James 2:17-26 – Faith Works

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department; I’ll handle the works department.”

Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.

Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?

Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? The full meaning of “believe” in the Scripture sentence, “Abraham believed God and was set right with God,” includes his action. It’s that weave of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.” Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?

The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse. (The Message)

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts and responds in real life situations. 

Christians are saved for a purpose. Christian faith is much more than mere intellectual knowledge of Jesus Christ. We are to take our knowledge of Christ’s redemptive events and put it into daily practice.

There were folks in today’s New Testament lesson who were justifying a lack of action with statements such as, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “We pay our pastor to do the ministry,” “This church is not meeting my needs,” “Let the next generation deal with change.”

Anyone in the habit of complaining without doing anything to be part of the solution needs to get an active faith. Every believer in Jesus Christ is called to ministry. All Christians are gifted by God for service. And God expects us to use those gifts to build up the Body of Christ. The church suffers when we do not all participate with the abilities God has provided.

Faith apart from action is impossible. It’s like saying I can bench press 400lbs. just because I read about it in a muscle magazine; or, that I can produce corn just because I saw a farmer in a field. 

There are no atheistic demons. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible lead me to think he likely has the entire Bible memorized and knows it quite well. Knowledge, however, by itself, is useless.

The Great Blondin, walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls, 1859

In the nineteenth century, a famous tightrope walker from France, Charles Blondin, once strung a cable across Niagara Falls from the American side all the way to the Canadian side. Thousands of people watched him do his theatrics across the falls.  He walked back and forth, people applauding wildly. Then to further wow the crowds, he put a blindfold on and went back and forth. He also rode a bicycle back and forth, and then pushed a wheelbarrow back and forth.

As the story goes, while pushing the wheelbarrow back and forth, he called out to the crowd on one end, inquiring whether or not they thought he could successfully push the wheelbarrow across with a human being riding in the wheelbarrow. The crowd went berserk: “Sure you can. You’re remarkable. We believe in your abilities. You are the greatest.” On and on they went, to which Blondin responded, “Then someone volunteer. You come right up here, single file, form a line, and get in the wheelbarrow to prove your trust in my ability.” A deafening silence overtook the crowd. There were no takers.

Intellectual belief is one thing. It is quite another thing to place complete trust in Jesus Christ. Knowledge without an active commitment is about as helpful as a backseat driver.

Faith is a big word in Scripture and life. It encompasses the totality of how we come to Jesus Christ and how we live for him. So, when talking about faith, it is important to distinguish between saving faith and sanctifying faith. 

If we are fuzzy on our understanding and application of these two spiritual realities of salvation and sanctification, we will sleepwalk through life as zombies living in two different worlds of the living and the dead.

“Salvation” is a term used a lot in the church. In Christianity, it means to be delivered from sin, death, and hell.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a person is “saved” by knowing about the work of Christ on the cross and trusting this has taken care of the sin issue once for all. 

Through repentance and faith in Jesus, there is salvation. A person cannot earn it, accomplish it, or buy it. Salvation is a gift that comes by faith in the person and work of Jesus. It is a one-time event of trust.

“Sanctification,” on the other hand, begins when we become believers in Jesus. The word means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart for God.” Sanctification is not a singular event; it is a lifelong process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given to us without effort, sanctification requires much effort. We work, struggle, and expend lots of energy to live the Christian life. 

“Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”

Dallas Willard

When a student receives a college scholarship, it is a one-time event, granted to the student. She now possesses it and is able to attend school without trying to earn the money to pay for it. Yet, the scholarship was given for a reason – so that the student can now focus entirely on their studies and/or sport. The work is just beginning.  More blood, sweat, and tears will take place living into that scholarship than the student could ever imagine. It won’t be easy. It will consume the student’s waking hours for the next four years.

When the Apostle James talks about faith, he is primarily referring to sanctifying faith, to believers who already professed saving faith in Jesus. They were granted a full-ride scholarship in the kingdom of God. Now the work begins. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at points throughout their education, wondering if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge in living the Christian life.  There is a lot of spiritual training and studies to do so that faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of service.

Abraham was saved from an empty way of life and given a gift of grace to move to a better country. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor. God just chose him, period. 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’s faith was demonstrated by what he did. The way genuine faith develops and grows is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship.

Christianity is not a matter of continual upward triumph; it is a downright hard work of faith development as we learn to be followers of Christ. Spiritual maturity happens through sanctifying faith by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab, a completely different person than Abraham, was a prostitute who lived in the red light district of Jericho. Abraham is a recognized giant of faith. Rahab is an almost overlooked example of faith. All of us likely fall somewhere in between these two people – graced and called by God to live into our sanctifying faith through continual spiritual exercise.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked together. She honestly believed the city of Jericho would experience God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies.

Maybe we need to expand our understanding of faith to include people we might typically exclude. 

No one is outside the realm of faith. So, let’s not be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. If we do not know their stories, or why and how they ended up in this station in life, we may make unwarranted assumptions, and turn our backs on the needy.

We must not sanitize Rahab as someone other than who she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself.

Needy people are not dumb, clueless, helpless, or ignorant; they are resourceful and resilient. They need Jesus, too. Yes, people make choices, often bad ones. Yet, nobody says to themselves, “When I grow up I want to be a prostitute or maybe a porn star and live in a red light district with a pimp who abuses me and gets high on heroin.” 

People too often back into behaviors due to a lack of positive relational connections and just trying to survive whatever crisis is going on in their lives.  The church can be a social connection for them to become grounded in something other than their past experience.

God grants faith scholarships to the rich and the poor, from every race, ethnicity, and background imaginable across the entire earth.

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. Neither of them did anything to receive God’s grace. And God does not grit his teeth to show favor – the Lord genuinely loves us – and sincerely loves and likes all kinds of people.

Saving faith means life is just beginning. True salvation produces good works. Both Abraham and Rahab, along with all God’s people throughout the ages, exhibit sanctifying faith by persevering through hardship and allowing God to grow their faith.

Therefore, submit to hardship. Find solace in God and Scripture. Pray and worship like you mean it. Lean into community. Keep your eyes of faith open to what the Lord is doing around you.

Faith works. So, embrace it. Enjoy it. Live into it and with it always.

James 2:1-13 – Don’t Show Favoritism

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

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. (New International Version)

Being an Outsider

It’s awkward feeling like an outsider. As a young pastor in Michigan, I once went to make a hospital call on one of my parishioners. He was having a procedure done at Ford Hospital in Detroit. I had never been there before. I parked my car and walked into the hospital, just like I had done at several hospitals before. 

Yet, there was something different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, I realized, I didn’t see any other Caucasian people. Every person I encountered was African-American.

Up to that point in my life, I was never a minority in any situation. Although everyone in the hospital was polite and respectful, it was still weird for me. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in the midst of that experience, “Huh, so that’s what it feels like for my African-American friends!”

Imagine being a visitor to a church worship service.  You are just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy.  You have never been to this church before.  You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park. “Wow, that building is big!  I don’t know anybody here, except Mary.” 

Mary isn’t here today.  You gin-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the building. “Where do I go?  Will anybody notice me?  How am I supposed to act?  Where do I sit?”  All the things we take for granted are at the forefront of your mind. 

Favoritism is Insider Judgment

Not everyone thinks or lives the same – and that is the point the Apostle James is trying to get across to us.  If we are only attentive, aware, and care about people who look like us, think like us, and live like us, then we are playing favorites. And God calls that being judgmental.

The word “favoritism” comes from an idiom literally meaning, “lifting up the face.” That is, taking something merely at face value.  To make a biased judgment based on only surface impressions is not good. It is not the way of Jesus, who associated with people of dubious morality and came into close contact with ostracized persons, like lepers. Discrimination based on limited understanding is soundly condemned in Scripture. 

Those who show favoritism aren’t good.

Proverbs 28:21, CEB

Be fair, no matter who is on trial—don’t favor either the poor or the rich. (Leviticus 19:15, CEV)

Times change; God’s heart doesn’t. The Lord cares for all kinds of people, not just insiders.  Peter had to get that into his head and heart concerning Gentiles, whom he considered inferior. He took for granted they were to always be outsiders. It took a series of visions from God for Peter to get this testimony into his life: 

“Now I understand that God doesn’t play favorites. Rather, whoever respects God and does what is right is acceptable to him in any nation.” (Acts 10:34-35, GW)

A poor woman once wanted to join a church.  She went to the pastor, and he told her to pray about becoming a member.  The pastor did not see the woman for months and then one day met her on the street.  He asked her if she had been praying and what she had decided about joining the church.  She said, “I did what you asked me to do, and one day while I was praying, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting into that church – I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last twenty years!’”

The church the Apostle James addressed had the mistaken notion certain persons were better than others because of their ability to financially contribute and wield influence.  Put yourselves in the shoes of those ancient church folks. 

These are refugees trying to make it in a strange country.  It was tempting and easy to suck-up to the rich persons who came to their meetings.  They needed some stable donors, and not some poor people who were going to drain their already short resources.  Showing preferential treatment to the wealthy only made sense to them.

Favoritism is a Heart Problem

For the Apostle James, showing favoritism reflected a terrible malady of the heart: a divided loyalty between God and the world. When things got rocky, the church turned to money and those with it, instead of coming to the Lord and seeking God’s unlimited resources. Inattention to the poor and needy might make good business sense but will result in spiritual death when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead.

Far too many Christians believe poor people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. There are certainly lazy people in this world, and maybe we are some of them – too spiritually lazy to take the time and effort to get to know persons in poverty and those very different from ourselves.

In the third century, a church deacon named Lawrence was in charge of the church’s treasury (benevolence fund) in Rome. One day the prefect (mayor) of the city asked Lawrence to gather up and give him “the wealth of the church.” Lawrence sent back a message: “I will bring forth all the precious things that belong to Christ, if only you will give me a little time to gather everything together.” The prefect agreed, as he dreamed of what he could do with the money, gold, and silver.

For three days, Lawrence walked through all the alleys and squares of Rome and gathered the church’s real treasure—the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless, and the lepers. The people he gathered included a man with two eyeless sockets, a disabled man with a broken knee, a one-legged man, a person with one leg shorter than the other, and others with grave infirmities.

Lawrence wrote down their names and lined them up at the entrance to the church at his appointment with the prefect. “These are the treasures of the Church of Christ!” Lawrence declared, as he presented the ragged crowd to the astonished prefect. “Their bodies may not be beautiful, but within these vessels of clay they bear all the treasures of divine grace.”

The ground is level at the foot of the cross.  Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society – just as he did with the rich and influential.

Growing up, I had a dog named “Sam.”  Sam loved being on the farm.  One time he tussled with a skunk.  I could barely get close enough to him 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.  And he is going to clean us up when he smells the stench of discrimination on us.

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence that 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.

Three Reasons Why Favoritism Stinks

1. A theological reason: Jesus doesn’t show favoritism to the rich.  

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18, NIV)
 

In the Old Testament, God said:

There will always be poor people in the land, so I command you to give freely to your neighbors and to the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11, NCV)

God is looking for humble persons, giving grace to people who cannot offer something in return.  It is easy to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. It is altogether a different thing to give without any expectations of response.

2. A logical reason: Favoritism comes from a materialistic heart.

Money does change us. Research by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to support statements like “some groups of people are simply inferior to others.” 

Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate towards others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds.

Some people are willing to put up with being treated unfairly, just so they can be the recipients of a rich person’s wealth and position.  Favoritism ignores the sin in others in order to gain something from them.  That is stinking thinking.

3. A biblical reason: Favoritism is a violation of God’s law. 

The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God. Love neighbor.  Favoritism is a violation of loving our neighbor. Therefore, to discriminate on any basis is to disobey God. 

Who is my neighbor?  The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that any needy human being we encounter – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, religion, or anything identifying them as different – is to be helped when we have the opportunity to do so.

Ernest Gordon was a P.O.W. who wrote a book about his experiences in a Japanese concentration camp in 1942.  The Japanese were ruthless and horribly treated their prisoners.  With barely any food to survive, the law of the jungle ruled amongst the prisoners.  But a Christian prisoner operated with a different set of rules.  He continually shared his food with other prisoners to the point where he actually starved to death because of it. 

The other prisoners could not understand why this guy would do such a thing, until they found a Bible in his few belongings.  One by one the prisoners read his Bible and found in it the principle of love and not showing favoritism.  Eventually, the entire camp changed and came to know Christ because of one man’s humble spirit to be generous with what he had.

Speak and Act with Mercy

Words are important, and are to be full of grace, seasoned with salt.  An active faith without merciful words is not really faith at all – it is an excuse to keep a galloping tongue going.  Showing mercy, instead of favoritism, is the way love expresses itself.

The stench of showing favoritism goes away with a cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. God is the expert in:

  • Turning people from only associating with those they are comfortable with, to lovingly reaching out to people very different from themselves.
  • Changing people from the stinking thinking about what they can continually obtain and consume, to people who are loving and generous with their words and their physical resources.
  • Putting to death a proud spirit that looks to get ahead and accomplish an agenda by any means possible, to giving new life through humble repentance.

Let’s make it our goal to give grace, to be like Jesus.  Amen.

Matthew 15:21-31 – Sense the Urgency

Woman of Canaan by Sadao Watanabe, 1965

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So, his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (New International Version)

Not much happens until something becomes urgent.

A doctor, a financial planner, or a preacher can tell us something until they are blue in the face, but it usually doesn’t mean much without a sense of urgency that a change must occur – that the way things are isn’t going to cut it any longer. 

We can say eating healthy is of value, yet unless there is a sense of urgency to it, it is difficult to do. Someone can proclaim that retirement savings is important, yet unless there is a sense of desperate action, it likely won’t happen. 

Christians say prayer is important, lost people matter to God, and ministry to youth is the hope of the world. Yet without a sense of urgency, there is procrastination and talking, resulting in zero change.

It’s the difference between law and gospel, or between duty and grace. The law and duty are important elements of the Christian life. The law shows us our sin and gives us direction how to live. However, law and duty can only take us so far – it cannot effect real and lasting change. Only the gospel of grace can do that. 

Law and duty alone won’t do it. And when we figure out it doesn’t work, we try and hide our struggle by keeping up the appearance of being a good Christian. Then, we boil down the rules of the Christian life to merely being nice and attending church (law). Our deep hurts and damaged emotions are handled by burying them in layers of law in order to protect ourselves from any more disappointment.

Nothing could be further from today’s Gospel lesson. We have a Gentile Canaanite woman, who is as far from God as one can get in the ancient world. She is neither concerned about appearances nor hiding to mask her pain. The woman cares about her daughter’s terrible suffering from demonization. She recognizes Jesus as the Promised One and seeks him out.

Only grace, not law-keeping, will save, deliver, or heal anyone.

Grace is bestowed to the humble who recognize the great urgency of needing Jesus – in God’s good timing, not ours. Faith is exemplified by a willingness to beg. It’s demonstrated with dogged persistence in the face of the slimmest of odds.

The Canaanite woman screams for help.

Her daughter is suffering. The region of Tyre and Sidon is demon territory – the home region of the Old Testament character, Jezebel – a place far from the covenant people of Israel’s ways. 

The woman has no leverage, no ground of appeal, and no spiritual pedigree. There is no way to approach Jesus by any other means than crying out to him with her deeply felt need. In her sense of urgency, noise and humility is all she has.

Jesus is silent.

Have you ever felt like God is silent, as though your prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling? 

God is often silent. Yet, let’s not misinterpret this lack of response as thinking God didn’t hear, or doesn’t care, or something is wrong with me. Silence from God is just that – agonizing divine silence….

A superficial reading of the story may lead us to believe Jesus is aloof, or elitist, that maybe he isn’t interested in certain people. It seems to me, a better way of interpreting the silence is through the lens of our patience and perseverance, a sort of faith testing.

There is some mystery to this story we may never fully grasp. However, the story lets us know Jesus is not a coin machine where we can slip in a dollar and get immediate change. Jesus is a person, not a mechanism to figure out, to get what we want from him. This is not the way of grace.

The disciples want Jesus speaking to get rid of the screaming obnoxious woman.

“Holy cow, Jesus, just give her what she wants so she’ll go away!”  They wanted a healing, but it wasn’t out of a sense of compassion or grace. “After all, we’ve got important Jesus-work to do here, and we don’t need this woman upsetting the peace, rocking the boat, challenging the status quo, making waves, and ruining our sanctified party.” 

The disciples labeled the woman as loud and undeserving. Frankly, they may have been right. But they were operating out of law, not grace.

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, from Saint Germain-l’Auxerrois church in Paris, France

Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is not give everybody what they want, right away. 

Jesus did not come to this earth to ensure everybody gets their way and stays happy so that no one is upset. In fact, Christ did quite the opposite. Jesus sought to do his father’s will by establishing the kingdom of God on this earth – teaching values that weren’t part of the religious culture, telling the most “godly” people of the time they were a brood of vipers, and generally offending a lot of people who claimed to know God.

Jesus cared enough about the woman to not immediately give her what she wanted. She had to go hard after Jesus, to keep going after him, to exercise her faith muscle. 

Jesus doesn’t give the disciples what they want, either.

Two different petitions were given to Jesus, and his response doesn’t really address either one of those asking’s.  He just says he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Yet the woman responds as if she doesn’t even hear what Jesus just said.

The chosen nation of Israel was meant by God to be a missionary people. All nations on earth are blessed through Abraham, through the Jewish people. It has always been God’s design to have the Gentiles come to faith, and the way that was to happen was through Israel being a great missionary people proclaiming God and being a light to the nations. 

I tell you that Christ became a servant of the Jews to show that God has done what he promised their great ancestors. Christ also did this so that the non-Jewish people could praise God for the mercy he gives to them. The Scriptures say,

“So, I will give thanks to you among the people of other nations;
    I will sing praise to your name.” (Romans 15:8-9, ERV)

And that is exactly what happened. I am a Gentile Christian today because a small group of Jewish persons took the gospel of grace given them by Jesus and fulfilled their role as a missionary people.

The woman worships and tries Jesus again.

Jesus never said “no” to the woman. This was the basis for her asking again. She reasons much like an infatuated teenager who asks the girl of his affections, “so, what kind of chance do I have going out with you?”  The girl responds to the teenage boy, “a million to one.”  And the boy responds to her, “so, what you’re saying to me is that there’s a chance!”

Slim as the woman’s chances seem, she saw an opening where others might not. This is precisely the nature of true faith – it sees possibilities where none seem to exist.

This is raw, real, and persistent faith. If we don’t resonate with this kind of faith and persistence, there is not a sufficient level of urgency in our lives. The bald fact is: If we don’t pray, it’s because there is no desperation. We are still more fixed on law than gospel. Duty only goes so far.

Jesus still doesn’t answer the woman’s request, but gives her a metaphor about dogs, instead.

Jesus is restating what he said about the Jews: Salvation is through the Jews, not around them. We cannot ignore or get rid of the Old Testament because the gospel comes through it.

The woman still doesn’t give up but works with the metaphor.

She doesn’t argue with Jesus about being a dog; doesn’t insist she ought to be an exception; doesn’t say she has a right to be like the Jews; and doesn’t claim Jesus is being unfair or uncaring.

The woman simply accepts Christ’s words. Then, replies that even as a dog she would be allowed to receive a few crumbs from the table of the children. She might be a dog, but she’s still in the house, even if it’s under the highchair. The woman is looking for mercy as expectantly as my own dog looks at me with those sad brown eyes while I’m eating.

Jesus honors her faith.

Why? Because she humbly looked for grace. We need not write an essay to God about why our requests should be answered, as if Jesus needs convincing. We just need to seek the mercy of God.

Faith, coupled with urgency, doggedly persists. It believes Jesus will deliver. Great faith overcomes discouragement, despite the odds. It doesn’t listen to naysayers who want us to shut up and quit bothering them.  Urgent prayers are an unabashed begging before Jesus because only he can help. Begging isn’t sexy. It isn’t comfortable. But it’s needed.

So, pray. Pray like it’s the only thing that will make a difference. Pray with a sense of urgency. 

1 Timothy 4:6-16 – Build Your Faith Muscle

If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.

Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (New International Version)

There are several metaphors throughout the New Testament illustrating the nature of the Christian life and Christian community.

God’s people are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the house where the Lord dwells; the Body of Christ, a group working together and strengthening one another in faith; the army of the Lord, advancing with the shared purpose of proclaiming good news and extending God’s benevolent rule – just to name a few.

All the metaphors are embedded with the need for training, for spiritual disciplines and practices which strengthen faith and promote spiritual health.

Just as an army of recruits needs intense basic training and ongoing discipline; and just as the body needs hourly movement and daily exercise of its muscles; so, Christian communities require spiritual development with a variety of forms and functions to elicit and establish a solid godly life.

The curriculum in the school of faith, the liturgy within the spiritual temple, the boot camp for the Lord’s soldier, and the sets and repetitions for Christ’s Body are reading and listening to Scripture with a life rhythm of personal and corporate integrity, confident faith, steadfast love, encouraging words, and virtuous behavior.

If we dedicate ourselves to these things, there will be no room for entertaining wacky stories which have no basis in truth. Instead, there will be lush spiritual growth, teachable spirits, humble service, supportive beliefs, compassionate ministry, and open fellowship.

The high values of our faith need to be both used and guarded. Our treasured possessions, whatever they may be, are handled appropriately and carefully – being kept in a secure place when not used – and being used with care when out.

Our faith, our life and doctrine, is both a precious possession, as well as a necessary muscle to do the will of God. Like our own physical muscles, faith needs to be stretched, exercised, rested, and supplied with plenty of protein and necessary nutrients. Overtaxed muscles will fatigue and can be damaged through too much exertion. And underused muscles will wither and atrophy, unable to handle even the smallest of strain when we need them.

So, it is best to have proper spiritual hygiene and exercise through a regimen of tried and true practices designed to improve and maintain healthy faith. If you want to build your faith, consider the following 10 ways:

  1. Increase your amount of reading. There is no substitute for daily repetitions of reading the Bible. Supporting a growing faith will require more voluminous reading.
  2. Focus on listening to the biblical text. Reading is only as good as our listening skills. For the Christian, paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s gentle whispers is a must.
  3. Decrease your media time. For all the good stuff out there, a lot of media information is based in myth, half-truths, and opinions masked as facts – not to mention all the hack and huckster preachers.
  4. Pray more. In fact, pray continually.
  5. Practice gratitude – not complaining. Need I say more?
  6. Snack on good spiritual reading. Consuming a good book before bed keeps the faith muscle fed longer.
  7. Rest! When God created and instituted seven days, the first day was a day of rest; the workdays came after. Don’t flip-flop the divine order.
  8. Supplement with good spiritual conversation. Half-baked theological ideas come from remaining in one’s own cave-like head. Consultation, collaboration, and fellowship help create a rich and full faith.
  9. Don’t overtrain. Good idea: Read the Bible in a year. Bad idea: Read the Bible in a month. Good idea: Digest the contents of ecumenical Creeds and church Confessions. Bad idea: Stuff a bunch of knowledge down your gullet without any love to wash it down. Savor the meal. Don’t be a pig.
  10. Don’t lift too heavy for your faith muscle. The ancient desert fathers spent years developing their faith and could do incredible feats of spiritual strength. Christianity isn’t a competition of keeping up with the Francis of Assisi’s and Martin Luther’s of history. Use the measure of faith given to you and focus on those small daily decisions of trust.

Christianity is a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. We persevere to the end, not flame out after taxing ourselves with expectations and responsibilities God never gave us.

Be safe. Be strong. Be smart. Be spiritual. We are all in this together.

Gracious God, fill your Church with truth, the truth with peace, and the peace with love. Where our faith is weak, make it strong; where it is misguided and in error, correct and direct it; where it is amiss, reform it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.