Living Faith: Committed to Serving, not Complacent Self-Service
Faith without deeds is dead,” says James, and I don’t think he meant “works of piety1.” After all, he also wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Tending to orphans and widows is clearly is not doing religious stuff! He’s nearly as clear in saying we need to avoid being hard-wired to the ordure coming from our polluted media—moral filth, celebrity worship, gossip masquerading as news, and twisted social and political values blatantly unhidden in crude humor, to name some of the worst.
James’s little epistle is quite the compendium of what an active spirit-inspired life should be. Ironically, Martin Luther had trouble with it; he was so committed to his rediscovery of salvation by faith alone that he was afraid, I suspect, that this emphasis on doing what faith should inspire seemed too close to the salvation by works he’d seen in the Roman Church. When we debated the whole “faith vs works” controversy as seminary students, I could never quite see, in a time far removed from the times the Reformation, how there was any contradiction. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift from God—not by works so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” It just doesn’t sound that different from James to me, although I am aware that the final part about good works has often not been quoted. While it is true that good deeds will not save you from your sins–or make up for them either, the saving grace of God will come through faith, and from that will come the desire to help others. How different is that from James saying, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead”
A church of couch potatoes doesn’t quite fit that description of “living faith.” The present generation’s plugged-in lifestyle is equally lifeless, and I don’t say that as some sort of total outsider—I use a cell phone, spend time on the Internet, have a fairly active Facebook presence. I have found myself quite content not to be watching much television in the past 5 years or so, even though I do enjoy fantasy, science fiction, and detective kinds of shows. I’m not even sure I believe technological distractions to be any worse than those prior to the explosion of gadgets; I simply cannot ignore technology’s unique temptations.
Before the modern era, men, women, and even children spent much of their time working. For most of history, it took every hand just to survive when all food, clothing, and shelter had to be hunted, grown, built, prepared to eat from scratch, or hand-sewn from raw materials; after the Industrial Revolution, it still required considerable time and labor to earn what was needed for those same necessities. In this country, leisure time really exploded after World War II, although child labor laws, unions, and the 40-hour-week helped set the stage. Suddenly, people had free time, extra money for pleasurable activities from televisions to vacations, and an expanding menu of choices produced by technology. Even the “sabbath” day of rest was lost to the competition of other leisure pursuits.
Somewhere in all of this, people began to regard their entertainments as the main focus of life. Work, while always being something of a curse, is still the basis for much personal satisfaction; it provides a sense of accomplishment, whether through hard labor or through creative activity. An avocation or artistic or creative hobby can also produce this sense of accomplishment; but greater than either the accomplishments of work or art, a person’s efforts to help another human being—a person in need, a victim of a tragedy, a child or elderly person alone, a stranger, or even a prisoner—are even more rewarding, as labor that benefits someone else. Unfortunately, most of us are not inherently inclined to look for opportunities to serve others, and many of us have grown too selfish to serve even those near at hand; we’d rather be served. Our numerous conveniences, pre-packaged prepared foods, and other creature comforts make instant gratification far more appealing than the effort involved in good works.
So today we have a populace filled with “complacent complainers” who are happy with all their toys and games and leisure time activities, until they seem in any way threatened; then they complain and seek to blame someone for putting their self-serving lifestyles in jeopardy. They readily respond to anyone who promises to give them everything and punish whomever they name as scapegoat, and who also promise to take care of all that dirty business with the jobless, homeless, sick, handicapped, and elderly folks in need, so that all a person needs to do is go back to enjoying his or her distractions. Someone offers to make sure everyone has a cell phone and Internet service, oh, and of course, health care, and their supporters are thrilled. Hardly anyone asks exactly how anyone could do that, where the money to pay for it will come, or how any necessary work will be finished if everyone is lost in cyberspace. They certainly don’t bother to wonder if all those needy people will actually be helped in the most effective ways, or even helped at all. Apart from the foolishness of such complacency, my observation is this: Christians who allow themselves to fall into this kind of thinking most likely have a dead faith!
Do you think that is too harsh? Consider that during the same decades that our leisure-focused culture has been developing, a comparable church has also been produced, one where most are willing to give an hour, one day a week, if that, to their faith. Philosophical ideas have trickled down into the minds of everyday folk that encourages a division between sacred and secular, making it easy to be “religious” on Sunday but fully secular and even profane for the rest of the week. This dichotomy is most likely worse in so-called “liberal” churches, but my time among evangelicals suggests, not all that much worse. Over thirty years ago, I had a church member express displeasure that my sermon “ran long” so that the 11 o’clock service didn’t end promptly at noon, because, after all, she had a roast in danger, back home in the oven!
I recall many times when a well-intentioned preacher has made a clear distinction between faith as mental assent versus saving faith, trying to show how some believe but don’t really believe. I understand their intent, but I think they missed the boat. The distinction is not what difference there may be in a mental process; it’s what difference genuine faith makes in the life of a person. While I believe that trusting Christ to be one’s savior is a simple change in thinking, it is a change with profound consequences that come from having an awesome respect for the true and the living God, deep guilt over displeasing that God, terror perhaps of the consequences of unforgiven sin, a genuine desire to change their behavior, inexpressible gratitude to the one who died on a cross to make forgiveness and deliverance possible, and an almost incomprehensible love for other sinners—those already saved and others who need to be saved. All of this change in perspective may not come immediately, but through solid Biblical teaching, it will come…or should.
Of course, good teaching isn’t the only path to understanding. The Bible is our guidebook, and we should become thoroughly familiar with its teachings. However, reading the Bible isn’t one of those required religious duties like prayer or tithing are often understood to be. Jesus said, “If you follow my word, you will truly be my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will make you free!” Of the many encouragements to study and appreciate the Bible, that has always struck me as the best one. Prayer is our conversation with God, one only possible for redeemed people cleansed from sin, but it should be a treat like a child talking to his daddy. Wow! Tithing or proportional giving is both an expression of our gratitude for all God has done and continues to do for us and an opportunity to support the preaching of the gospel and helping those in need, within and outside the body of Christ.
In other words, there is no division between secular and sacred; and, while we all need a measure of rest to be healthy physically and mentally, the whole idea of self-centered leisure time apart from a person’s spiritual life does not exist in Biblical teaching. We are God’s children 24/7. When I was a pastor, early on, I was frustrated when some long-serving Sunday School teacher would say it was time to “retire,” not because she couldn’t do the job any more, but because it was time for someone else to do it, even though there weren’t exactly a plethora of qualified prospects. From then on, I realized that retirement and vacation weren’t really consistent with the commitments of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I have no complaint or criticism of such breaks from job or career, and the need for rest, limitations due to aging, health concerns, and changing responsibilities may require adjustments in spiritual activities and commitments, but a true disciple of Jesus is never “off the clock.” A Christian with “living faith” will always be alert to those who have needs; our interest, attentiveness, kindness, helpfulness, and our willingness to get involved are the foundation of our opportunity to have spiritual impact…social and political impact, too!
At the opposite extreme, apart from simple neglect of others, or worse, our active mistreatment of them, one the worst examples of “living faith” is the tract, as it has often been utilized. How did our thinking become so fuzzy that we came to believe that “junk mail” was an effective means of showing the love of Christ? I rarely read pamphlets or brochures left on my car, in my door, or anywhere else, how about you? In fact, many of our modern, convenient, technology-based methods of evangelism suffer from the very same weakness. They are all impersonal! A book or piece of literature, a web site or YouTube video may be valuable tools when coupled with some sort of loving personal connection. Unfortunately, even in outreach, we’ve come to prefer the quick and easy methods that do not disturb our busy lives of self-satisfying pastimes.
Just as in politics, people are always look for the “biggest bang for the buck.” Mass communication is attractive because it seems to offer a way to reach thousands or even millions, but it is also impersonal. While commercial advertising seems to work, I’m surely not alone in being rather immune to most of it; I buy very little because of ads, except for a new or different product, or when a clear description of features or comparison suggests a value worth pursuing. I’m a “hard sell” kind of person; and, as a salesman long ago explained, I’m also a lousy salesman. Others are more easily swayed by advertising. Still, I wonder how much of the print, radio, TV, or now online promotion accomplishes much in the sphere of church ministry or outreach. In urban areas, large numbers of congregations seek to attract the same folks with remarkably similar, but not very compelling invitations, an exception being a large, flashy holiday production. Even such plays and musicals are generally impersonal, presented in a large facility where people come and leave with little personal contact.
For living faith to engender living faith, personal contact is preferable. As in biology, an impersonal method of reproduction may occasionally be used, but one wonders how well the offspring will thrive; it isn’t just becoming a believer that best occurs in a relational setting, so too does becoming a mature disciple. Let’s face it. Besides the culture and the church, this modern age of technology has been hard on the family, too; hardly anybody sits at the table together regularly for meals or even watches TV together. Texting or messaging to someone in the same room still sounds a bit odd, but announcing one’s relationship status on Facebook often only indicates a relationship itself that may be more virtual than real. When I was in college in the 70’s, a common complaint was being a number amidst a huge student population. So what has replaced it? It seems to me that it is something even less personal, a condition not good for society in general, I fear, and even worse for the Church of Jesus Christ, if we fail deal with it!
Perhaps I should make it clear, at this point, that I’m not a technophobic curmudgeon. I’m writing this on my laptop and much prefer a word processor to a typewriter, which itself beats handwriting! I find texting my ESL students is easier than trying to decipher their heavily accented English on my cell phone. I have adjusted to perpetual access, and rarely leave my phone off my person or out of reach. This is being posted on a blog, and this post will be posted on my Facebook profile page. Right now, I do not have Internet access at home, and I miss having the convenience.
However, I do try very hard to manage wisely my use of social media. I avoid most triviality on Facebook, but I enjoy being able to stay in convenient contact with students, friends old and new, and carrying on a variety of interactions of substance, along with a bit of joshing and teasing. I use it to draw attention to worthwhile materials from other sources, funny pics and graphics, and occasionally a status that I deem possibly of interest to my “friends.” I don’t tweet, as yet, and I’m not sure I’m up for tiny sound bites; I’m just not inclined to that minimalist kind of (barely) communicating. When I can justify it, I will probably get a phone with Internet access. I’d love to have a digital book reader, but I’m not yet sure about an iPad-type device (especially since I don’t really mind lugging my bigger screened laptop with a full keyboard). I have to be careful, too, with the few online and computer-based games I play, as they can use up an enormous amount of time; I worry about those who have little motivation to control a gaming addiction, or worse! Technology or social media and living faith are not mutually exclusive, but these or any pastime that uses up free time to the exclusion of good works is regrettable in the life of a Christian. This is a concern we dare not overlook.
Will maintaining a living faith make a difference? Will sacrificing things we enjoy be worth the loss? I believe they will. American culture is a mixture of good and bad, not unlike most cultures actually. Our love of freedom, rugged individualism, hard work, and small government has given us prosperity and a unique view of many things. For several centuries, Christianity has flourished and influenced the surrounding culture, and a corresponding generous spirit has characterized the entire country. As with most good things, however, corruption has slowly crept in. Freedom has turned to moral licentiousness, individualism has morphed into self-centeredness and narcissism, hard work has either turned to workaholism or been replaced by work-as-little-as-possible, and small government has gone the way of the dinosaur; and, of course, prosperity has faded under an economic assault featuring most recently a gargantuan and unsustainable national debt. Christianity no longer thrives, and its influence, so evident in early American history, is far less evident today; more noticeable is the growing anti-Christian spirit prevalent in the media, among celebrities and pundits, and even from leaders, especially those who use “separation of church and state” to mean keeping the church out of anything even remotely public. Where it hasn’t already faded, don’t be surprised when our generous spirit disappears along with everything else Christian.
All the same, I do not believe Christians have been driven from the “public square,” I believe we withdrew from it. We first became insular, exclusionary, and fortress-minded, leaving our place as a pillar of community life to become enclaves of irrelevance behind walls of disinterest. Instead of “going out,” we tried to get our neighbors to “come in.” Instead of sprinkling our “salt” out in our neighborhoods, we kept it in the shaker; we didn’t hide out light in a basket, we just kept it back on the church grounds. In withdrawing from both public square and neighborhood, we grew to be less and less familiar, even to the point of becoming quirky images of normal spiritual life, caricatures that warned people off rather than drawing them in. Where people might have gotten to know us at work or next door, they may have perceived us to be especially nice people, whom they may or may not have identified to be Christians. Then, of course, some chose to identify their faith as something mean and ugly, harping on some issue that was and is, by no means, the central focus of Christian discipleship. Thirty-five years ago, it was Christians on campus condemning non-Christian students for drinking alcohol; more recently, it has been “God hates fags!” which he most certainly does not!
Since the 2012 election, Christians have been upset, angry, discouraged, and fatalistic about re-electing the current President, as if the problem occurred all within one campaign season. Having and keeping a positive influence within our nation, its communities, and its culture has almost nothing to do with elections and everything to do with having a living faith, one many have ignored or simply didn’t understand. For many the future looks bleak, but truly there is but one future, one that is ultimately in the hands of our sovereign God. What transpires more immediately is ours to influence or to sit by passively and then complain.
I could probably list a hundred different factors that led to this election’s outcome, factors people are discussing with dismay and disbelief. Why? Very few, if any of them, including technology or social media, are new or recent in their inception, and virtually all of them might have been addressed or averted if our communities were filled with disciples with a living faith. Notice I said communities, not congregations, because the center of the life of a disciple whose faith is alive is outside the Church. The gathering times, each Sunday or whenever, are merely moments to share and refresh, not to squat and hide. The community is the center because we are the Church, not some building out on the fringes of the city.
What does the future hold? Who but God the Father knows for sure? As I have suggested previously, I don’t believe America’s future has been written or predestined; I believe it depends on us, on you and on me and on every other disciple with a living faith, whom we can encourage to get out of the pew and into the neighborhood, office, school, gym, or playground. I am encouraged by some of what I see among young people. Despite the ideas they’ve bought into from government schools and hardly objective media, emphasized by a celebrity-style politician or two, many are hungry for something else. They are abandoning old structures and institutions that seem not to work, and I don’t blame them. My “Baby boomer” generation was already questioning the use of many traditional organizations, and while some have managed to limp along since, they have lost ground, often I suspect for the very reasons I’ve given here. This present generation isn’t a “lost cause,” and none of the hundred or so factors relevant to discouraging cultural trends are not beyond rectification.
Living faith, doing deeds motivated by our trust in a living God and savior, inspired by his love for us, and a response to our awareness that love is the greatest commandment, is all we need. The most powerful tool for cultural change is one-on-one, face-to-face, and personal, not some campaign or strategy. Let’s leave those to the politicians, but let’s also not wait for them, because those techniques will never produce what we truly seek…or should.
While I am neither alarmed nor sanguine, I recognize what the near future may bring; as someone living near the edge already, I would prefer not to be pushed any closer. I am optimistic by nature, but I’m not speaking of a feeling but of an opportunity. My purpose here, in using the phrase “living faith,” is not to imply that most American church folks are going to hell, although I do believe James’ words are a warning not to be taken lightly. Rather my purpose is to re-awaken the sleeping giant that is the community of faith. I believe we are something far greater than a “moral majority,” though I have sympathized with what that phrase meant. I believe we have the potential for incredible influence; I believe we can become a force for constructive change. Instead of creating an coalition that might win an election, leaving another nearly as powerful group despising us, I seek to re-create a church so loving, credible, and influential that most will appreciate us, even if they are not part of us, much as it was for the majority of the history of the United States. The key is restoring the idea and the lifestyle of disciples of faith that is not dead, faith that proves its vitality by the good things it does, things not resented by anyone, by people most would recognize as kind, loving, and compassionate. People with that kind of faith can and will change, not just a culture or a country, but the entire world!
1“Works of piety” could just as easily mean good works motivated by piety, but I fear many assume that going to church, engaging in worship, and doing other “churchy” things qualify as “good deeds.” I don’t think so. Reading James’ letter does not reveal much in the way of what are often considered religious activities but rather all sorts of behavior and community focused activities…being a better person and helping other people.