James 1: What Does Faith Produce? - Kyle Hanawalt
There is something that I have always struggled with. You see I love to think about big ideas and ask the big questions about the world. It’s probably in part because of my genetics and personality and probably in part because of the family I grew up in. Something about growing up with my parents as a pastor and a counselor that makes me love going meta. Now this in itself isn’t a bad thing. However, the thing I struggle with is making sure that I don’t stay up in the clouds. SLIDE To make sure that I don’t become too much talk and not enough action. To not put my money where my mouth is.
And actually as someone who grew up pretty immersed in the Evangelical culture of the late 90s and early 2000’s I felt like in some ways my culture reinforced this struggle for me.
I picked up that faith was intrinsically tied to having, holding, and defending the correct beliefs and opinions.
I felt a certain internal sense that being a good Christian was tied to making sure that I could articulate this list of beliefs that I know I had to endorse.
But this is in no way unique to Christian landscape.
SLIDE Look at the signs out in our front windows and front yards, to show the world, this is what I believe. This is what I think. This is, we announce, the first thing anyone should know about who we are in this home: This is what we believe and think. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: It only becomes a problem when “talking a talk” gets in the way of “walking a walk” .
For me in my youth I became so focused on holding the right opinions and beliefs, that I didn’t spend nearly enough energy and attention on what those beliefs actually produced in my life. Like, what did believing and thinking that thing actually do in terms of how I lived day to day, how I treated the people and world around me. And the truth was that there were a bunch of strongly held opinions and beliefs that I had which seemed to produce some pretty ugly stuff. About 10 years ago, this was probably most notable with how my beliefs around who was in and who was out from a God perspective played out. It was ugly in how I treated the people around me in life, Constantly separating them into those who were in, that I could listen to and learn from. And those who were out, that I had to be wary of or perhaps convince to jump in with me. But, it was also ugly in terms of what it did to my heart. My focus around this belief brought me into a pretty anxious place, where I was constantly worried whether I was at risk of falling out. Or bolstering my broken desire to think of myself as better than other people. And other ugly truth was that there were all sorts of beliefs that I said I held that seemed to be totally absent from finding any production in my life.
Like I said I believed in a world where we bear a responsibility to each other, especially to those who are without power, privilege or voice. And the truth was that at that point in my life. That belief produced nothing in my life. There was not a single action that would give any support to the fact I believed that at all. And all of this led to a bit of a paradigm shift for me. No amount of intense focus or talk or discussion about “what is right” can stand in for actually living out “what is right”. If I was a person of faith and that supposedly meant something, the question I had to ask was: - what is my faith actually producing?
(PAUSE) There is a writer in the from the Bible James, who many scholars believe to have been Jesus’ brother, that I think wrestled with some of these same kinds of things in a letter that he wrote to the early churches. That when we’re talking about the deepest matters and convictions of life, like we do in faith, it is easy to get pulled into a world that is too much talk, and not enough action… that the key question we must ask is: - what is this producing in my life?
In my next several talks I will be walking us through this letter that James wrote, and helping us wrestle, here on Sundays, with that very question.
James, at the time of writing his letter, had become a leader in the early church -- and he addresses this letter to people coming from a Jewish background and now following Jesus believing he was the promised Messiah.
And, if you’ve ever read some of this letter, you might get the sense that James is… well… angry. And this is where I find the suggestion that James was the brother of Jesus really helpful:
James grows up with Jesus, he sees how Jesus lived his life, a life that was spent with outcasts, and the poor and those considered unholy. He then saw Jesus choose to reveal God’s power and majesty, not through acts of strength, or by domination, or wealth, but by self sacrifice. BUT THEN, because sadly the desires for power and status and wealth that can corrupt religion today have been around since the beginning of time, he sees a lot of the early churches doing the opposite of what inspired him about the way his brother lived and spoke of God: they seem to just be maintaining the status quo of the world. Celebrating and elevating the rich and powerful Marginalizing and dishonoring the poor and those of low status. And he sees the church leaders showing clear favoritism and deference to those with money and status. While ignoring and saying that those in need and facing hardship are just reaping what they sow.
So unsurprisingly, in this letter, I think his frustration really comes out. I think about the frustration I feel today when I look at the state of religious right in our world today. I can only imagine what James, who grew up watching Jesus, would feel seeing all of this
He begins his letter by addressing these very things. Exalting those who are facing hard circumstances That those in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 And let no one say that it is God that is giving them these challenges.
And then he writes. 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. 26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
James diagnoses the problem that leads to worthless status-quo-reinforcing religion as being too much talk and not enough action.
Do not get stuck in your head, he says, don’t make this a mental exercise.
We have to Ask ourselves - What exactly is my faith producing? Is it just making you feel good while you maintain the status quo? Or is it actually producing good fruit in your life and in the world around you -- is it looking after those in distress? Is it leading to personal maturity and growth?
I have a friend who grew up going to church and has since left that faith behind.
And when I was talking him he said, “It felt like people were going to feel good about themselves without actually having to do anything of real consequence.” Now I would say that is a bit harsh, but I think I get what he was saying. I think he was criticizing me 10 years ago. That I was so focused on believing things to make myself feel ok, without actually making sure that my beliefs were changing me, or the world around me for the better.
There was a study done a couple years ago that found that when someone is going to make a change, or try something new. They looked at things like, exercise, losing weight, run a marathon, or finally pursue that hobby I’ve always meant to pursue.
And the study found that people who told others that they were going to do that thing before they started,
were less successful at actually doing, than those who kept it to themselves until they actually started doing it.
They didn’t tell anyone they were going to run a marathon until they did a couple weeks training for it first. And the reason they attributed to this was that in telling people that we will do something, we actually experience a small portion of the chemical reaction SLIDE in our brian that we experience when we actually do pull off that thing. So, telling you I am going to start a diet gives me a small amount of the emotional to payoff of we get when we successfully achieve dieting. This can actually undermine our efforts in doing it. Because we already got some of the payoff.
This feels tied to what James was writing about! And this I think it is a uniquely difficult struggle for us today because, with signs in our windows and yards, and with of social media and, the internet and, texting. it is just easier than ever to announce to other tell people “this is something I care about!”. “This is my opinion on this thing!”. “This is what I believe!”.
And in doing that. In telling the world what we think. We can undermine our chances of actually doing something about that belief. Undermine the chances that that conviction or opinion or belief produces something meaningful, something fruitful, something that actually positively impacts others. This is particularly true when it comes to the things that James was so concerned about. Issues of Justice, equity, and care for ourthe fellow human. It is easy to “like” a good cause on facebook. But if we’re not careful, passive engagement like that can give us a false sense of security that we’re “about” more than we really are “about” And that’s when we can slide into what James set himself against in his letter: reinforcing the status quo.
So, I feel super helped by James, but historically there has been one major stumbling block to getting the good that James’ letter has to offer, and I want to address that to end Because of James focus on action, not just belief. Some can experience him as moralizing or overwhelming. The most notable example of this is the father of the Reformation. SLIDE Martin Luther. He was a notorious perfectionist who obsessed with being morally pure. It is actually thought that at one point his mentor sent him away, because he was so annoyed by Martin Luther’s constant need to confess. And so when Martin Luther wrote the first German Translation of the Bible he actually omitted this letter from James, because the emphasis on faith needing to actually produce action felt triggering to him as perfection who never felt like he could measure up.
So, if you were a rule follower as a kid but now recognize how perfectionistic that has made you as an adult, OR if you weren’t necessarily a rule follower but grew up in a highly religious environment like me, thinking that God had some sort of moral checklist he asks us to turn in each day. And depending if we did it well, we would get a passing or failing grade.
James’ words on the surface might trigger you
But, in my experience, James’ focus on the question “what is my faith producing” is actually LESS moralizing and overwhelming than getting stuck in our heads with mental exercises making sure we’re “talking the right talk”
Because, internally, we’re all our own worst critics… getting stuck in our heads either trying to to beat ourselves up because we feel so rotten OR trying to defend ourselves to ourselves doesn’t get us anywhere
Instead of that, I’ve started to ask myself the James question:
what does faith produce in my life?
And never do I feel like everything perfectly matches up. I feel humbled all the time that I believe something, but my actions are not there like I want. I believe we have a responsibility to care for the environment, but I fail to recycle, I use single use plastics.
BUT whenever something like this comes to mind, that doesn’t leave me feeling buried Because The point here is not internal perfection (as if that was even possible), rather the point is feedback to keep me accountable. To help keep me humble. That we, none of us, are as moral, or conscientious, or good as we are prone to think. But that doesn’t mean the reverse: that we’re therefore horrible and irredeemable here is where Martin Luther did really get it right. God’s love and care and acceptance for us isn’t earned and doesn’t have to be earned (by being moral or being good or being part of the right group or being anything). It is offered by God freely because God is the author and source of all love and care and acceptance. . And so I feel freed up to grow -- If I discover that I’m talking a talk but not walking a walk, I don’t get stuck in my head, I feel God come alongside me with love and encouragement, so I can begin to produce fruit, and not just be “all talk”. Or if I discover that a belief or conviction in me is producing something that I’m not proud of, then God is not against me until I change, God is loving me through that process of course-correction.
So I would like to pray if you’d stand with me Pray for help asking “What does this belief produce?” Help in not feeling overwhelmed Help in actually getting started.