What about James?
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Whenever I talk about prioritizing faith-strengthening over behavior-changing, someone always asks the question, “But, what about James?” They are referring to James chapter 2 in the Bible. His argument is summed up in verse 17 which says,
So also faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:17, NIV)
In light of this passage, how can I say we should stop focusing so much on behavior and actions and start focusing more on faith? The answer is in James’s own argument.
If we read James carefully we’ll see that he is not contrasting faith alone with works alone. He is contrasting faith by itself with faith that leads to action. His point isn’t that we are not saved by faith, it is that we are not saved by the kind of faith that doesn’t naturally lead to action. So, he starts his argument in verse 14 by saying, “… if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds, can such faith save them?” The obvious answer he’s looking for is, “No.”
In the Bible, authentic, living faith always leads to action, to behavior change.
VerHage’s Fruit Farm near Kalamazoo, Michigan this autumn. As we wander through the beautiful apple orchard you notice that none of the trees actually have any apples on them. “Oh, that’s normal,” I say. “Only the truly special apple trees bear fruit. Average apple trees exist simply to look nice and support the fruit-bearing trees.” You’d probably look at me like I was crazy, and rightly so. Healthy apple trees bear fruit. If an apple tree never bears fruit it’s likely dead. This is the point James makes. Healthy faith results in action. If faith never results in action it’s likely dead. The absence of good deeds is a sign that something is seriously wrong.
However, notice he does NOT say, therefore start eking out those apples or you’re in trouble. The lack of fruit is a sign that the tree has a serious problem, but that problem is not fixed by focusing on the fruit other than as a barometer of health. In the same way, the lack of good deeds is a sign that there’s a serious problem with our faith, but the problem is not fixed by focusing on the behavior, it’s solved by focusing on the faith.
There are a number of steps Mr. VerHage can take to get his apple trees to bear fruit. Most of them involve ensuring that the tree can properly take nourishment from the soil and its environment and turn it into fruit. None of them involve beating the trunk, squeezing the branches, or yelling at the tree.
The way to help people produce behavior-change, is NOT to focus on the fruit, but to focus on ensuring the person can properly take nourishment from God’s Word and their environment and turn it into deeds. Just as a tree’s sap brings nourishment from the roots to the branches and produces fruit, so faith brings a person’s beliefs from their head to their heart and produces good deeds.
How about you? In what areas do you struggle to live the way you know God intended? Shift your focus from fruit to nourishment, from behavior to faith, and the journey will be easier, faster, and more joyful.
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