Uniform 02.16.2014: They’re Doing the Hard Thing

James 2:14-26

Two weeks ago, I posted an entry about doing the hard thing. “Do the hard thing,” I wrote. “Don’t just listen. Don’t just talk. Act on what you hear and say about Jesus. That’s what makes it real.” This idea is one of James’s main themes, and today’s text highlights it again.

What does this look like in real life?

I am privileged to volunteer for Jay’s Hope, a non-profit ministry here in Macon that serves families and children throughout the state of Georgia who are fighting cancer. Headed by an amazing team, this group focuses on family support through fun activities, play therapy, a resource center, tutoring, temporary housing, loaning laptops, and more than a dozen other ways. They also host social events that allow families to connect with others who are going through the same trials. Finally, they oversee several big fundraisers each year that support research and cover the cost of their various ministries.

Volunteering for them is delightful. It’s easy. I’m not the one doing the hard thing.

But its founders are. Cindy and Jason Gaskins heard the dreaded words that Jay, their two-year-old son, had cancer. They were plunged into the nightmare that unnerves anyone who loves a child: a family separated, as mom and toddler (and soon a newborn baby!) went to St. Jude in Tennessee while dad and daughter remained at home; frightening treatments and surgeries; hopeless prognoses; desperate moments. I’m sure they begged God for peace and hope and help. They loved God, you see. They believed in God, trusted God, and proclaimed their faith in God.

After a three-year battle, their little boy went to be with God. I imagine that, in some ways, it would have been easy for Cindy and Jason to fold themselves quietly back into their lives, to stumble through the world without Jay as best they could, caring for their other two children and attempting some sense of normalcy.

Instead, they thought about the tremendous support they received during Jay’s illness—meals, laundry, childcare, love offerings, and more. But many of the families they’d met during that time had few resources. “Jason and I realized very quickly that we were in the minority with the support we were receiving,” Cindy writes on the Jay’s Hope website. “We knew that God was calling us to give back.”

In my perspective, Cindy and Jason are doing the hard thing every day. They could have retreated into their grief, but they founded Jay’s Hope so that they could give back. Each day, they’re brainstorming ways to fund their ministries to families. They’re sitting face to face with distraught families, holding their hands and praying over them. They’re laughing with children whose hair is gone due to treatments, who may have lost a limb, and who must wear surgical masks to protect them from germs. They’re sharing their personal story in order to publicize the ministry. They’re attending funerals of kids who have gone heaven. In some ways, they are reliving their own heartbreaks and blessings from Jay’s experience over and over again.

It’s relatively easy to say that I believe in God. I can say that I love and trust God. I can tell you that God will walk with me through any trial. I can share that I believe God wants us to share the love of Jesus with other people, and I can even describe what that might look like in real life.

But can I truly do the hard thing? Can I actually ensure that what I say about my faith is real?

Discussion

1. Why do you think James kept returning to the idea that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17)? What do you think this means? Why do you think this might be true?
2. Cindy and Jason Gaskins turned a terribly tragic experience into a way to offer tangible hope to others who are suffering. Can you think of additional examples of people who are doing the hard thing by acting out their faith?
3. The “hard thing” varies from person to person. What is your hard thing?
4. What would it take for you to move from a beautiful idea about faith to an action that shows your faith?
5. Can you think of actions you can take that will show people what you believe about God? (Examples can be as simple as volunteering at a school and reading to a lonely child or as complex as heading up a huge fundraiser for a ministry in your community.)

Reference Shelf

James revisits the theme of neighbor love in 2:14-26—those who heed this love command cannot remain inactive in the face of dire human need; their faith must be displayed in merciful deeds if it is of any value. Faith working through merciful deeds fulfills the loyal law of love for neighbor. James’s argument falls into three interrelated sections:

• a warning not to confuse profession of faith with the practice of faith (2:14-17);
• a caution not to mistake abstract theologizing for faith that connects the faithful with those in need (2:17-19); and
• a caveat not to mistake the beginnings of faith with its finish (2:20-26).

James begins his discourse on the symbiosis of faith and works with a pointed question: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (2:14a). “That kind of faith cannot save, can it?” (2:14b) Clearly, James expects negative answers: profession without practice is worthless, both to the self- deceived confessor (2:14b) and to those in grave need (2:15-16). That kind of faith that is all profession and no practice, all creed and no deeds cannot save (2:14b). James’s imaginary opponent thinks it enough to profess faith (2:14) and pray God’s blessing on the poorly clothed and hungry (2:16). James’s opponent perhaps reasons if faith is present and prayers are mouthed, God will of necessity take care of the rest; thus, human intervention is superfluous. However, the hungry and ill-clothed need more than a benediction, a good word; they need believers to be a blessing to them by feeding them and clothing them (2:15-16; cf. Matt 25:35-36). The poor need more than a verbal passing of God’s peace; they need brothers and sisters who will incarnate God’s concern for peace with justice for the oppressed. Talk of faith in itself does not help those in need; they need loving action on their behalf not empty words.

Many commentators have been puzzled by the challenge laid down by James’s imaginary opponent: “You have faith and I have works” (1:18). What many readers expect from the debate partner is “I have faith and you [i.e., James] have works.” However, James is not the proponent of faithless works; rather James sees merciful works as the natural and fullest expression of living faith. The opponent’s error is to imagine that saving faith can be divorced from merciful works. Certainly, one can speak of faith as a theological abstraction in isolation to other concepts such as the Good or the Right; but one cannot demonstrate faith’s reality by appeal to hypotheticals. (James’s “Show me your faith apart from your works,” 1:18, expects a response that living faith can only be demonstrated through actions). James will not allow the luxury of this “armchair philosopher’s ‘faith’”; in its natural habitat, in the lived experience of believing people confronted with those in grave need, faith is inextricably tied to lives that express those beliefs and commitments that the faithful cherish. “Faith” by itself, as a sterile abstraction, is dead (1:17). Later, James will use the metaphors of barrenness (1:20) and a corpse, a body devoid of breath (2:26), to expose the emptiness of such isolated “faith.” Action (or inaction) shows the species of faith (2:18b), whether dead or living (2:17), whether the faith of demons (1:19) or that of those righteous who trust and obey even in their great struggles (2:21-23).

Even demons have a certain faith, accepting Judaism’s central theological proposition that God is one (1:19). Recognizing God’s integrity, the demons shudder, probably at the judgment that awaits them.

God is one not only because there are no other gods like God but because God acts consistently with the divine purpose, which for James is the cause of the poor. The demons are frightened by this integrity of God, for God has been their steadfast enemy. And since God does not change (1:17), the demons tremble.

How then can anyone claim faith and remain unmoved by the lot of those oppressed by dehumanizing forces at work in society? James might reason if we share it is because we care; if we care it is because we are aware of the One before whom we stand, who bids us to love our neighbors. Likewise, if we do not act on behalf of the hungry and naked it is because we do not care; and if we do not care have we truly accepted that word that is able to save? For James those who claim the merciful Lord as Father have a responsible to care for their brothers and sisters in need.

The harsh address “you senseless person” is characteristic of diatribe style (2:20). James complains that faith without works does not work. Argos (barren NRSV) could be rendered idle, lazy, or shunning tasks that ought to be attended to. Again, deeds of mercy are the work in James’s mind. Abraham serves as the antithesis to this unworking faith.

For James, Abraham exemplifies faith in action. Abraham was vindicated through works that demonstrated his faith (2:21-23); Abraham’s faith collaborated with his works and came to mature expression through those works (2:22); through works born of faith Abraham fulfilled the scripture and was shown to be in deeds one of the righteous and God’s friend (2:23). Abraham’s faith is demonstrated through struggle, particularly the hardship of the Akedah or the Akedat Yitshak, the binding of Isaac upon the altar. James’s thought on Abraham’s vindication is similar to that in 1 Maccabees: “Was not Abraham found faithful in trial, and it was reputed to him as uprightness?” (1 Macc 2:52, NAB) In this thought-world, faith is inseparable from faithfulness in the struggle: “Faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works” (Jas 2:22).

James emphasizes not only that Abraham’s believing was “reckoned to him as righteousness” (2:23; Gen 15:6) but that Abraham was “called the friend of God” (2 Chr 20:7; Isa 41:8). Cicero stated a friend is “a second self ”; other Greek and Roman philosophers highlighted friendship as a sharing of values. For James, just as God is one, i.e., is characterized by integrity, so was Abraham, at least when he responded to his great test, the Akedah. A friend is loyal, even and especially under pressure; misfortune exposes false friends (Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, bk. 7, ch. 2).

Abraham’s faith in action, the model for that faith James com- mends, is undivided in its allegiance and persistent under trial. Such faith contrasts with double-mindedness (Jas 1:6-8) and empty profession.

Likewise, Rahab’s faith was proven by her deeds on behalf of the Israelite spies (2:25). Jewish tradition remembers both Abraham and Rahab as examples of hospitality towards strangers. This tradition may explain in part why they were chosen to make James’s case for fulfilling the law of love towards one’s neighbor. James’s concluding illustration—just as a body without breath is a corpse, so faith without works is dead (2:26)—recalls the similarly worded preliminary conclusion in 2:17.

Resource

Edgar V. McKnight & Christopher Church, Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008).

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.

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