Visible Faith

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 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.

James 1:19-27 (NIV)

The first Protestants wanted to take the book of James out of the Bible. They believed that salvation was by the grace of God alone, and that faith was all we needed – but here’s a book that talks about works! Apparently, those Reformers finally realized that works in James are the evidence of faith, rather than a replacement for faith.

We can’t earn our way into heaven, but it does matter what we do. “You show me your faith without works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works,” James said. After all, what is faith if it doesn’t make a difference in our lives?

The Bible shows us what people are like and what God wants us to do about it. James said that if we hear the word and don’t do what it says, we’re like people who forget what we look like when we walk away from the mirror. If we lose our temper, then we forgot what we look like! We forgot that the Bible says that we are prone to anger and therefore have to practice self-control. If I hurt others with careless words – whether spoken, in an email or on Facebook – then I’ve forgotten what I look like! I’ve forgotten that words can bless or curse, and that God wants us to bless others.

It reminds me of the parable Jesus told about the servant who owed his Master a lot of money. The Master was about to throw the servant in prison and sell all of his stuff to get some of the money, but the servant begged the Master for forgiveness. The Master relented, but when that servant found someone who owed him a little money, he had his debtor thrown into prison. He forgot that he looked like a debtor, and that he should forgive like he was forgiven. Of course, the Master reminded him by throwing him into prison after all.

So what does faith look like? Faith looks like someone who has stage fright but stands up to address the crowd. Faith looks like someone who accepts another child into her home when it looks like she can’t afford one. Faith looks like someone who keeps knocking on the door, who keeps looking for a job, who won’t give up until he finds a way to support himself and his family.

Some people think that religion is impractical because it’s about that invisible world of God, the Holy Spirit, and faith. But these things are not invisible! We see God in the miracle of creation. We see the Holy Spirit in the many faithful Christians who keep reaching out to the lost and loving the unlovable. We see faith in that determination and persistence that keeps us not just setting goals, but reaching until we achieve them.

The book of James is the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs. To recover, the addict has to remember what he looks like when he steps away from the mirror. He has to remember that one drink is too many and a thousand are not enough. He has to remember that a Higher Power – God – can restore him to sanity. He has to take steps. We walk by faith – but we’re walking, not sitting or lying down.

So, yes, we’re saved by faith, not by works. But faith is practical! You can see it. It does things – good things. It makes a difference in our lives and in this world.

The Bible is a mirror that shows us how ugly humans can be, but also how much God loves us. In Jesus, it also shows us how God wants us to be. We won’t get there in this life, but if we walk by faith, we will get closer and closer, to the glory of God and for the benefit of all humankind. So go ahead, look in the mirror, remember who you are, and dare to be more like God wants us to be.


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