Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The MYTH of Private Faith

In one of my favorite movies, “The Matrix”, the character Morpheus
says to Neo, “there is a difference between knowing the path and
the path…” With that line in my head (I just watched
“The Matrix” again the other night), I was struck this morning as
I read in James 2 that “faith without deeds is dead”.

Like other mysteries of the faith (e.g., the precise nature of the Trinity)
which are often hotly debated, discussions of “Faith and Works” tend to
stir up our emotions and spur us to take sides… Here’s my own take
on the symbiosis between these two priorities, given in the form of
2 Statements and a Response to both:

“My relationship with God comes first”

While my personal, private relationship with God is certainly “Square One”
in my faith, there is a subtle, dangerous tendency, I believe (given the evil
human heart) to detach that relationship from any outward actions which
should stem from that relationship. The Bible is very clear when it tells us
that “deeds” (“works”) MUST accompany faith, and indeed, that our “faith”
is stone-cold DEAD without them.

Mathew 5:23,24 tell us that if we are making our offering to God
(private faith) and there recall that our brother has something against us,
WE are to take the initiative, get up, and go be reconciled to our brother
(“deeds”), before coming back to the altar.

James 2:14-17 makes it clear that wishing someone well (we might even
add “praying for them” – private faith) while failing to meet their physical
needs, is “dead” faith.

1 John 4 is even more direct, noting that whoever “says he loves God”
(private faith) but then hates (or fails to love) his brother is a liar; the
glaring theme of this passage is that a true love for God results in a
genuine love for those around us.

So the idea that we can think of our private relationship with God in one
context, and the way we treat other people, or how well we control our
tongues and our passions, in some other context, is profoundly mistaken.

“I can do nothing in and of myself; it has to be God”

The book of James is sometimes used to support the idea that real
Justification is a combination of what God has done and what WE do
(“good works”). Side-stepping that debate for now, the point I want to
make here is that there is, perhaps, a subtle “passivity” that can creep
into the heart of a Christian, as we “wait” for God to act through us.

Scripture overwhelmingly portrays those whom God calls “righteous” as
people who take action, who don’t wait around for additional
“spiritual growth” (private faith) before they engage the Disciplines and
before they reach out to those around them.

As an (admittedly rather silly) analogy, picture this: If my backhoe is
nice and clean, the tracks are solid, clean, and in good repair, and
the gears and hydraulics are all greased up and ready, but I never
actually DIG anything with it, what good is it? I may marvel to myself
at what great shape my backhoe is in, but if I never take action and
USE it for the work it was designed to do, the whole reason for having
it to begin with is meaningless.

Hebrews 11 talks about “faith” and immediately frames the discussion
in terms of great saints who went out and DID something about their
faith; Paul writes about running a race, rejecting evil, exercising
self-control, praying and sacrificing and arguing for the faith, and much
more, all of which are concrete actions which should typify our approach
to what we say we believe. James even notes that a prostitute was
considered “righteous” by God for her actions (hiding the spies)…

Do our actions play a part in our salvation? I’ll let the theologians and
biblical scholars hash that out; but the idea that “we can do nothing” is
perhaps little more than a veiled excuse to sit back comfortably and
merely “talk the talk”… As I read the Scriptures, the charge to those
who believe, it seems to me, is to get busy; Love is a VERB, and when
we are busy loving and serving those closest to us, we ARE doing
something about our faith (and God changes us in the process).

There is an expression that says, “People don’t care how much
you know until they know how much you care”. In the same way, genuine,
biblical Christianity exists precisely at the juncture of our devotional
approach to God (through Jesus) and our serving relationships to
those around us. Anything else is “dead” faith.

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