Connections 09.09.2018: More than Thoughts and Prayers

James 2:1-10, 14-17

Over the past few years, numerous tragedies across the globe have torn at our hearts. From school shootings to natural disasters to war violence, we hear about specific events and feel helpless. We may cry. We may get angry. We may look the other way. All of these reactions indicate how helpless we feel to make things right. In many cases, we resort to saying something like this: “Sending my thoughts and prayers to the people in [name the place or the crisis].” Of course, people in crisis need more than our thinking and our praying. They need us to act.

James’s insistence on the importance of what Christians do—as opposed to what they say—has gained him plenty of criticism over the centuries. Some believers cling to the equally firm insistence of Paul that we are justified by faith (Rom 3:28, for example). There are people on either side, but it seems to me that this is a “both/and” situation. We need to both express our faith in Christ and act on our faith in ways that resemble Jesus’ life here on earth.

I don’t think James contradicts Paul at all. I think he proclaims the only way to live as a true Christian in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have professed faith in Jesus Christ. For some, though, their faith stops there. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters,” James asks, “if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (Jas 2:14-17)

Can we put this in terms that make more sense in our world? How about this: “What good is it if you say you’re a Christian but only look after yourself? Can your words about Jesus save you? If another human being—made in the image of God just like you—is suffering or being treated unjustly or starving or fleeing a war-torn home country, and one of you says, ‘Sending my thoughts and prayers to you,’ but doesn’t send supplies or fight for justice or offer money or provide refuge, what good is that? When you don’t take the kind of action that Jesus would take, your words about faith don’t amount to anything.”

The first part of our lesson text, James 2:1-10, describes a moment when people expressed their faith and yet treated other human beings as if they had less value. This was not okay then, and it’s not okay now.

A popular slogan based on Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book In His Steps is “What would Jesus do?” In the 1990s, people wore shirts and bracelets with the acronym “WWJD.” They felt that it would remind them to think about Jesus when they were uncertain how to behave in a given situation. While I’m not a huge fan of the latest marketing campaign (Are bracelets and shirts really what Jesus had in mind?), I do appreciate the new attempt to answer this important question. What’s the answer? What would Jesus do? “HWLF.” That is, “He would love first.”

And if we want to know what Jesus’ love looks like, the Gospels will help us. Read his life story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and see that while Jesus certainly spoke words, he always followed through on those words with actions that made a difference in the lives of human beings. May we do the same.

Discussion

1. I will admit that I have responded to a human crisis with the words, “Sending my thoughts and prayers.” Do you think there’s anything wrong with saying this? Why or why not? When can it be helpful, and when might it be harmful?
2. Why do you think people over the centuries have pitted James against Paul, as if they come from two different camps of theology? Do you believe this is true? Why or why not?
3. How could we combine James’s theology with Paul’s and maybe develop a clearer picture of who Jesus wants us to be?
4. What is a current human crisis? How does it make you feel? What could you do to help in addition to thinking about and praying for those people?
5. How can you “love first” as Jesus did?

Reference Shelf

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.

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews-James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 360–61.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley attends First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (13) and Natalie (11), and her husband John. Currently, she is looking for the next opportunity to be onstage in a local theater production. She also loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she will always be a writer at heart.

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