Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Living Faith

“But some one will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith [for] as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:18, 26).

History is littered with the remains of people arguing over the role of works and faith in salvation, and everyone has an opinion. I’m not quite sure what mine is, but whenever I start to get a headache from thinking about it, I turn to the letter of James. Maybe I’m attracted to his words because he leaves things a little…fuzzy. We’re not really sure what ‘faith’ is, for him, because he leaves it undefined. But he does say a few things that help me articulate what I believe.

Like the body and the spirit, for James works and faith can only artificially be separated. We can talk conceptually about what faith is, and what works are, and how they differ from each other in the economy of salvation, but when it comes right to it faith and works are inseparably part of the same thing. Faith and works are both the fruit of our relationship with God, intertwined with one another.

Show me your faith apart from your works…

So often, we think of faith as something you do with your brain, maybe because in the history of Christian thought we’ve somehow managed to connect our concept of the soul so closely to rationality that we don’t conceive of the soul as being substantially different from the part of ourselves that thinks. We’ve come to frame our creation in the image of God more as our ability to reason than as something deeper and more like love. Faith, in our vocabulary, is a way of saying ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ certain things. We have become able to separate faith out as a thing which stands on its own and by which we are justified. If only I believe the right things, I will be saved.

I by my works will show you my faith...

But the gift of faith is so much bigger than the way we think. God Who made the world is bringing it to completion, working always in and through all things, making creation new. Faith is a part of the change being worked out, both a gift and visible sign of what we are given. Faith is God at work, and God’s work is transformative. There is no inactive faith, no such thing as belief that just sits in you, doing nothing. You cannot show me your faith apart from your works because faith consumes and enfolds the whole of your life, changing who you are as a living fire. Dead faith is not faith. By works faith is seen and shows itself because works are faith, not because works save us. Neither works nor faith, but God – Who is the ground of both – saves us. They can’t be taken apart because faith is not something we have but who we are, not something we merely hold true but the fabric of our entire lives.

So faith apart from works is dead…

What does this mean for someone who doesn’t see themselves living this life of faith? What if you aren’t feeding the poor, or doing all sorts of good works? What if it isn’t because you don’t want to, but because you find yourself so mired in depression or mental illness that you can’t? Does it mean that you don’t really have faith after all?

I don’t think that can be true. I’ve seen too many people struggle too hard against the darkness pulling them down to believe that they don’t have faith in the moments they aren’t doing what we would call good works. Faith, as something alive within us, ebbs and flows and moves and has its being in ways we don’t always comprehend, just as the soul speaks in words deeper than understanding. We live in a broken, fallen world where things don’t always line up neatly the way our theological treaties say they should. Sometimes I can’t show you either my faith or my works, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both there in ways I don’t begin to comprehend.

While the eschatological end to which we are moving is the perfection of all things, we are not perfect: we sin, and fail, and struggle with ourselves, and suffer needlessly. Seeking forgiveness is works and faith. Desperately looking for God when you can’t seem to find Him is works and faith. Our rebirth through baptism is works and faith. All of these things connect us to God, and are signs of the Spirit working in us – not because of anything we’ve done but because of God. Our relationship with God is founded on God, not on us: on God, the Rock Who cannot be moved and on Whom we build our strong house.

The body apart from the spirit is dead…

Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we fall down and can’t stand up again. Sometimes we have trouble loving our neighbor and even loving ourselves. But God is still doing that work in us. And, because our lives are hidden in Christ, God is doing that work in us even when we feel we have nothing in us to contribute. In doing our best every day to commit to living our faith, God brings forth in us both works and faith that transform the world in often invisible ways. God’s work shows us our faith, and God’s love will overcome all obstacles.

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