People are sometimes funny ‘creatures’. What gives people often security? Well, one thing for sure is that they tend to think in terms of boxes or categories. It’s often black or white. It’s this or it’s that. This happened to the community that James is addressing his letter as well. They needed a bit more convincing as they tried to set up faith against works in their lives.
It’s not about getting ourselves approved by doing lists of things (or avoid even longer lists of things). The Christian life is not about the sin list. It’s about loving God and others. Works accompany genuine faith. See it as the law of cause and effect. Let’s imagine that we are playing Footy here. I kick the ball (cause) and the result is that the ball goes somewhere (effect). It has to! Likewise, faith causes works, but not because we are trying harder. Rather, we allow God to work in and through us and as we trust God more because we know Him better, works of love, which fulfill the Royal Law of Liberty, will follow. Guaranteed.
For James, it is no problem to question someone’s faith (not his/her salvation necessarily!) if works don’t follow. Something is wrong here! Yet, people that have embraced easy believism fight that with everything they’ve got. They might call you judgmental, know-it-all, owner of the truth etc.
Even the apostle Paul did that with some of the communities he wrote to. He said this in 2 Corinthians 13:5
“Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves; that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you are disqualified.”
The letter to the community in Corinth, a community that sometimes practiced very questionable things, is a reminder for us all. It’s too easy to associate ourselves with a form of religion, group or community. It’s not the association or believing something that will stand the test of time. It’s ultimately acting (out of love and in the context of knowing and loving God!) upon what you believe. True faith shows! It always does.
Easy believism is permeated in our society just as salvation by works is. I came across a book with the interesting title called “The Christian Atheist”. An atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of God. Now, combine the word ‘Christian’ with ‘atheist’. What is that? It sounds like an oxymoron, right? Rightly so.
Then the author of ‘the Christian Atheist’ points out areas in life where professed Christians don’t live in line with what they believe. Please, don’t listen to this list with an ear of ‘condemnation’. I am simply trying to make a point here:
Some characteristics of a Christian atheist:
- When you believe in God but aren’t sure He loves you
- When you believe in God but not in prayer
- When you believe in God but you don’t think He’s fair
- When you believe in God but you won’t forgive
- When you believe in God but you don’t think you can change
- When you believe in God but still worry all the time
- When you believe in God but pursue happiness at all any cost
- When you believe in God but trust more in money
Now please hear me out here. I am not saying that when you believe in God there’s no room for doubt or struggle. After all, if there was no room for that, what’s the point of growing in faith? Faith is like a muscle. You need to use it and exercise it so that it can grow. There may be times that you are not 100% sure about something and worry sneaks upon you. I get it.
This faulty believing is, in fact, true in many areas of our lives and it doesn’t always apply to faith in God. For example, smoking or drinking heavily. We have seen the commercials on TV. A package of cigarettes doesn’t leave much room form misinterpretation. Smoking kills! It causes cancer and a series of other diseases. Smokers know that. Yet, there is also an overriding belief that is stronger than “OK let’s quit, because it’s bad for your health!” It’s perhaps the notion of “well, if I don’t smoke I start getting anxious. I don’t know how to cope with the stress that well.” That belief can speak much louder. In psychology, it’s also called ‘cognitive dissonance’. It’s the uncomfortable mental state of a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. Let’s apply this to the Christian atheist. Now please note, the matter here is not perfect performance. I get it.
There can be times that you do believe in God, but your prayer life isn’t that vibrant and alive. I am not judging that here! No. The issue is rather a stronger belief constantly overrides and annuls faith in your life because you ultimately believe that to be ‘more true’. It’s not that you don’t ‘believe in God’. It’s just that you believe something else more than “God”. It’s these constant inconsistencies between what someone professes to believe compared with his or her lifestyle that can stunt ‘growing in the faith’.
So, that begs the question: How do you know that someone really believes something? It will manifest itself in action. James mentions three examples when it comes to faith. The first example is a shocker! He claims that even demons (fallen angels) have faith, but it is not a saving kind of faith. They are still doomed for destruction, but they believe in God. We can’t just claim to have faith, for the sake of ‘having faith’. It’s also about ‘what kind of faith’ that is important. Demons have faith but it isn’t saving faith. They may believe that ‘God is one’ (a central doctrine in Judaism), but only intellectually consenting with a doctrine or teaching about God won’t save.
Then James reminds his readers of the father of faith, Abraham. Abraham, at the age of 75 was called by God to go to a country that He would show him. Abraham went by faith, without any directions but to trust in God. In some occasions, Abraham made some grave mistakes. He twice lied about his wife being merely his sister. Granted, Sarah was his half-sister, but it was still a half-truth. Yet, God declared Abraham righteous before His eyes. Years went by and finally, the son of the promise came; Isaac was born. Fast forward a few more years. Now God called Abraham again to do the unimaginable. He called Abraham to go up the mountain to sacrifice the son of the promise. What amazes me about the story is that Abraham simply went and obeyed God. His faith over time had matured and this scene really is the ultimate test.
The writer of Hebrews gives us a good insight into the kind of faith that Abraham had in obeying God even to the point of sacrificing his beloved son. Ultimately, Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac up from the dead. Why could he believe that? Because Isaac was conceived under impossible circumstances. Sarah’s womb was pretty much dead already. Isaac was truly the son of faith in the promise. God had shown Himself faithful. So, God could show Himself faithful again in a scene that we probably can’t even understand with our minds. Sacrificing your only son? What kind of test is this? Why would God even do that?
The answer is this. The only way to know that faith is real is by testing it. Like with Blondin and the wheelbarrow, Abraham believed God, His faithful nature, His goodness, and provision, even though in his mind, this proposal may have sounded ludicrous.
I will save the final story of faith that James uses for my last blog. It’s a surprising story of faith that we wouldn’t normally think of. And then I will make things a bit more personal to drive it home.