When I was a kid, I memorized Ephesians 2:8-9.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.I get it. Sort of. There is no checkoff list that saves us. No formula that gives us entry into God's family. No algorithm for receiving forgiveness of sins.
But then we read all those verses about fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness . . .
And John 15 tells us that if we don't bear fruit, we'll be chopped off and thrown into the fire. (Don't you love metaphors?)
To complicate matters even more, James places enormous importance on what someone does. In James 1:26-27, he writes that if anyone thinks he's religious, but he doesn't watch what comes out of his mouth, his religion is worthless.
And I know we like to say that Christianity isn't a religion--it's a relationship, so let's revise the statement a little bit. If anyone thinks he (or she) has an intimate relationship with God, but his (or her) words are cruel/rude/gossipy, maybe that relationship isn't as close as he (or she) thinks.
And then James gets even tougher. He writes, "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."
I don't even know what to do what that. I think I get the "being polluted" part, but maybe not. We can't really see air pollution most of the time, and we can't really tell if water is safe to drink until we actually drink it and get sick--or not. So I think there may be pollution in my life that I'm not even aware of. That's sort of how it goes.
And as for caring for orphans and widows in their distress, I don't know very many of those.
James shifts gears, talks about the way we treat people, and then asks, "What good is it if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds?"
What if he (or she) talks about God's love, but doesn't extend mercy--the kind that includes actions?
According to James, that person's faith is essentially worthless.
In James 2:17 and 26, he says that it's dead.
Hebrews 11 tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for. It's the evidence of things we can't see. Faith is not an intangible belief. When we have faith, real faith, it changes us. It changes the way we think and the way we respond to situations. It changes what we do.
When we have faith, real faith, God's Spirit lives inside of us, and our lives produce fruit. We live differently. We care about different things.
Yes, it is possible to do good things without faith. But James claims that it's not possible to have faith unless we also do good things. The doing flows out of the faith.
Honestly, I struggle with this a little bit. I spent so much of my life trying to be good and do good things, and I had no faith. My good things were worthless on their own.
I have spent a lot of time more recently focusing on "being." Which is good. But at some point, the being should lead to doing. Should lead to active mercy. And love.
As usual, I end without definitive answers to the questions I raise. I'm okay with that. Most of life has more questions than answers.