I have something important to share with you today. Just keep in mind that I said “important,” not “fun.” You’ve noticed that I’ve been digging into the New Testament book of James lately. Of all the New Testament books, it is the one I find most challenging and practical. I want you know that any time I share a challenge like what I’m about to share, it is something I am working through as well. I’m right there with you, not up on a mountaintop shouting down at you.
Think back to our last talk about James. What did he say made our religion or faith “pure and lasting”? Right, caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Good job! If you were sitting here with me, I’d give you a big gold star Let’s move on now, and see how James cautions us against developing a worthless, lifeless faith.
I love James because He always seems to address the very thing I need to work on. If you are familiar with James, you know that he is big on telling us how our words can affect others. If you’re not familiar with him, check out James 3. In James 1:26 he tells us that neglecting to control what we say can make our faith or religion dead and worthless. James says that everything we say should be governed by the law of love, meaning it does no harm to anyone. That’s pretty hard, isn’t it? I know that I am becoming much more aware of the effect my words have on other. If we don’t control what we say, our faith is worthless. Trash. Burn it up, and throw it away. Put it out on the curb. That’s not the kind of religion I want. You?
Do you have a problem controlling the words that come out of your mouth? Maybe you are really good about not swearing, but do you gossip? You might not use profanities, but do you yell at your children? You may be really good at biting back snarky comments towards your coworkers, but do you constantly criticize your spouse? Governing our words by the law of love means that we control the content and the tone of what we say – to everyone. We say those things that build others up, not tear them down. Yes, you’ll have to correct your children, you’ll disagree with your spouse. It is inevitable, and it is right. But when you do, before you speak, consider how the words and tone you are choosing will affect your target.
There’s another trap waiting here. Are you, like many of us, really good at controlling what comes out of your mouth, but inside you snarl and nag and belittle? If you are, you have probably realized that you can only keep those things inside for so long. You can keep the harsh thoughts about your boss, the frustrations with your relatives, the self-condemning to yourself for a while, but eventually they are going to burst out, and not necessarily at the object of their wrath. You may find yourself yelling at your kids, when really you’re angry about the person in your office who keeps stealing the credit (and the snacks). How to change this? Two things: First, make sure you have a person or two in your life that you can share some of those real frustrations and disappointments with – before they get to the explosive stage. Second, ask God to change your heart. Ask Him to clear away the angry, critical or judgmental nature you have. This is critical, because eventually, whatever is in our hearts comes out of our mouths.
Oh, but you say, “I don’t want religion, I just want to have faith.” Okay, let’s look at that. Growing up in Evangelical circles, a common catchphrase was, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship [with God].” Well, sure, as a Christian, I am convinced that my belief in Jesus allows me to have a relationship with God that people in other religions do not have. But I still am pretty sure I have a religion. I have a set of beliefs in a specific deity and reality that I am devoted to, and I show my devotion through a common set of traditional actions. Sounds like religion to me.
Outside of Christianity, there are also a vast number of people, especially today, that do not want to be part of “religion”. Can’t say that I blame them all that much. Much of the really awful stuff of the past, well, forever, has been at least sponsored and condoned, if not outright instigated by those who claim to be part of “religion”. I don’t want any part of that either. But just as I don’t want to give up being a human because there are so many evil people in history, I’m not going to give up on real religion just because it has been misused in the past.
I think another reason that I like James is that he is blunt. You never have to say to yourself, I wonder what he really means? So today, James tells us that if we have faith that is not coupled with good deeds or loving actions, then our faith is dead and worthless. Did you get that? Was he in any way vague? I didn’t think so. If you’re feeling like a little extra-credit work here, go read James 2:14-18. Wow. If you need to read it two or three more times, I can understand.
James doesn’t pull any punches. You have to have faith and good deeds, or else you don’t have either. A lot of people don’t like to go there. It’s too sticky of a question, too difficult of a balancing act between salvation by faith or by works. Well, the great news for us is that James isn’t “other people”. And he definitely “goes there”. The way he says it, he doesn’t seem to think that it is a balancing act at all. It’s like having two feet to walk. If you have a left foot, but not a right, you wouldn’t argue that you can walk just fine. You have to have faith and loving actions, or else you are going to be stumbling around.
I happen to live in a town that has a lot of New Age and Buddhist influences. Nearly every street has houses or shops with Buddhist prayer flag garlands hanging on the porch or in a window. We have more yoga classes per capita that anywhere I’ve ever lived. And yet, what many of these people have is “faith” that somehow, someday if they recite enough mantras or positive thoughts or prayers to a universal spirit, things will all work out. That can be pretty unsatisfying when life hits really hard. It’s okay when you’re stressed about work, but when your child dies, or when your husband leaves you, you need a faith, a religion, that is real and alive, not dead and worthless.
So how do we have that living, breathing, active faith? Well, let’s review. In our previous talk about James, we saw that “pure and lasting” religion means caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Today we saw that worthwhile religion means taking control of how we use our words, letting them be ruled by the law of love, which means that our words can do no harm to others. And finally, we saw that living, active faith is characterized by a life of actions that do good for others. It’s like a big circle, the ultimate recycling symbol. Loving Words -> Loving Actions -> Living Faith. And back around.