Have you ever noticed times when you don’t do what’s necessary to care for your health? Some of us love food and we eat what we know we should not eat during times of stress. Others of us hate the idea of exercise and sweat at the thought of putting on our jogging shoes. Many people do all they can to avoid the doctor even when they are well aware that their health is failing in some way or another.
The same can certainly be true of our spiritual journeys. We might know that our Scripture reading plan has remained untouched for a few weeks or months but we can’t get back into the practice. We may be aware that our prayer lives have shriveled but it can be so difficult to connect with God when our thoughts are always drowned out by busy schedules, podcasts, or our insecurities. We may even have a nagging feeling that our faith is causing us to love others in our communities in tangible ways.
However, James recognized the need to continue teaching the early Church of the ways in which our spiritual lives can be drastically impacted by our activity. In James 2:20-24, he writes, “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
This passage is fascinating because many people believe it disagrees with Paul (in Romans 4 where he quotes Genesis 15:6) and suggests we are justified before God and earn our eternal salvation by our works. However, Paul makes it clear in Romans 4:2 that “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about—but not before God.”
You see? Our works do not earn us eternal salvation before God, or a sense of legal justification, but instead, they earn us justification before men. Why? Because others see our good works and determine us to be valuable to our communities. We glorify God with our works and are fruitful because they see that God motivates us towards the flourishing of those around us (i.e. shalom). Abraham’s life with God meant good things for people around him because he was honorable and upstanding. Therefore, our works are very valuable to our faith and authenticate God’s goodness in the world.
In a very real way, our spiritual growth and maturity, signified in part by how well we actively love others, draws us closer to our God in very tangible ways because we are living in His will as He prepared us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
James taught the Church of these concepts because he saw that there was behavior that did not line up with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. It was as if he was able to access some test of spirituality to discern where the people remained on the spectrum from less to more maturity and the latter, more good works, was far more profitable for the Gospel. The former, being a lack of good works, had James teaching that we dishonor God, in a way, and become unfruitful by causing the world to recoil. James’ discerning glimpse of their spiritual immaturity was like finding something concerning in a spiritual x-ray.
I thought of this recently when I saw a terrifying image of an average toddler’s dental x-rays online (or the creepy photo below).
Does this remind you of a horror movie? Perhaps it brings to mind images of Pennywise from Stephen King’s movie It? Rather than being terrifying or even concerning, it simply shows a level of immaturity. With time, this toddler’s x-rays will show the loss of baby teeth and their adult teeth replacements moving into their correct positions. With growth and maturity, what we might believe to be a shocking image fades away into a much more expected image.
You see? We need far less than a doctor’s appointment or an x-ray to display our spiritual immaturity (which I’m sure we each can recall embarrassing moments of our own immaturity). Sometimes we only need a triggering social media post that gets us bent out of shape. Far better than that, we have fellow Christians in our circles to grow alongside in humility and accountability who give us models to aspire to (1 Timothy 4:12). Even better? We have the Scriptures that act like a mirror through which we can see our immaturity and imperfections and seek to look more like Christ (James 1:23-25).
Recently, I was struck by a moment of my own spiritual immaturity and it will always remain as a lesson to me. As a pastor, for years I had built up an image in my mind of what a pastor should be. How they should show up in the lives of those they minister to. How they should save the day when burdens arise. However, when I found myself in a circumstance like this, I realized how little a pastor can do to fix anyone’s problems. I noticed how hard it was to give meaningful help, especially when it wasn’t being requested of me. In a period of spiritual immaturity, my self-worth plummeted because I wasn’t able to do what I believed a pastor should be able to accomplish.
Do you know what I was doing to myself? I had created a “Law” of my own. Just like the Mosaic Law which distracted the Israelites and the Pharisees from God’s grace, giving them impossible standards to reach towards without realizing it was only Jesus who could save them, I had become distracted from God’s grace by this “Law” of the pastorate. All that I should do, the things I should say, the help I could provide. I found myself desperately needing reminders of God’s grace, the foundation of our faith. I found myself needing to lean into the value and worth that comes through Christ’s ministry in our lives, no matter how little part I get to play in the process. My works displayed a desperate pastor, seeking to validate myself. Mature works should show, instead, a confident pastor who is secure by the work of Christ and able to help where needed, but not beholden to results.
Where have each of us created a “Law” in our own hearts that distracts us from the grace that God has given? Where do we exhaust ourselves, seeking to prove our value through our works rather than allowing what we do to be an expression of thankfulness to God? Where have each of us ignored our own spiritual x-rays that show areas in which we’re overlooking His presence and love for us or where our works should be displaying the fruit of the Spirit? As we continue to walk with Jesus, those x-rays will look more and more like Him until we are eventually standing before Him in heaven and having our imperfections washed away into the Light of eternity.
Love you all,
Young Adult Minister – Evan McNeff