There is a very real temptation among some “truer” believers to see the living out of faith as somehow dangerous. That by meeting the needs of the poor as an act of faith, for example, we miss Jesus himself.
Faith in Jesus Christ is more than just doing good. But it is also more than just being devoted to Christ.
This false dichotomy between living out the faith and belief is as old as the book of James. Which is to say, people of faith have been wrestling with this seemingly irreconcilable conflict in Christian teaching ever since Jesus himself was on earth. Actually it goes back before his time, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
There are Christians who live and talk as if the gospel is only about doing good to others, serving the needs of others. There are other Christians who live and talk as if a gospel that is focused on this horizontal thinking is anathema, meaning accursed. As I said, these are false dichotomies.
But there is an element of truth in both sides of the argument. Paul vs. James. We live by faith alone. Show me your actions and I’ll show you your faith. The truth lies much deeper than the question about which trumps which – good works or good belief.
Today is the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when God-fearing peaceful marchers were brutally attacked by God-fearing authorities with badges on the bridge in Selma over something as basic as voting rights. Those legal thugs were not Communist atheists; they were devoted members of local churches, people who thought that faith alone is what counts. Those marchers were not Communist atheists, though they were accused as such; they were devoted members of local churches, people who believed their faith was proven by their actions.
I am surrounded by many wonderful people who do much good for others. They live out their faith in working to change lives and society. And they do so in the name of Christ. Theirs is not a “foreign” religion; it is as American as the Founding Fathers. And yet, for others, that faith is seen as vertically challenged.
When I was younger I questioned the faith of both types of people. How can you say you are a Christian if you forbid blacks to enter your neighborhood, store, school, or church? How can you call yourself a Christian if you don’t verbalize a relationship with Jesus in clearly (to me) defined ways?
Age – or shall I say the aging process – has been kind to me, giving me a deeper insight into how Jesus loves his Church. Those Selma bigots, even in all their evil wrongheadedness, are sincerely following Christ, at least most of them. (And I speak in the present, for they are still with us.) Those people who devote their lives to meeting the needs of others and yet look suspiciously like people without a faith are sincerely following Christ, at least most of them. Either the body of Christ is so narrow that I stand a good chance of being on the outside or it is much broader than most of us realize.
No more a shining light of truth than Isaiah himself claims that if we heed the voice of God and do rightly and act justly, then our light will break forth like the dawn and our healing will quickly appear. And in truth, our prayers will be answered.
Should I add for those who only accept Old Testament statements (when they disagree with them) if they are backed up in the New Testament, take a second look at James – and even the Gospels? Isaiah 58 is very much in line with the core values of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The question comes down to faith and faith is a thing we all like to measure, especially in others, even though only God can look inside of us to evaluate our faith. Faith is more than sincerity, and yet that authenticity of motive and belief is an essential part of faith. Jesus had a way of affirming faith in the most unlikely of characters, people who wouldn’t have scored very highly on the charts of the pious faith-only believers or the sometimes unpious appearing do-gooders of today.
So what is faith? It is that element in our lives, given to us by God, which drives us toward Jesus and the commands laid down to us by God. It is as much a direction as it is a status. As such, it is a forward motion.
Isaiah rebukes the people of God for being rebellious in seeking God out, for seeming eager to know God’s ways, for acting as if they are a nation that does right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask God for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. They even fast and humble themselves. I Chronicles 7:14 people, if there ever were any.
The faith Isaiah calls us to, in the end, is not some either-or option, it is not this false dichotomy between right belief and right action. Or, to add a third leg to that stool, right experience. It is all the above. Right action requires right prayer. Right prayer requires right action.
Any move toward God is indeed a move toward God. Meaning that when we step out – however we step out – in sincerely following Christ, we are embraced by God and urged by the Spirit of God to move on in.
When these devoted people of faith in Isaiah 58 inquire of God, “Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?”, the answer is not that their faith is wrong, it is that it was only intended as a beginning. Just as with those who seek to do good but have yet to grasp a deeper experience of Christ.
Which is the better Christian? The one who believes in Jesus or the one who does good in the name of Christ? Wrong question.
Who is moving toward Christ? The one who acknowledges her or his own shortcomings and acts on faith, be it in thought, deed, or experience, becoming aware over time that they are being drawn in their thoughts, in their deeds, and in their experiences toward Christ.
I think back to Selma. And I think forward to the discussions on race and related concerns in our own day. Times have changed, not that much. We prefer to spend more time sizing up each others’ faith than in growing deeper in our own.
Enough with your false dichotomies, Isaiah declares! Move toward God and not in contrast to the seeming lack of faith in others.
I like that father in the gospel of Mark, the one whose son is described as having a troubling “mute spirit.” When confronted by Jesus with “If you can believe…”, he responds, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” That, my friend, is a true believer.