Works and Faith: Can’t Be One Without the Other

My Brothers and Sisters, if a person claims to have faith but does nothing, that faith is worth nothing. Faith like that cannot save anyone.
…I will show my faith by the good I do.
James 2:14,18

Kingdom work is the only way to create equality of opportunity. Work without faith is as useless as faith without work. There can be no true good without God.

I’ve been working on this post about the nature of work – kingdom work – for several days, thinking upon the topic for quite awhile, and, for the past two mornings, wrestling with it directly in my devotional time and at church. Let me start with the latter.

This week’s message at Grace Chapel was about a small team’s trip to experience the church in China. (Good news: the Church is doing well, recognized, tolerated, and even fostered by the government, contrary to what I had thought. For an excellent review, listen to Pastor Bryan’s 8/28/16 sermon at grace.org.)

More importantly, what I began to understand was that believers show their faith in Christ by what they do – or, rather, by the why and how of what they do. Kingdom workers are workers first, but workers who are ever-ready to give an answer about their faith, rather than the dedicated preachers and teachers of the faith of the Missionary past. They are engineers, infrastructure builders, simple people helping to develop and improve the world for others. (I’d say that the difference is that these believers are actually good for something, but I don’t want to disparage my pastor. At least not too much. 😉 )

There is a huge element of intentionality in “faithful doing”, no matter where the doing is done. My Saturday included two examples of Christians ready to answer the question, “Why are you here, voluntarily giving up your time; time that could be spent enjoying the benefits and comforts of arguably the most advanced society in the world? Why are you helping me instead of helping yourself to all the good things?”

First, the worship team from my Thursday night Celebrate Recovery played at a “Love Your Neighbor” outreach event in the inner city of Worcester. That evening my wife and I went out to dinner, and there were multiple large parties of diners who had spent the day at the Special Olympics. This got me to thinking about who are “the least of these.”

Obviously, there are people less fortunate in circumstances and abilities, as I saw on Saturday. But there are also the less fortunate in terms of exposure, examples, and experience of God and Christ, which was the message on Sunday. Both types of people don’t need to be preached at; they need to be shown faith: faith in action. Faith with works. Answer: “God calls me here to give, to share of the bounty he has given me. He has comforted me so that I can comfort you, and point you to Him as the source of all good things.”

What answer can be given for works without faith? For good without God? What else can such a morality be based on?

In Matthew 12:15-21, wherein Jesus feeds the 5000, he “…Looked up to heaven and said a blessing.” All good things come from God. Our bounty is a blessing. It is the miracle of our circumstances. And we are called to share it.

Delight Thyself in the Lord
And He shall give you the desires of thine heart.
Psalm 37:4

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Acts 4:32-35 which tells of the community of early believers:

The whole group of believers was united in their thinking and in what they wanted. None of them said that the things they had were their own. Instead, they shared everything. … Everyone who owned fields or houses sold them. They brought the money to the apostles. Then everyone was given whatever they needed.

And, of course, there is the Biblical “it is better to give than receive” in Acts 20:35.

China certainly tried good without God in turning to a Communist/Socialist society. It is heartwarming to see that they are now asking God back, as demonstrated by the Church’s acceptance. Perhaps it is because the ruling officials realized what is missing from Utopian stories, and why attempts to bring such perfect societies to real life fail: The early Christians spent their time talking and learning about God and Christ. They had faith.

I believe this is because Faith deals primarily with what is, and not what should be. Utopias try to make what should be come to pass by purely human means. “From each according to ability; to each according to need” certainly indicates intent to care for “the least of these”. But, in leaving out God, Christ, and the Spiritual, what is lost is the voluntary nature of sacrifice, the fact of God’s calling upon people. The submission of the one for the many becomes forced by one group upon another.

“To be a socialist is to submit the I to the Thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.”
Joseph Goebbels

The basis for self-sacrifice, along with Jesus’ own life and death, is acceptance of the way my life is; however that is at any given time:

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
Philippians 4:11-12

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Psalm 23:1

If I have faith and trust in God, I am better able and more motivated to share and give away whatever I do have plenty of: time, resources, or just gentle words of encouragement. If I have faith, I accept, plainly, that there is no Equality of Ability. There never has been, and never will be. We are not created equal in gifts and talents, nor in fortuitous circumstances of birth. We, as a society/civilization, can only ever attempt to create Equality of Opportunity. And faith convicts and convinces us that the only way to adjust for inequalities in abilities and circumstances is to faithfully give of ourselves wherever we each see a need.

“Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the Gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.”
Winston Churchill

“It is liberty that cultivates a country. No people can ever make any social and mental improvement whose exertions are limited. Knowledge, wisdom, culture, refinement, manners, are all founded on work and the wealth which work brings.”
Frederick Douglas

Socialism is focused on dragging down the circumstances of all to try and make up for differences in ability. But that is not human nature. As a “system” it sounds perfect. But systems depend on identical parts. Systems are not built for exceptions. And human beings are nothing but exceptions.

Only a political system which recognizes that making Equality of Opportunity (and not a pipedream of Equality of Ability) its highest ideal, allowing those who will to shine and those who will care to freely give, can claim any kind of success or morality.

This is not to say Capitalism/Representative Government is without faults. Without faith, it is just as flawed, and I believe we are seeing the cruel results of this today. No character demonstrates the weakness of the American Dream better than the prodigal son’s elder brother, whose self-righteousness and selfishness would not, could not allow him to rejoice and give of himself at the “re-birth” of his sibling. In truth, both sons were wayward.

For “Honest Work” to be honest, both the employer and the employee must be intentional about their part in the agreement: a “fair” wage for the best effort. I don’t believe we are seeing either these days. The whole point of sharing everything in Acts 4, was to prepare the community – and each member of it – for the hard times that God’s Word assures us will come. Sharing with faith is tithing. And just as there is temptation to skimp on the tithe or to remain in ignorance of its purpose, there is also temptation of the storehouse administrators to become possessive or for the successful to hoard for themselves what was given to be shared.

Faith with works, works with faith is the answer.

Spartan? Try Roman!

My wife, God bless every bit of her, has always been a fitness nut. She’s always felt driven to it. Before we were married, she worked aboard tanker ships, and would tell me about her off-hours on-board exercising. (There was not much else to do when embarked for months at a time.)

Mid-life has been no different. Several years ago, prompted by the sudden, shocking passing of a co-worker who had gone out for a jog, a group from her company started working out together. They set and accomplished goals, at first running 5Ks and 10Ks, and then getting into Spartan racing. This is a race on a course filled with obstacles of every kind: walls to climb over, barbed wire to crawl under, tires to pull, weights to carry, etc.

It was a time of great camaraderie, as family and friends got involved. Our son joined. Even I, just months after open-heart surgery, took up walking the 5Ks (and still do). Spartan races are held in specific locations, and sometimes there are multiple levels and lengths. Finishers are awarded medals. A series of three is a trifecta. There’s a shadow box here at the house, proudly displaying all of my wife’s hard-earned memories. Seasons have come and gone, and the group’s makeup has changed as members move away and change jobs, but a group it remains.

This morning I awoke wondering what (or who) inspires a Spartan. I immediately noticed that there are parallels with followers of Christ, because Jesus, our founder, ran a race very similar to the excruciating challenge of Spartan. Let’s call it “Roman”.

We have all these great people around us as examples. Their lives tell us what faith means. So we, too, should run the race that is before us and never quit. We should remove from our lives anything that would slow us down and the sin that so often makes us fail.
We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. He suffered death on a cross. But he accepted the shame of the cross as if it were nothing because of the joy that he could see waiting for him. And now he is sitting at the right side of God’s throne.
Think about Jesus. He patiently endured the angry insults that sinful people were shouting at him. Think about him so that you won’t get discouraged and stop trying.
Hebrews 12:1-3 ERV

What Spartan racing is to full, comprehensive physical training, the Roman cross has to be to full, comprehensive spiritual training. And the biggest difference between the two is that the cross, for Jesus, was run to the death.

You are struggling against sin, but you have not had to give up your life for the cause.
:4

We Christians are called to die “in effect”.  To die to ourselves, to die to our own selfishness and goals, and instead to live in and for Christ, for God’s purpose for us. And in service to others. This is the biggest similarity between Spartan and Roman. Sure, there are elite Spartan competitors, but, by far, the “common” racers are not concerned with their own times; they’re only concern is surviving the race to the finish. And they willingly aid those running alongside them. Throughout a Spartan course, you will see nothing but one racer helping and encouraging another.

A Book of Cliche’s?

There are, of course, many cliche’s I’ve heard from my Spartan. Motivational sayings are printed out and tacked up on the fridge. You can google on Spartan race quotes and quips, and fill a book with such sayings.

Likewise, we have a book of Christian motivation, The Bible. But “cliche” doesn’t do either of these collections justice. “Cliche” has a negative slant. It’s definition is “a saying that is overused to the point of meaninglessness”. So I looked up some synonyms: platitude, banality, maxim, axiom, truism. I think I found the right word in “dictum”, which has two definitions. One, is like those other words: “a short statement that expresses a general truth or principle”; but the other is very definitive: “A formal pronouncement from an authoritative source”.

The Bible is our guide. It is full of advice and recommendations on life’s best practices. Can it function the same way for a Spartan racer? I think so, but I now know that in it, I have found another way to connect with my beautiful, hard-charging bride.

Letting Intention Slide

So we must be more careful to follow what we were taught… so that we will not be pulled away from the true way.
Hebrew 2:1

I take the exact same route to dialysis and back home three times a week – so often, in fact, that my Ford Fiesta knows the way. No, I don’t have a self-driving vehicle (yet), but it can sure seem that way. During the ride, my mind goes to another place, while my body is on autopilot. Sometimes, I “come to” and am not sure for a frightening second where I am, because I haven’t been paying attention, I don’t immediately recognize the stretch of road, and I absolutely can’t remember the turns and stops and lights I’ve passed.

This verse speaks to me of this experience, but it’s my whole pattern of living that can frequently become like that routine trip. Intentionality – my living in the now – slips away; it’s not so much pulled away. It just wanders off when I don’t purposefully focus. I repeatedly work hard to establish a good daily routine, but as soon as I “settle in” to it, complacency follows and the slide begins. Somehow, I cease to be fully aware of every moment.

Today, God spoke to me of this “habitualizing” in my devotionals and in Hebrews 2, which was ‘coincidentally’ next up in my trek through the New Testament. Except, I don’t believe in coincidence.

“[Jesus] knows that left to my own self-centered ways, I will destroy myself. It is just what we humans do.”
(S.F. Aughtmon, Mornings with Jesus)

“The pursuit of normal is like chasing the wind. The moment you are sure you have settled into the fleeting comfort that comes with normalcy, a… ‘new normal’ [is revealed].”
(S. Rodriguez, Be Light, excerpt in Men of Integrity)

The key message came next:

“People of the light must resist the ‘normal’ and aspire to the extra-ordinary, the transformational.”
(Rodriguez)

Be more careful to follow“. Not patterns. Habits. Routines. Same old, same old. How do I stay in the moment? How do I keep conscious of every minute of living? “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time?”

God – the one who made all things and for whose glory all things exist – wanted many people to be his children and share his glory. So he did what he needed to. He made perfect the one who leads those people to salvation. He made Jesus a perfect savior though his suffering.
Hebrew 2:10

It seems I’ll be working on this. Beginning right now, as I make my way out to the car for that routine drive.