Faith and works

Read James Chapter 2; secondary text Romans 6:5-23

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. – James 2:18

The second chapter of James is about how our faith must translate into actions that reflect what we believe. James begins with the concrete example of the sin of partiality—when we honor or respect certain people more than others for superficial reasons. When we show partiality our actions reveal what our hearts truly believe; that some people are more valuable or important than others. While we might never say it out loud, our actions demonstrate our beliefs. James uses the sin of partiality to show the outermost symptom of a heart that is out of step in loving Jesus. Like tracing the symptoms down to their origins, James digs in to uncover why our actions would be out of line with what we say we believe. 

What leads us into the sin of partiality is not taking Jesus’ words to love your neighbor as yourself seriously (2:8-9). Jesus calls this the royal law because the whole law can be summed up in this one command. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will honor our parents, we won’t commit adultery or rob or murder or oppress others because we wouldn’t want to be treated that way ourselves. 

But what might seem strange is that James is talking about the law at all. In 1:8-13, James says that we are doing well if we keep the royal law, but if we show partiality we are convicted by the law as transgressors. It is easy to think when we are in Christ the law no longer matters, but this is not true. Israel was given the law to enter into relationship with a holy God, but the law only highlighted their sin and their enslavement to it. On the cross, Jesus broke the power of sin over us (it no longer is our master) and the penalty of sin (the wages of sin is death) so that we might become obedient from our hearts to Christ (Rom 6:16-19). Our relationship to the law now is as Spirit-empowered children of God who obey his law because we love him. Jesus says if you love me you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15), so while the law no longer condemns us, it is still our instructor, teaching us how we grow in Christlikeness and revealing our sin. When James says that if we keep the law of Christ we are doing well, he is saying that if we love others as ourselves we are demonstrating our love through our actions, actions that cherish the word and commands of our Savior.

But James goes deeper still. If the sin of partiality is the outermost symptom and underneath it lies a disregard for the law of God, the root of the problem is thinking that we can have faith without works. If I say that I love the Boston Red Sox and am a huge fan, but have never watched the games, don’t know the players, or care about their record, it would seem like I am actually not a big fan. The same goes for our faith. Many claim to be big fans of Jesus but do not read his word, follow his commands, or grow in our love for him. 

James closes with two examples of people who demonstrated their faith through their actions, Abraham and Rahab, and interestingly their actions both involve sacrifice. To put our faith into action means being sacrificial with ourselves and things. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his home and even his own son because he believed in God and trusted him. Rahab sacrificed her safety betting that Yahweh was the true God, she was willing to sacrifice her life to be proved wrong. Sacrifice is a great litmus test for determining if we are living out what we believe in concrete ways because Jesus was the sacrificial one who gave up his life so that we might know him and become like him. When we are living a sacrificial faith, we are living out a faith that works. 

Reflect:

What kind of people do you find yourself showing partiality towards?

How seriously do you take putting your faith into action? What kinds of things do you prefer to show your faith through? Where do you generally shy away from following God even though he commands it?

In what ways can you grow in imitating Jesus through sacrificial love and practicing the royal law?

Body Worship

It’s mid-January and social media is relentlessly reminding me that I am supposed to be on a new diet and fitness regime. Apparently, after a few months of treating our bodies like garbage cans, it’s time to clean up. Our culture has a body problem. More accurately, it has a worship problem. We worship bodies. It is why we spend so much time thinking about how we look, dieting, and exercising to recraft our bodies into the right kind of image. And as we do, we put faith in the promise that we can reach perfection. Our bodies can be healthier, more beautiful, more stylish; perfect bodies garner better dates and achieve the perfectly stylized Instagram feed. When our bodies are perfect, we will love ourselves more, and most importantly, others will love us more—adore us even. 

As we pursue body perfection, we join other worshippers in procession to our chosen chapels where our transformation will occur. Be it Whole Foods or SoulCycle, Crossfit or Keto, we join a family of other believers on a journey to self-betterment. We are our own gods and our bodies shrines to our perfection and worth. So when we fail, gain weight, or simply don’t end up looking like our idealized version of ourselves, we are lost. Our object of hope has failed us, telling us to try harder and leaving us miserable. Our culture has created an entire religion around perfecting bodies, but this religion has nothing to do with the gospel. 

The gospel is news, but it is also a story, and the decisions we make and actions we take reveal which stories we believe most. When we participate in the cultural story that our bodies are made to be worshipped, we start embodying that story, putting our hope in its promise of salvation and moving our bodies in accordance with its discipleship. But scripture teaches us that our bodies are of infinite worth not because of how they look or if others deem them beautiful, but because they bear the image of God (1:27), belong to Him as instruments for worship (Rom 12:1-2), and house the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Our bodies are ground zero for God’s redemption in our lives, and the gospel teaches us that our hope in Christ frees us from our obsession with self to worship the one for whom our bodies were made to worship. Our bodies are very good and made for good works, but oftentimes, Christians find themselves in a different story. The cultural narratives that tell us what our bodies are for are robust but empty; scripture tells a better story. 

Today, the question we shouldn’t be asking is how am I going to lose 10 pounds. The question we should be asking is what is my body for? Is it made for an endless pursuit of perfection? Is it made to be starved and run into submission so that it might finally have value? Is it made to be worshipped? Until we can answer what our bodies are for, we will never know what we are supposed to do with them.

A better story

The first time I heard someone teach about body image and the Bible was in 9th grade at a high school retreat. I remember the breakout session only because of the overwhelming emotion that I felt while I was listening: disappointment. Was there anything in the Bible that could stand against the mental, emotional and spiritual battle over our bodies? Does the gospel extend to my body—how I think about it and how I experience it today? 

After a year or two of marriage, I was feeling down for some reason about my appearance. My husband had been a steady voice of truth regarding how I viewed my body, but in this conversation, I bitterly told him that it didn’t matter if he thought I was beautiful, I often did not. This is one of the stories our culture tells us, that our bodies only have value if we love ourselves; we can’t be loved until we learn how to love ourselves first. But this is not the story God tells us, and my husband challenged me with biblical truth. We are loved by God before we love ourselves and in spite of ourselves. He doesn’t love us because we deserve it, he loves us because we are his children. 

Most of us live as if what God says about us is untrue, or at best unimportant. We might say his words matters, but our actions prove that we are living in a different narrative. Does it matter what God says about us? If it does, we have to allow that voice to penetrate our hearts and minds, fighting to believe that voice over others that tell us our value comes from our clothing size or how well we kept a diet.

The cultural narratives that tell us what our bodies are for are robust but empty; scripture tells a better story. 

But the story we believe about our bodies doesn’t just impact our own lives, it directly impacts the people around us. In Ephesians 5 Paul says that a husband and wife are one flesh and should treat one another’s bodies as if they were their own. So often we think of sin as between me and God, or perhaps me sinning against someone else. But the reality is that all sin impacts the body of Christ. According to scripture, when I hate my body, I hate my husband. God gives us other people to keep us accountable to his word so that we don’t allow ourselves to fall away from his truth. 

But this isn’t a principle that only applies to married couples. Before marriage, I found myself learning to fight the cultural narrative about our bodies with my girlfriends in seminary. One of them would vehemently say, “That is NOT the gospel,” when one of us was bemoaning how unattractive we felt, that we had gained weight, or that we felt insecure not wearing makeup. We started fighting for one another with the truth, creating a culture in our friend group of relearning and abiding in God’s story for our bodies. This is why God has given us the church: to exhort one another when we are believing something less than a story of grace and redemption about our bodies. The church is, after all, called the body of Christ, we depend on one another like a hand depends on its fingers to teach one another the truth and uphold one another as we learn to believe it in our bones, not just our minds. 

Our bodies do not belong to us. 

One of the most prominent narratives about our bodies is that my body is my own. I do whatever is best for it, don’t tell me what to do or how to use it, I am in charge. The Christian faith could be boiled down to simply this: it’s not about me, it’s about God; my life is not about what I want, it’s about what God wants. If we are in Christ, all of us belongs to Jesus, not just our mind or our hearts, our bodies belong to God.

When I was pregnant with twins, I was very aware of how much my body would change. I feared the expected 50-70lbs weight gain that most mothers of twins endure, wondered how this new phase of life might impact the mental battles that I had gotten used to winning regarding how I thought about my body. I was surprised in my first trimester when I started feeling a new responsibility to take care of my body because it was home to two tiny humans as well. I didn’t stay out late with college students I worked with, I didn’t eat unhealthy food—I wanted them to thrive and their life was just as valuable as mine. For the first time, I physically understood that my body was not my own. Everything I did, I did with them in mind. My body was no longer just about me. 

But if we are in Christ, Paul says, You are not your own, but you have been bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:20). Although Paul is addressing the Corinthian church exhorting them to honor God with their bodies in terms of their sexuality, his reasoning extends beyond that. In Colossians, Paul touches on the same idea, that when we are united with Christ we participate in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (2:9-15). All of our life becomes hidden in Christ. All of our actions must reflect our allegiance to him. How I use my body reflects my identity as one who is in communion and union with Jesus, and how I think about my body, the story I believe, will directly impact my actions. Just like my body belonged to my children more than it did to me while I was pregnant, in Christ, our bodies belong firstly to him to bring him glory. 

A better object of worship

Jesus’ whole life was lived in this reality, his body belonged not just to him, but to his Father and to the people that his body would ransom. On the cross, he died not so that our lives could be about us, but so our lives could be about him. The good news of the gospel is that my life is no longer about me. And the same goes for my body. My life is not about how I look, how in shape I am, what I wear, or what I eat. My life is about God. The gospel draws our eyes off of ourselves and fixes them firmly on the only one worthy of the worship. Where our culture upholds physical beauty and fitness as perfection, we know better. Our bodies are not worthy of our worship, only Christ is.

Cheerful Endurance in Trials

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. -James 1:1-8

When was the last time you needed to be steadfast? Perhaps it was endurance in an athletic endeavor or emotional strength in a relationship, mental focus to complete exams, or getting through another night of taking care of an infant. James begins his letter by holding up the virtue of steadfastness. To be steadfast is to endure, to wait patiently, to be constant, to have cheerful endurance.

Lately, my daughters have been waking up at 5:30 am. Though hopefully, this is a short-lived trend, I have not rejoiced in the predawn rooster cries emerging from their room. In fact, if I really examine my response to trials, I often see the benefits of spiritual growth in hindsight, after the ordeal is over, but I rarely am thanking God and rejoicing for whatever difficulty he has allowed my way. So why is it so important that we rejoice while we face trials, not just after? And more than that, what is it about the Christian faith that enables not only endurance but joyful endurance? 

Testing. James says that we can rejoice in testing because it produces steadfastness. Testing is what sharpens and refines us. Testing can sound negative as if God is throwing curveballs at you, trying to trip you up. Largely, tests are not popular. Testing brings back memories of algebra and physics, right and wrong answers. But testing can also provide an opportunity for what psychologists call eustress—a kind of stress that provides opportunities for positive growth. Even though the circumstance is still challenging or difficult, when you are working towards something good, the stress associated with it becomes a necessary part of human growth and development. The same goes for spiritual maturity. Jesus endured testing in the desert before his ministry began. Spiritual testing is a positive activity that teaches us to depend on God, rely on his word, and prove our faith genuine through endurance. 

An opportunity for joy. Biblical joy is contentment in Christ in spite of circumstances. Happiness is always connected to circumstances, but joy is a fruit of the spirit, something that grows out of participating with Christ, and the byproduct of faith. It is rooted in knowing that God is at work in all things and his promises are all true. This is why Paul in Philippians rejoices in his suffering and imprisonment. He knows that the Lord is using his imprisonment for his glory and purposes, and he is confident that even if the worst happens (he dies) he will be with Christ which is his heart’s truest yearning. When you desire to grow in Jesus, you can find joy in trials because God promises they will develop your love fo him and deepen your intimacy with him.

When James says to count it all joy when you face trials because the testing of your faith will produce steadfastness, he is saying that the foundation of Christian discipleship is growing in steadfastness, pursuing Christ in all circumstances, finding joy in Him in all seasons so that we might be transformed more and more into his likeness. So that we will be complete and lacking nothing. So that we will one day look just like Jesus. In your circumstances today, remember that the Lord tests and refines us to draw us to himself and change us into people that know and love him more and more.