James 2:14-26 (The Message) Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? 18I 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 mesh 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.
I was taught years ago that the word “believe” is best defined by two words: “by life.” Perhaps this is where the old adage, “actions speak louder than words” comes from. I’m reminded of a statement I read a few years ago in a magazine, “You always find time to do what’s truly important to you.” Those words haunt me often when I’m having a stare-down with a junk drawer or contemplating all the reasons why going to the gym just doesn’t fit into my day.
And so it is with faith and works. I have read James 2 so many times over the years, have heard it preached over and over again – have even heard song after song reminding me that “faith without deeds is dead.” And more often than not, the missives sound like a Biblical motivational speech. Usually said in the “you must live out your faith” sense, I am challenged to “get off the couch” and prove out my faith by doing something. Anything. Faith becomes that junk drawer or that gym – a “thing” that needs to be done, an item that need to be checked off my “look what I believe” list. I think specifically about James 1:27 and Isaiah 1:17 – verses about caring for widows and orphans and fighting for justice. It seems that simply being obedient to these scriptures would definitely show the world my faith in God.
But, as I stumble down this road of life in Christ, I’ve noticed something.
Well, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t me who noticed it first – it was a friend. This friend isn’t a “sweetness and light” guy; rather, he dances on the edge most every day, disgusted not with God but with the church and religion and the “trying to live a good life” life. He looked at me, and said, “Why do you do what you do? Are you just that good? Or are you just that bad?”
I looked at him, and it hit me.
None of the “things” I have come to be passionate about – those James 1:27 and Isaiah 1:17 things like orphan care and mentoring and advocacy for outcasts – were things I placed on a list. I haven’t determined to show everyone my faith in God by doing any of them. In fact, I can’t prove much by doing anything – there are plenty of people who do good things for others without so much as a tip of the hat to the Creator. Rather, I’ve found in my own life that, if I am truly pressing into Christ, the desire to “do” becomes organic – it literally is brought to life in me. I can’t NOT do. Instead of proving my faith, my faith is proven. Deeds become the flesh-and-blood personality of a “me in Christ, and Christ in me” faith. They cannot be separated, because neither is complete without the other.
So again, I reflect on the word “believe.” In my life, “by life” is a most perfect definition.