is sinful disobedience of God. Any needy human we encounter is our neighbor – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, or anything that identifies them as different. They are to be helped when we can do so.

We are to speak and act with mercy because we will eventually have to face the Judge. God is always watching us – every word and every action. Judge Jesus will respond to how we have treated each person we encountered and how we talked about other people when they were not around. We will all appear before Christ at the end of the age and must give an account of ourselves. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Words are important, so they ought to be full of grace, seasoned with salt. Showing mercy instead of favoritism is the way love expresses itself.  Mercy is best given when we have first received it ourselves from God. A heart touched by the grace of the Lord Jesus is one which will stand in the judgment.

We rid ourselves of favoritism’s stench through the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  There is grace available if we will receive it. God is the expert in transforming lives, renewing minds, and putting to death the pride of favoritism. The work is done with needed grace and compassionate mercy.

So, we are to make it our goal to be a grace-givers, to have willing hearts which seek to emulate the mercy of Christ. The bath of mercy and grace takes away the stank of prideful favoritism and leaves us with the sweet aroma of love, justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

May it be so to the glory of God.

Love the Lord Your God

Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV) 

One of the teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:28-30, NIV) 

I love my three daughters. I think God made them beautiful to compensate for all the ornery things they did as kids so I would not go crazy. Once the oldest was at the top of the stairs with the youngest (who was two years old at the time). She put her in a laundry basket and pushed her down with the middle kid at the bottom to catch her.   

I love my wife with all my heart and soul. Yet, she always thought it would be a good idea to have an open-door policy for the girls to come into our bed at night whenever they needed us. I have been puked on, peed on, kicked on and pushed out of bed. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of drunks. Raising this girl version of “Malcom in the Middle” was often stressful. However, I gladly dealt with it all because I love my girls with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.  

Love God with all your heart. 

God has children across planet earth, and he loves them all. To love God with all our heart is to begin seeing God’s big expansive heart for people all around the world. God’s compassionate heart is close to the broken-hearted, near to those in need. In fact, God’s wrath is a response of love to make things right in this fallen world. As early as the book of Genesis, just a few chapters in, it says: 

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV) 

God is disturbed with violent and evil hearts. God is heartbroken about the dark places within the human heart. God is deeply concerned for suffering, injustice, oppression, and death. Every year fifteen-million children die of starvation. Human trafficking of women and girls has increased six-fold over the past five years resulting in forty-million victims of forced sex worldwide. We recently hit a grim milestone of one-million deaths across the world to COVID-19. Hundreds of millions are locked in grinding poverty, have no clean water to drink, and face a lifetime of illiteracy and poor wages. On and on it goes…. 

This is just a small glimpse of what God sees every day. And God knows each one of their names. For us, people need to move from being numbers to being names. God wants us to champion vital causes and aim our collective love toward people in need of Christ’s compassion and deliverance. 

Love is a deliberate decision to meet a need in another person. One who fails to see the needs of others will suffer a shrinking heart. But the one close to God’s heart and aware of another’s need will gain an expansive heart. God also sees the good and the beautiful: every obedient act done in secret, each prayer uttered in the privacy of our closet, and all the places of selfless love toward another.  

Love God with all your soul. 

We need a newfound sense of God’s wonder and beauty to reclaim the soul of Christianity. If loving God with all my heart means my heart breaks for the things that break God’s heart, then loving God with all my soul has my life flooded with God’s glory – awed by Divine majesty, mystery, and beauty. Loving God with all my soul is to perceive the glory and wonder of God all around me. It is to be profoundly grateful for everything – even and especially for the lessons learned from personal hardship and suffering.  

Without a divine perspective, we only see the world as we are and not as it is. The ways to cultivate a beautiful love for God with all my soul is to meditate on Scripture and creation. Literally take time to smell the roses. If we walk or drive the same route every day, be mindful to observe one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for it. Each time Holy Scripture is read, do it slowly and carefully, noticing one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for that perception. 

Love God with all your mind. 

True love has an insatiable desire to know more and more about the object of its affection. To love God with all our minds is a desire to learn and experientially know more about the Lord. It is to have a constant curiosity about God.  

We must love God with full faculties and not with half a brain. Left-brain dominant people rely on the logical, analytical, practical, and think chiefly in concrete ways. Right-brain dominant folks are artistic, intuitive, creative, imaginative, humorous, even sarcastic, often speaking poetically and with satire or metaphor. Loving God with all our minds means we will use all our brains, both the right and the left hemispheres. 

One obstacle to loving God with our brains is that the mind of sinful humanity is death (Romans 8:6). A sinful mind is a small brain; it is not interested in genuine critical thinking – only in stubbornly expressing opinions. Such individuals are merely using a ridiculously small part of their brains. God, however, wants to sanctify our whole brains, to transform us by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).   

We are to use our full cognitive capacities to love God – meaning we will value the left brain orientation of  embracing order and discipline, using all the tools of reason and logic, learning critical thinking skills, and pursuing the life of the mind. We will also value the right brain orientation of embracing mystery, paradox, and gray areas, enjoying the process of discovery, and probing the deepest issues of divinity and humanity – being comfortable with asking questions and not always having the answers. 

Love God with all your strength. 

God loves the smell of your sweat. You might stink to high heaven from hard work but for God it is a sweet aroma and sacred incense. Love is measured not only by words spoken but by calories burned. Using our hands and our effort is as valuable to God as using our brains.   

Feel free to go hard after God with all your strength – being mindful that we all have a finite amount of energy. Because of this, we need to ensure we do not inordinately waste our energy pursuing power and control. Pride, anger, and selfishness saps our strength. Guilt, shame, and regret follow it up by draining our spiritual stamina. So, we need to keep busy doing the right things. 

Loving God with all our strength requires respecting boundaries and implementing healthy rhythms of life. We might believe (wrongly) that the answer to most things is to work harder. Try doing that with your car when a red light comes on the dashboard and you will soon not have a car to drive.

Many persons are hellbent on working themselves into the ground. Feeling the pressure of responsibility, the fear of failure, the obsessive need for perfectionism, and the stress of dealing with difficult situations cause some folks to ignore their better judgment. Some individuals find the shame of failure too unbearable to let up on the gas pedal, and so keep going day after day worried that they might be letting someone down.    

Loving God with our strength means we will observe the Sabbath. God rested; therefore, we rest. Sabbath observance avoids loading up a day of “rest” with all kinds of work. We are to use our time to restfully connect with God, take leisurely walks with family, enjoy good friends over a meal, and, of course, delight in a well-deserved nap. Wise and rightly ordered priorities come from well-rested people.  

Summary 

Love God from a large heart because God has a big heart. Love God with your soul through deep feelings because God created us as emotional creatures. Love God cerebrally with a curiosity to know humanity and divinity because God is infinitely interested in us. And love God through hard work done for the things God cares about, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.   

John 5:39-47 – Against Vainglory

Christ and Pharisee by Russian artist Ivan Filichev, 1993

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

“I’m not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God’s love, is not on your working agenda. I came with the authority of my Father, and you either dismiss me or avoid me. If another came, acting self-important, you would welcome him with open arms. How do you expect to get anywhere with God when you spend all your time jockeying for position with each other, ranking your rivals and ignoring God?

“But don’t think I’m going to accuse you before my Father. Moses, in whom you put so much stock, is your accuser. If you believed, really believed, what Moses said, you would believe me. He wrote of me. If you won’t take seriously what he wrote, how can I expect you to take seriously what I speak?” (MSG)

I like kids, even Junior High kids. They have not yet learned how to mask their honesty (like Senior High kids). Have a conversation with any early adolescent (other than your own kid) and you will likely get an unfiltered and unvarnished take on whatever topic you are discussing together. If the subject of celebrities comes up, they can quickly rattle off their favorites. There is a reason for that; they are very much in touch with wanting to be impressive, to stand out, even to be famous someday.

I have long contended that if you want to gauge a society’s true values, talk to a young adolescent. They just happen to have an emerging awareness of the world but not yet the sophistication to hide their true thoughts from others. Junior High age kids pretty much reflect what most adults are thinking but would never dare say out loud. After all, why lose prestige in the eyes of others who think I am wonderful? Better not to rock the boat, we reason.

“Vainglory” is an old out-of-style word which few people use anymore, yet perfectly captures exactly what Jesus was talking about when it came to people being unable to discern his divinity. Wherever and whenever you find an inordinate focus on wanting attention, seeking to impress others, and desiring celebrity status, there you will see vainglory digging its talons into a society.

Vainglory is just what it sounds like: an almost narcissistic self-absorption into one’s need for importance and attention so that the personal vanity blocks being able to see others right in front of them. In placing so much energy into becoming a celebrity among peers, the vainglorious person’s vanity fogs them from reality and the truth of another.

Conversely, we are to seek the glory which comes from God. Since so many are programmed to seek honor from others, it can be quite the undertaking to turn the hunt into finding our identity and fame as persons in the image of God. Our Gospel lesson today says our reorientation program begins with faith in Jesus Christ. It is the first step toward the unmasking of egomania and soliciting God’s favor.

The sixteenth-century Reformer, John Calvin, said that “a person is only prepared to obey the heavenly teaching when he is convinced that the chief thing to be sought in all of life is God’s approval.”

Thus, the appropriate response to vainglory is to fly like a bat of hell to the heavenly mercy of God. There is no shame in wanting honor; its just a matter of where we go looking for it. Faith is crippled when we keep trying to discern which way the wind is blowing. Both our identity and our sanity will eventually blow away. However, if we cease prioritizing worldly recognition and cancel our membership in the mutual admiration club, then our conscience clears enough to let divine grace fill our souls with the love of God in Christ.

Give me Jesus and that will be enough, thank you very much. As for recognition and attention, to be adored by the Savior is all I really need. Because at the end of the day, after the hurt of being ignored, overlooked, and forgotten, Jesus is standing at the door knocking, eager to come into the house and grace me with the gift of acceptance, approval, and admiration.

O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ your Son our God, give me the love which never ceases, that will light my soul with divine grace so that I might be satisfied in you and lessen the darkness of the world. Lord Jesus, I seek your presence and glory. May I see you, desire you, look on you in love, and long after you, for your sake. Amen.