A Humbling Moment
Before I dive into my topic for this post, I want to reminisce on something that happened this winter while I was job-shadowing at an occupational therapy (OT) clinic. It was a few days before Christmas and a mother walked in with her two children, a boy around age 12 and a girl around age 7. I quickly realized that the daughter was diagnosed with some variant of ADHD when she relentlessly bounced around the room. (By the way, the rooms inside a pediatric OT clinic are something else! Giant pillows and trampolines line every square-inch of a floor that lies beneath a canopy of cargo nets, monkey bars, and trapezes.)
The primary purpose of the visit however, was not to help the little girl. As her brother sat down and was handed an iPad, I realized that he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). With the press of a few buttons on his assistive communication device he was able to communicate what he wanted. While the mother and my boss started to talk specifics of the son and daughter, I got a chance to observe the children play. The little girl flew up a ladder and quickly reached for the trapeze in order to swing into a blanket that was suspended in front of her. At her size she couldn’t reach it, and I would’ve helped had the boy not reached up and handed it to her. “Thanks,” she would come to reply every time that he would hand her something or give her a boost as she flew around the room. I watched in awe as this boy, who was completely non-verbal, silently replied to every need of his sister. He has no words and isn’t expected to ever talk, according to my boss. But there he went, understanding and helping, not complaining or drawing any attention to himself as he waited on his sister.
After discussing with some friends, I realized that I had nothing to judge this boy by but his works. The complicated language that the rest of us hide behind is not accessible to him. For the rest of his life as he interacts with his sister, she’ll likely never hear him say “I love you”, but she’ll never doubt his love. I only got to spend 45 minutes in the same room with this boy, but it had a powerful effect on me. Words are very important and I’m grateful for the ability to harness them, but this boy’s raw actions spoke volumes to something that God cares very dearly about.
What James and Paul Have to Say
What does it mean to “do works” as a Christian? Well, it usually makes a lot of us Protestants mildly uncomfortable! “We’re saved by grace” is one of the most frequently quoted verses I hear, the familiar and beautiful Ephesians 2:8. However, I’ve heard some people quote it rather defensively, as if the mere mention of works is a threat to one’s salvation. After reading through the book of James recently, I’m really reevaluating my own attitude towards work. The short book of James is one of the most compelling and challenging letters written in the history of the early church. It’s filled with language that can be unsettling to a Christian who isn’t certain of how the Lord views us in light of what Jesus has done. The underlying question I want to pose here is how we ultimately view God in light of what Jesus has done for us.
The first two chapters of the book of James are particularly full of sobering language about what it means to be a Christian.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” – James 1:22-25
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – James 2:15-17
These are some of the hardest-hitting verses in the New Testament and in many ways are an indictment of the fairly comfortable lifestyles we lead as Americans. I’m sure that one of the biggest questions out there is how James’ writing can line up with that of Paul. Some have even gone so far as to say that the book of James is blasphemous and not in alignment with Jesus’ teaching. Martin Luther himself wrote that the epistle was a “gospel of straw” in a direct challenge of its canonicity.
So why is this book so important to us as believers? James as it turns out, was not in conflict with the teachings of Jesus or Paul. James was writing to believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire whom he feared were not living as they should. Surrounded by persecution, false teachers, and temptation, James deeply desired for them to not forget the truth that they had received from Christ Jesus! “Are you really Christians?” is what James was asking these young believers according to Pastor Beau Hughes from the Village Church. The young believers in the church were not living in a way that proved they believed in the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. In fact, according to John Piper, “Paul was very aware that his teaching of justification by faith alone was being distorted and misused…” by those who would use salvation by faith to keep on sinning. Check this out:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” – Romans 6:1-2
In Galatians, Paul lays out a very simple command for those who would use Christ’s sacrifice for reckless sin:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” – Galatians 5:13
In only a few verses before Paul writes that…
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” – Galatians 5:6
Clearly, according to Piper, the type of faith that Paul cared about was that which brought forth works of love. This is the truth that Paul and James are shouting at us! Their messages are in harmony. James, in the verses shown above, wanted to prove that “loveless faith is useless”, just as Paul beautifully puts in Galatians 5:6.
What Others Have to Say
So many other powerful warnings are scattered throughout the Old and New Testament. Sit down quietly and allow a few of these to wash over you!
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:16-17
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15: 12-13
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” – Ephesians 4:1
“The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations” – Revelation 2:26
These verses all demonstrate God telling us to live in a certain way. Before, during, and after Jesus’ ministry we can see this message being shouted at the believers. I particularly love those verses from John. What is so beautiful about them is that the disciples had no idea what Jesus was about to do at the fruition of his ministry. The disciples may have thought that Jesus simply meant a lifestyle full of service and frugality, but his death on the cross for us who are too ashamed to talk about him proved that he meant so much more.
So how can we be living in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called (Eph. 4:1)? We must first embrace the discomfort and pain of telling others of the greatest work ever done, Jesus’ unfair and redeeming death for us. We’ve got to be sharing the gospel, our one inspiration for all the fruit we should bear in our 80 or so years here! It can’t stop at our speech though. Our lives, even if we’re in high school or college have got to be continually poured out for others. Maybe this looks like capitalization on our passions to create a career out of helping others. Or giving away summers or years for the sake of others’ spiritual growth and profit. On a more day-to-day basis we’ve got to be spending our time with people that need love, especially those of us who are at college campuses. (I’m preaching this to myself more than anyone else right now!) Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us by faith through belief, but we must not let this faith remain alone. Let’s finish with perhaps one of my favorite verses in the Bible. I want this verse to guide and inspire my lifestyle until I die:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” – James 1:27