“Is my faith dead?”
"So you see, faith by itself isn't enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless."
- James 2:17
I get frequent updates on my Instagram feed from a friend of mine who splits her time between Uganda, and the United States. She’s an incredible photographer, and posts beautiful photos of her job working in a school surrounded by adorable children. I am both impressed and intimidated by her.
One afternoon I was scrolling through her immaculately curated profile, smiling at the photographs of dancing children, and bible studies with single-origin Ugandan coffee. Admiring her, I allowed a problematic thought to take root: “if God is judging solely on our Instagrams, I’m out of luck.”
Comparison, the ever-present force in my life, grabbed my wrist and dragged me to that place of insecurity that I know so well: “am I doing enough?” I asked myself, thinking about the stamps on my friend’s passport. She has her works formally validated by foreign countries. My comfortable couch started to feel almost shameful as I took the questions further: “are my good deeds good enough?”
“Am I one of those people James warned against? Is my faith dead?”
Thankfully, I’m not the first person to frantically Google search commentaries and notes on verses like James 2:17. Reading through several commentaries on this verse, I found not a scathing rebuke for my underused passport, but encouragement for the daily good deeds that come from a life lead by faith.
Albert Barnes, a 18th century theologian, drew attention to the verses leading up to James’ powerful declaration in verse 17. Barnes noted that in verses 14-16, James is making the case that professing faith without acts is like telling a friend to “stay warm” while sending them out into the cold in a swimsuit. Sure, “stay warm” is a nice sentiment, and the heart might have been in the right place, but words instead of a coat when one is available don’t cut it.
Barnes said it best: “In the case of one who was hungry or naked, what he wanted was not good wishes or kind words merely, but the acts to which good wishes and kind words prompt. And so in religion, what is wanted is not merely the abstract state of mind which would be indicated by faith, but the life of goodness to which it ought to lead.”
This is the important distinguishment that I’ve had to realize here: James isn’t denying that faith saves… but he is rejecting the notion that a faith that does not produce works saves. Faith as an intellectual engagement is not enough. We are called to do more in Christ.
I love Thomas Schreiner’s take on this: works are to be the fruit, but not the root. “the best solution is to say they are the result and fruit of faith. True faith expresses it in works. Paul actually says the same thing, teaching what ultimately matters is ‘faith expressing itself through love’” (Galatians 5:6).
Faith expressing itself in love certainly has a better ring to it than “works from faith” doesn’t it? Maybe I’m just more partial to Paul’s writing.
Here is my radical takeaway that flies directly in the face of comparison and my insecurity: my deeds alone are never enough to save myself or anyone else. Thankfully, I serve a God who does save. Through Him, and only Him, I am able to express my faith through love.
Maybe you’re like me, and comparison tries to make you weigh your expressions of love with others. Don’t play that game. Foreign governments may never validate your acts of love with a passport stamp, but your neighbor you shared a warm meal with will. God is with you on your daily journey, through every act of love you express in His name.