Thursday, September 21, 2006

“Real Faith”[1]

James 1:17-27

America is into “reality.” Or so it would seem, from a quick glance at the television lineup. The show “Survivor” started it all off a few years ago. It was so successful that it spawned a whole new genre, “reality TV.” Now we have “Wife Swap”, “Fear Factor,” and “American Chopper.” It seems there's no end to the possibilities for “reality TV.” The irony to me is that it seems that, more than ever before, Americans are turning to “reality TV” precisely to escape reality. I would say there’s precious little “reality” in “reality TV.” We may see people as they really are, but how many “real” people do we see?

I think this problem crosses over into the spiritual aspects of our lives as well. Being a “real” person isn’t easy. We have to face our demons; we have to come to terms with our dirty laundry; we have to come clean with ourselves.

One of the basic teachings of Scripture about faith is that it must be real. According to James, there’s no such thing as faith that’s a sham. It’s either real or it’s not faith. And if it’s not real, the only person we’re fooling is ourselves.

The Bible consistently demands that faith be real. According to Scripture, real faith is about God’s grace changing your heart and mind so much that it changes the way you live.[2] From the very beginning, God’s amazing grace has demanded of us that we not simply respond by saying something, but by doing something.[3] God has always expected those who profess faith in him to show that their faith truly makes a difference in the way they live.[4] Otherwise, it’s no faith at all; as Jesus said, it’s just “lip service” (Mk. 7:6-7; quoting Isa. 29:13). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, only those who are obedient believe![5]

Now it may seem strange to people raised on Paul's gospel of “justification by grace” through faith to hear this. When James says that “true religion” is to bridle your tongue, care for widows and orphans, and keep yourself untainted by the world (Jas. 1:27), it sounds like he’s making a new set of rules to follow. It sounds like he’s trying to set up a “religion” in the institutional sense of the word rather than promoting Christian faith. But when we look more closely at Scripture, we find that James’ demand for faith that changes the way you live stands right in the mainstream of biblical teaching.

The interesting feature of James’ contribution to this line of biblical teaching is the way he gets specific. James is not content to state the principle that we demonstrate real faith by how we live. He characteristically goes right to the heart of the matter by finding concrete illustrations. It should come as no surprise that he pinpoints these three specific areas—how you use your words, how you treat the powerless and destitute, and how you view “holiness.” A quick overview of Scripture will show how often they show up as indicators of real faith or the lack thereof!

If you think about it, these three areas of our lives are precisely where the lack of real faith shows up. How easy is it to turn from our “Christian life” to cursing, slandering, and condemning another person! How easy it is to make ourselves feel less impotent in this world by mistreating someone who has no voice! How easy it is to rationalize and justify our failure to “do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” by wrapping ourselves in a mantle of false piety—we and people like us are “holy,” but those who are different aren’t.

It seems to me that is precisely the problem with American Christianity. In our society religion is a cultural phenomenon—it enforces the norms and standards of the status quo and uses the Bible and church as tools to that end. But since God’s word challenges all societies and cultures to recognize their profound failures, we must ignore it. That means justifying the way things are by presuming that we’re holy and those who differ from us are unholy (and therefore they’re to blame for all the problems). If we are going to support our culture as it is, then we must become “merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jas. 1:22).

What about that part where James talks about keeping yourself untainted from the world? It sounds like James would fit right in with our self-justifying version of holiness. But that’s precisely not what James is saying. He’s echoing what Jesus said—it's not the so-called cultural “sins” that defile you, that render you “unclean” or impure in God's sight. You know what I’m talking about here—those ways we define people who are different from us as “less than” us regardless of their true character! For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day it was washing your hands the right way. We have different ways of defining people as unholy, but they are just as culturally motivated.

But Jesus says that it is what you do that defiles you. The list that Jesus makes has some things in it that I think we'd all agree have a unique ability to poison your soul—taking what you want, refusing to tolerate any rival, blowing your own horn, using others for your own gratification. Jesus presents us with a choice. The reality is that if we choose to live the life of real faith, we will have to turn our back on sham religion that justifies our sin. Real faith is about God’s grace changing your heart and mind so much that it changes the way you live.

[1] A sermon preached 9/3/06 First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, 116, speaking of God claiming us for his kingdom through his love.

[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, “Doing the Truth,” The Shaking of the Foundations, 114-117.

[4] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 187-206; Brian McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 249-51.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 63.

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