When I was a lad, I was a good reader and fascinated by bodybuilding so I read lots of books about bodybuilding to learn how to do it. Then I went to the gym and put what I learned into practice - but imagine if I’d just read all those books and really believed them and enjoyed spending time reading them but I never actually went to the gym… What good would that have done me?
There’s a difference between being interested in something and actually being transformed by it. In mathematics you can have pure maths and applied maths. In the same way you can have pure and applied faith.
It’s the difference between hearing and knowing the right words…. and actually doing something to put them into practice.
Jesus said that if people only heard what he said but didn’t put what he said into practice, they were like a person building a house on sand.
James, half-brother of Jesus, wrote a letter to Jewish Christians who had started to think that just listening to the good news about Jesus and listening to his teaching was all they had to do. But James said if they did this they were just deceiving or fooling themselves.
When James talks about people without deeds fooling themselves, he means deceiving themselves about their actually having faith at all!
Such people have nothing to back up there mere belief – no real faith to show anyone because the belief was never developed into faith - in the gymnasium of deeds. That’s fooling yourself!
Let’s pick up again with James as he drives home his point about weak and weedy faith vs strong and growing faith. In chapter 2 of his letter which you can read here
James means that faith without deeds isn’t really faith at all. It’s bookish. It’s puny! Real faith results in action. Real faith is built up by action. Real faith is powerful. James makes the distinction not between belief and unbelief but between faith that is real and alive and vital…. and faith which is dead. He reminds his readers that even the demons believe in God… and they tremble in terror!
So here is a big question if you would say you are a Christian. Are you a Christian, really? Are you, to use James’s expression, merely listening to the word and so only fooling or deceiving yourself? Is yours just a lazy belief? Or is yours a real faith, a solid faith, a faith that shows itself to be faith by the very fact of its action!
Faith without action is dead, says James. This implies that it once was alive, vital… but has now died. Conversely, faith can be resurrected by action. Don’t believe me? Take action, and see! Take action and watch your faith stir into life and grow. I’m not talking only about being kind to others here – that is just some of the evidence, the fruit, the “working out” (ha ha!) of real faith.
James says “I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” If in your own estimation in light of all this, you think you’ve have been fooling yourself about your faith, there’s a good deed for you to consider today. There’s a kindness you can do for yourself – repent.
Repent is an old word that means a couple of things. One is to feel and express regret about things we’ve done wrong and turn away from them. Another meaning is to change your mind.
So I’m asking you – if you don’t in your own estimation have real faith – to change your mind. Change your thinking! Think again about notional, nominal, weedy faith and get before God on the issue in humility and ask for pure wisdom, ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as you order your life under God!
Has God been prompting you about an area of your life where you need to think again? Is he prompting you about an area or even a person for whom you need to get into the spiritual gym and show applied wisdom, applied humility, applied faith – and show love and kindness in action? Perhaps you’ve been praying for a breakthrough in your life or in the life of someone else and you’re “waiting on God”.
Have you ever considered that you might be waiting on God when he’s waiting on you? Waiting for God to do something isn’t the same thing as “abiding” with God. Abiding with God is a characteristic of a disciple but it’s not the same thing as merely waiting. Abiding is deliberately attentive, expectant, ready to react and respond to the wisdom gleaned from the Master’s words and example.
God gives us pure wisdom: wisdom about kindness, wisdom about humility, wisdom about faith - but it’s up to us to apply it. Especially if we want to grow. We who say we believe… James’s teaching should give us pause. Even the demons believe… can such belief save them? Sometimes we need to wait on God, it’s true. But sometimes we need to take action!
Let’s take action to resurrect our faith and build it up: let’s give regularly, generously, sacrificially. Let’s help people in kind, practical ways. Visit the sick and lonely. Call them. Spend time with those needing someone to listen kindly. Do kindnesses for those we know and love but also those we don’t – especially those we don’t! Speak kindly, lovingly, not hurtfully. Pray for people, don’t put them down. Actually set aside the time to pray, and study his word and to thank him.
Let’s think again – let’s get out of the cosy chair of spiritual laziness and set to with the kettlebells of kindness. Take up the faith-strengthening opportunities that God offers us every day.
Don’t be a faithless believer like the demons. Don’t be a faithless theologian. Don’t be a mere listener, or just an interested watcher who knows the theory but never flexes their spiritual muscles. Don’t let’s fool ourselves. Don’t let’s be deceived. Jesus died for all of us, and time’s ticking for each of us.