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.

Psalm 130 – Waiting in Hope

waiting

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (NIV)

This psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere. Yet, because the Lord is attentive to the righteous, the cry penetrates heaven and is received. The psalmist only wants to serve God with a new beginning and fresh obedience – and he will wait and hope for liberation from his misery.

We typically use the term “hope” in a wishful thinking sort of way. That is because we are not quite sure if things will shake-out like we want.  But biblical hope is not wishful thinking.  Rather, it is a confident expectation of what is to come. Hope is like anticipating the seasons.  In the dead of winter when it is bitter cold with little sunshine, we hope, and not wish, for Spring because we know it is coming.  It might come in early March, maybe in late April. The trees will bud, the grass will turn green, and the temperature will warm – you can bet your britches on it.

This old world might be messed up and broken right now, but it will not always be this way.  Because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, there is hope, the confident expectation that deliverance from sin, death, and hell will be fully realized. We are saved from the bondage of sin through the cross and resurrection of Christ.  We are delivered into an inheritance which can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for us until the time is right. Meanwhile, we hope with the confident expectation of Christ’s coming again.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:3-6, NIV)

Until our hope is fully realized, we cry out to God and watch for his deliverance. Regarding our salvation, it is accurate to say that we have been saved (from the realm of sin); we are currently being saved (through being made holy in this life); and, we will be saved (when Jesus returns). Liberation from both our personal struggles and the evil machinations of this world is an ongoing process that will only reach its complete fulfillment at the end of the age.

That is why we experience such a weird existence on this earth, a strange amalgam of good and bad.  We not only get mixed messages from the world, but also internally, within our souls, we experience the struggle between right and wrong.  Outwardly, we suffer in all kinds of earthly grief from others who do not understand us.  Inwardly, we have the silent pain and terrible wrestling of wanting to forgive but desiring revenge; of seeking to be gracious but seething with anger; of looking to express kind words but having hate speech blurt out instead.

It will not always be this way. We have a living hope.  Jesus has risen from death. He is alive. He is coming back to judge the living and the dead.  He will take us to be with him forever.  It is the confident expectation of unhindered relationship, with no obstacles of difficult people, and without any systemic evil from organizational structures giving us a hard time.

MLK hope quote

Hope is real. It is just as real as anything we will ever know this side of heaven. We might not always find what we are looking for in this life, yet, in the next life, we shall find the life that is truly life in Jesus Christ, who is our hope. Until then, we are to wait neither idly nor passively. Instead, it is sage for us to do the following:

Occupy the time. One of the best ways to avoid becoming anxious while waiting is to do what we are on this earth to do: be a blessing to others.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited…. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-16, 21, NIV)

Don’t try too hard. Trying to use willpower to squelch anxiety will only prompt even greater anxiety. Accept that we will have to wait and that we are not privy to God’s timetable.

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. (1 Peter 3:7, NLT)

Wait with other people. Waiting with others through talking about our shared hope helps redeem our time in the here and now.

Be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for him to act. Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes. (Psalm 37:7, NLT)

Think of patience as compassion. Becoming impatient about something in life is entirely normal and happens to all of us. Our impatience is a stress response to a situation. Learning to be more patient is a way of being more compassionate to ourselves and others.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12, NIV)

Lord God Almighty, your hope arises with each dawn, pushing back the rubble of our lives. Each new day reminds us of your grace as you paint hope across the sky. Into the deafening cry of hopelessness, you whisper love that catches and holds us. There is no end, just new beginnings. No finish, just new starts. Into your resurrection we follow you into hope. You are alive in the world and in us. So, we carry your hope within our spirits always. Help us to lift our eyes and experience Christ’s resurrection hope arise in our lives through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Genesis 45:1-15 – The Big Reveal

Welcome, friends! Click the video below and let us gather together around the Word of God.

You may also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube

For the story of Joseph set to song, click Bend by Brandon Heath.

May the Lord bless you
    and keep you.
May the Lord smile down on you
    and show you his kindness.
May the Lord answer your prayers
    and give you peace. Amen.

The Big Reveal

Joseph feasting with his brothers by Yoram Raanan
Joseph Feasting with His Brothers by Yoram Raanan

The biblical character, Joseph, went through a lot. While growing up, his brothers misunderstood and ridiculed him as “that dreamer.” Their jealousy and hatred of Joseph led them to throw him into a well and leave him for dead. Then, they turned around and pulled him out only to sell him into slavery. Joseph served as a household slave, until he was again misunderstood and wrongly accused by his master’s wife.

So, Joseph languished in a prison for years, suffering injustice. Yet, the awkward liminal space in between his family of origin and becoming the administrator over all Egypt was not a waste of time. Rather, it gave Joseph a divine perspective on his life and shaped him for his rise to power.

Likely believing he would never see his brothers and father again Joseph went about the immense work of overseeing Egypt. One day, during a severe famine, lo and behold, his brothers show up in his court looking to purchase some food for their large families! Joseph immediately recognized them. The brothers, however, did not have a clue that this was their long-lost brother.

Joseph, understandably guarded, kept his identity to himself and toyed with his brothers to discover how Jacob his father was doing. Eventually, through a labyrinthine experience of a few journeys of the brothers back and forth from Palestine to Egypt, Joseph could take it no longer; he just had to reveal his identity to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1-15)

Yet, the ultimate unveiling is much more a glimpse of what God was up to. Joseph provided a commentary on his life, why he endured hardship, and how he came to be the administrator over all Egypt. Joseph wisely discerned that God sent him to Egypt to save many lives.

It is mostly in retrospect we see what God has been doing all along.  A good chunk of our lives is a mystery that is concealed, only revealed with time and patience on our part. While we exist in the strange space of the great unknowing and may struggle to understand our hardships, God is working behind the scenes, bending all our life events to his purposes. And that is the key to understanding the entire narrative of Joseph (Genesis 37-50).

Joseph’s brothers, despite being stinkers, were the means God used to send Joseph to Egypt.  Furthermore, all of Joseph’s experiences in Potiphar’s house, and in the prison where he was unjustly sent were the training ground for him to lead all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

The Reconciliation of Joseph and his Brothers, Peter Cornelius 1
The Reconciliation of Joseph and His Brothers by Peter Cornelius, 1817

Therefore, trust and faith are imperative for God’s people. Faith is placed where the object is trustworthy. In other words, we trust God if we believe God is good and has our best interests at mind. Conversely, if we view God as sometimes fickle or inattentive, then placing faith in him becomes a gamble and we might be hesitant, hedging our bets and relying more on ourselves and our own ingenuity to get through a hard circumstance.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:16-18, NIV)

We all face times and seasons in our lives where we wonder if the Lord is sitting in his Lazy-God recliner sleeping while we wither in some miserable situation, believing that God has better things to do, or has simply lost interest in my puny life. Yet, it could be that the Lord is providentially shaping our circumstances in preparation for us to accomplish a significant godly purpose.

Although hindsight can help us see the superintendence of God, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is still largely a mystery.  Many times, we can only affirm paradoxical truths. For example:

  • It was ordained before the foundation of the world that Jesus would be our Savior.
  • Jesus chose to willingly face the cross for our sake.

Both statements are equally true at the same time, all the time.

  • Christ’s betrayal by Judas was foreordained and foretold in the Old Testament centuries before Judas Iscariot was born.
  • Judas deliberately chose to betray Jesus with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver.

Both are equally true.

  • Joseph was meant by God to go through all kinds of hardship for a purpose.
  • Joseph willingly submitted to his hardship, choosing not to become angry, bitter, or vindictive.

Both of those realities are equally true.

It is not so much what happens to us that is the issue or problem. Rather, it is how we interpret what happens to us that is the critical issue. The way Joseph interpreted his difficult circumstances and his brothers’ calloused behavior toward him was to see the big picture of what God was doing in the world, instead of merely viewing events from a narrow perspective of painful personal adversity and becoming hateful.

Just as Joseph saw his suffering, hardship, and persecution as the means to saving lives, so Jesus viewed his suffering on the cross as the means to save our lives and bring us reconciliation. And, in the same way, we too, will undergo suffering and hardship for the purpose of saving lives through peacemaking efforts.

My dear wife and I have endured our share of hardship in our lives. I choose to interpret the reason we have gone through it all just as the Apostle Paul discerned his own adversity by saying to the Corinthian Church:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces within you a patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.  And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7, NIV)

Whatever you are going through, or have gone through, even if it has been many years ago, God wants to use your difficulties and troubles for both your personal strengthening of faith, and for empathic and compassionate ministry for the sake of others.

We all need to practice patience and perseverance through hard times, if we are going to realize better days and gain a better interpretation of our difficult circumstances. Here are a few ways to do just that:

Write It Out

When suffering an upsetting event, writing about it can make us feel better as well as helping us make some sense of it. The act of writing organizes our thoughts, which then makes the experience feel less chaotic. Writing also provides an emotional release, along with insight and awareness into yourself. And with awareness, we have conscious choices.

Guard your heart more than anything else because the source of your life flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23, GW)

Some thoughts to get started writing:

  • Set aside 10-15 minutes a day for several days to write about the event and how it made you feel.
  • Don’t worry about grammar or creativity. This is just for you.
  • Stick with it. At first writing about an upsetting experience might be painful. However, over time it can help you get past the upset. Keep in mind, though, that if it is an especially disturbing event, you might want to do this work along with a trained professional.

Tackle Your Problem(s)

When distressed, it is unhelpful to stew in self-pity or to waste energy in blame shifting. Instead, be assertive.

Make every effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who does not need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly. (2 Timothy 2:15, CEB)

Take charge of your trouble:

  • Write down the problem. On paper it seems more manageable than when it is swirling inside your head.
  • List as many solutions as possible. You can reject options later.
  • Assess the list. Ask yourself how you would like this situation to end. Which of the written options likely will get you there? Weigh the pros and the cons.
  • Accept a reasonable solution, without searching for the perfect one. Focusing on perfection only breeds disappointment.
  • Form a concrete workable plan. Set some realistic and specific deadlines.
  • Avoid discouragement if the first solution does not pan out – just try another one on your list.

Get Support

We as people are hard-wired by God for community and needing one another.

Help each other with your troubles. When you do this, you are obeying the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, ERV)

  • Ask someone to give you a hand if you are overwhelmed.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for advice. Consulting and collaborating with others are always the way of wisdom.
  • Get emotional support. Crying, sharing our frustrations, or otherwise venting helps release tension, relieve stress, and helps us move on.

So, may we choose to have the eyes of faith and trust, discerning that God is good and  sovereignly works out his will through our troubles.