Before reading the article, give this short video a watch and hang on to what you see. It gets revisited toward the end. Enjoy!
I saw an article this week on the 10 most popular books of the Bible and James wasn't on there. So I got worried because I am currently going through a sermon series on James at my local church. My church members, I thought, are not going to love me and they are going to email the boss-man, and then I'm going to get fired and then my family wont have any food (grin). So to calm my anxiety I googled the 10 least popular books of the Bible. I figured, so long as James isn't on that list then I am safe. And thankfully James wasn't there either! So I think its safe to say James is neither loved nor hated.
James isn't always an easy book to chew on.
Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case. Martin Luther, the champion of the reformation, thought very little of the book of James. He referred to it as the "straw epistle". Luther's concern is that James seemed to focus on works too much and not enough on grace. And listen I get it. James isn't always an easy book to chew on. Some of the stuff he says seems pretty harsh. In fact, I would go as far as to say that James is almost impossible to appreciate without a proper understanding of grace. Now I'm not going to get into that today. That's a future post. But suffice to say, for now at least, that James is not talking about salvation by works. He's talking about authenticity. He's talking about sincerity.
You see James had this crazy belief that we are saved, not by faith and works but by a faith that works. James was one of these weirdos who honestly believed that faith changes lives. It's not just some idea you believe in because it sounds intellectually appealing. It's a living thing that reaches down into your heart and changes you entirely.
Has your faith changed you? Better yet, allow me to frame the question in an illustration. Suppose I was late to an appointment with you and told you that the reason I was late was because on my way to see you my cars licence plate fell off so I had to pull over and run through traffic into the middle of the road and by the time I got there a semi truck travelling at 80 km hit me and I got dragged under the truck for a few hundred yards until I finally got free, jumped in my car, and made it to you. What would you say to that story? Chances are you would think either I was crazy or I was a liar. Because there is no way I could come into contact with a semi truck going 80 km and not be changed from a 3 dimensional being into a 2 dimensional pancake. But here's the thing guys: God is bigger than a semi-truck. If its not possible to get hit by a semi without being "changed" it is even less possible to encounter the living God and stay the same. And for James, the servant of Jesus, faith either changed you or it wasn't really faith. Call it philosophy, ethics, creed or worldview. In fact, go ahead and call it theology. But if it hasn't changed you then don't call it faith.
For James... faith either changed you or it wasn't really faith.
That brings us to our first verse:
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. (Jam. 1:26)
In other words, if your religion isn’t reaching deep and changing you as a person - not overnight but at least over time - then you need a new religion because, James declares, the one you have is worthless. Now I have to be really, really careful here because James is not trying to add extra pressure to someone who is new in the faith or going through a dark valley. Instead, James is pointing out something relevant - that there is a kind of Christianity that believes in the 10 commandments, the gospel, justification and sanctification, the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and Jesus and in his return and yet it is worthless.
But it gets worse.
The word that we translate as "worthless" is an interesting one. Its the Greek word mataios. It means "1) devoid of force, truth, success, result 2) useless, of no purpose." So James is saying that there is a kind of Christianity that is devoid of force, proclaims empty truth, has no success and consequently nothing results from it. It's useless. It serves no purpose.
But it gets worse.
This Greek word mataios is also used in the New Testament in reference to idolatry and idol worship (Acts 14:15). So James is saying - don't miss this - that there is a kind of Christianity that is as worthless as idolatry.
You see, for James it's not about what you believe in your head. It's about how you allow that belief to redefine who you are. So what does that look like? James explains it:
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. (27)
In the latter part of the verse James insinuates the importance of doctrine when he warns us to not be polluted by the world. In scripture the world often alludes to thought. So James calls us to not be polluted by the worlds thought patterns. But that's not all James points out. Doctrine is certainly important, but James is emphasizing something bigger here. He is saying that if your doctrine doesn’t translate to mercy, and empathy, and acts of kindness for those less fortunate than you then your religion with all of its knowledge, ideology and philosophy is worthless. James doesn't care how pure you think your doctrine is. If it doesn't translate to active and practical love then it simply isn't pure. But if your religion leads to a life that is characterized by holiness revealed in visible hands-on love for others then that religion God accepts.
See, James isn't talking about gaining God's grace or love by working. He's not talking about going to heaven by trying. And hes not trying to put pressure on people who are struggling. He's talking about being genuine. Are you genuine? Is your religion genuine? Or is it worthless? Notice what God said to the nation of Israel through the prophet Isaiah:
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinfuland false. I want no more of your pious meetings.
I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!
When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. (Isa. 1:13-17)
Notice the descriptive words God uses: meaningless, sinful, false, pious. And notice the emotive words he uses: disgust, hate, burden. He even calls the Sabbath sinful and false and says he wants no more! These descriptive and emotive words are synonymous with James' use of the word worthless. God isn't interested in worthless religion. In fact, he's not as into Sabbath keeping and church going as we like to think he is. So stop wasting your time! God doesn't want our religious pretense. He wants genuine faith which is revealed in lives that are forsaking sin to pursue goodness, justice, helping, defending, and fighting for those who are weak.
But here is the magical question. What exactly is it that separates worthless religion from genuine faith? We saw that both of them have the same belief system. So its not data that separates them. Then what does? How does a person go down one path or the other? Is there a practical instruction that can lead us, if obeyed, in the direction of genuine faith? And is there a decision which, if made, can lead us in the direction of worthless faith? How do we avoid the one and embrace the other?
James answers that question a few verses before,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (22)
Do what it says. That's it. Nothing else. You see, when James refers to worthless religion he describes its practitioners as self-deceived people. And here in verse 22 he tells us how to avoid being self-deceived people with a worthless religion. Its very simple. "Do what [God] says."
I don't know why we complicate the Christian life so much. Francis Chan once said it like this: Imagine I asked my daughter to clean her room and she comes back an hour later. I ask her, "have you done what I asked?" and she replies, "No dad. But guess what? I memorized what you said. I can even say it in Greek!" Would that work? Of course not. The Christian life is very simple. Do what God says.
I have concluded that sometimes we just need to stop talking and get out there and do something. We are here Sabbath after Sabbath listening and soaking in sermon after sermon and we love it. Our libraries are loaded with books and DVD's and we got our satellite dish so we can get some extra 3ABN or Hope or whatever. But when it comes time to do something for the community, to reach out, to bless and to serve all of a sudden most of us are tired. All of a sudden we have no time. All of a sudden we back off. Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal?
When I was in New Jersey I attended a Jamaican church with Candice. One Sabbath I accidentally locked the keys in the car. So after the service a group of the guys came to help me break into the car and get my keys out. There was about six of them standing around and they all began coming up with a plan on how they would get inside. One guy said this, the other guy said that. The debate continued for a few minutes until one of the elders arrived. He looked at the group and literally said, "You know what your problem is? Ya'll got too many theories!" And with that he popped a crowbar into the door latch, used a wire clothes hanger to reach in, and in less than one minute he had opened the car.
Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal?
"Too many theories." That was his critique. But what he was really saying is that all their talk was worthless. And without any talk he got to work. So I ask again. Is it possible that we have come to embrace a worthless religion as something normal? A religion that revolves around too many theories and too much lip movement but has little to no effect in the world around us? We show up every Sabbath and we listen to sermon after sermon and then what? We do Bible study after Bible study and then what? Is it possible that our greatest sin is we talk too much and we do too little. And the ones who do stick their necks out to do something barely ever get any support.
Guys, the difference between a Christianity that is as worthless as idolatry and a Christianity that is genuine is that one merely listens to the word and the other listens and does what it says. That’s it. That is the separating factor.
Narayanan Krishnan, born in 1981, is an Indian chef turned social worker. He quit his career as a leading chef and began supplying meals to the homeless in India, beginning in 2002. Krishnan was an award-winning chef and was short-listed for an elite job in Switzerland. During a visit to his family, before heading to Europe, he said, "I saw a very old man, literally eating his own human waste out of hunger. I went to the nearby hotel and asked them what was available then I bought and gave to the old man. Believe me, I had never seen a person eating so fast, ever. As he ate the food, his eyes were filled with tears. Those were the tears of happiness."
Krishnan founded his nonprofit Akshaya Trust in 2003. Every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m., cooks a simple hot meal and then, along with his team, loads it in a van and travels about 125 miles (201 km) feeding the homeless and mentally-disabled in his region. He serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to 400 indigent and elderly people in Madurai. He carries a comb, scissors and razor and is trained in eight haircut styles that, along with a fresh shave, provide extra dignity to those he serves.*
But do you know what the weird part is? Krishnan is a Brahmin and he says that "Brahmans are not supposed to touch these people". And yet he does. In other words, Krishnan is doing something that goes contrary to his own religious tradition. In order for him to be true to his heart he has to contradict his own faith. And despite this, he is still doing it. Somehow, this man whose faith is miles apart from ours has discovered the heart of God in a way many of us have not. As Christians its not our faith we have to contradict. Its our selfishness. Its our worthless religion. But if we look intently into the heart of God we will see this love that changes lives there. We must accept that love, and then do what it commands.
There have been men in every generation who have claimed to be the sons of God... and yet who led a godless life, for they neglected the weightier matters of the law—mercy, justice, and the love of God. There are today many who are in a similar deception; for while bearing an appearance of great sanctity, they are not doers of the Word of God.... If Christ is in the heart, He will appear in the home, in the workshop, in the marketplace, in the church.... He who is transformed by the truth will shed a light upon the world (Ellen White, FW p.116)
Now some of you might be thinking I don't have the time to start a nonprofit, or to go feed the poor etc. But please understand, that's not the point. God isn't after dramatic things. Hes after the small things. He wants us to do something. Whether its helping out a ministry at church or donating some time (not just money - that's too easy) to the local charity God is calling you and me to be, not just hearers of the word, but doers.
The recent events taking place across the US have been both heart breaking and mind boggling. As a millennial Adventist I can remember a time when I quite comfortably praised the decline of racial tension and looked happily into a future in which such things would be relegated to the basement of civilization. Progress was good, or so it seemed. However, recent years (and days) have destroyed my false picture of reality. Racial tension lives on, not simply in trivial rally's packed with social rejects and inconsequential subcultures but in the very fabric of our society.
But the events of Dallas and Baton Rouge have done more than remind me how messed up the world is. They have also reminded me of the immense opportunity we Adventists have. As a people, we have a responsibility - not just an option - to fight for justice and equity in this world as we await the soon return of Jesus. I say responsibility because Adventism, at its very core, is inseparably linked to social justice. Don't believe me? Here are a few examples: Creation: The belief that we were created by a loving God, in his image, for the purpose of relationship shows that all of human life is valuable and precious. As a result Adventists should stand for human rights and equality among all of humanity including equality of women and children. We should also be active in the fight against slavery (surprisingly prevalent in the world today especially in the context of sexual slavery), child labor, abortion, human trafficking, domestic and workplace abuse, bullying, racism etc.
We should be deeply involved in supporting ministries for the homeless, the abused, the battered women shelters, and should sound a loud cry against genocides, war crimes (such as what we see in Syria right now), and the mistreatment of any human being whether they be an illegal immigrant, an atheist, a Muslim, a criminal, a homosexual, or anything else.*
According to the creation model, all humanity is Gods creation and regardless of our choices we all deserve basic human rights. Sabbath: The Sabbath is a memorial of Creation. As a result, everything said above applies. However, the Sabbath commandment also highlights the value of foreigners and animals. As a result, Adventists who honor the Sabbath should do so by not simply resting but fighting for the rights of those who never get to rest such as slaves and victims of human trafficking. Likewise, the Sabbath is an equalizing commandment that places all people regardless of race or social status on the same level. As Adventists, we should allow our Sabbath-narrative to move us toward the fair treatment of immigrants, women, and animals. While we may be polarized as to how we deal with the whole "immigration problem" we should not be polarized as to how we deal with immigrants. They, as much as anyone else, are human beings and deserve to be treated with hospitality and compassion.
Growing up Adventist the only thing I ever noticed Adventists involved in was the fight for Religious Liberty due to our belief in Sabbath. And that's awesome! We totally need that and have done pretty well at it. But religious liberty only benefits the religious. We need to take a stand that will provide justice for all people and the Sabbath calls us to much more than just religious liberty. Christs Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary and the Second Coming: The teaching that Christ began his final work for humanity in 1844 and whose second coming is now at hand has serious implications for our culture. Firstly, it is a huge call to missions and gospel centered humanitarian work of which Adventists do very well at internationally. However, looking at the churches around me here in America I would never even come close to guessing that we have such an urgent message for the world as 1844, the investigative judgment, and the second coming.
As a matter of fact, it would seem that the rest of the evangelical world is the one that has that package simply by the way many of them do church. Many of our churches are dead. Many of them are not preparing anyone for the judgment or the second coming. On the flip side, many other churches are community centers that reach out and heal the broken through divorce ministries, addiction recovery, teen outreach, friendship evangelism, health evangelism, etc. while many SDA churches are simply Sabbath morning clubs. The saddest part is we wont baptize a person who still smokes or drinks, but if they want help in quitting they are, by and large, on their own.
1844, the investigative judgment, and the second coming call us to step out of our spiritual myopia and become actively involved in helping the addicted, the broken, the lonely. It is a call to reach out to this lost world with more urgency than ever before that they may come to know Christ and his cleansing blood. However, we don't just do that by going into a city and hosting an evangelistic series at a church no one wants to go to. We do this by making our churches centers of healing and hope and by going out into the community and meeting their needs, supporting their children's education and schools, teaming up with agencies like the food bank and providing food for the hungry and help for the poor. In doing so we will be more effective in preaching the 3 angels messages than we are by simply preaching sermons. Christian Behavior: This doctrine calls Christians to live lives that honor God. This includes choosing amusement, entertainment, dress, and foods that honor God. Herein is so much we can stand for. While the rest of the Christian world is making leaps and bounds in creating high-quality Christian entertainment including movies and music Adventists seem to be lagging way behind. Adventists also appear to have little to no voice in the fight against the pornography industry which breeds objectification and is linked to crimes such as rape and sexual slavery.
And what about food? Adventists have been preaching the health message for decades now, but we have dropped the ball on it. For many of us the health message consists of "don't eat unclean meats, drink, or smoke and you are healthy" while nothing could be further from the truth. Many vegetarian and vegan Adventists are just as obese and unhealthy as meat eaters. In addition, many who are healthy are not really healthy. This is because health is not only physical but social, mental, spiritual, and sexual - an holistic emphasis I never heard as a young Adventist.
Adventists should have been leading the way in health evangelism, however, a recent article in Christianity Today shows that it is the rest of the evangelical world that is doing so.** They are publishing best sellers and some churches are even building fitness facilities. One such church built a fitness facility for the community and went from 200 members to 8,000 in six years. Now, I am not suggesting that this is a competition and that everyone else is beating us at it so we need to run faster. I am simply suggesting that we have had this message all along and have not done what we could with it. And its not just our brothers and sisters from other denominations doing this, its the secular world as well. Our culture is enamored with preventative medicine right now. Awesome documentaries about health, longevity, the food industry, and the benefits of vegetarianism are all being made by agencies who have no burden for Christ and his salvation. We need to take a more active stand against obesity and sugar, the unethical practices of the food industry, and better nutrition and fitness programs for public schools. So the question now is, how can we take a stand on all of these issues and at the same time not become those hate spewing activists? The answer is found in the following Adventist doctrine: Great Controversy: The belief that humanity is deeply involved in a war between Christ and Satan should influence the way we interact with our culture. Every ounce of wickedness in this world is a symptom of this horrendous war. And at the center of this war is a distortion of the character of God. It is this distortion that keeps so many people away from God and causes the culture to despise God. As a result, while Adventists should be activists and take a stand on many relevant issues we must always do it with the Great Controversy in mind - remembering that our enemy is not sinners but sin, not humans but demons.
Our responsibility in being activists is not simply to show the world what we are against but to show them what we are for. To show them the love of God in a way that has never been seen before. This is what Jesus did. While he hated sin his modus operandi was showing love to the sinner. The character of God has been so maligned over the centuries that being an activist with a hateful "me vs. you" attitude will only hurt more than it will heal. God is calling us to reveal his character of love to the world. This must be our main priority. No matter what cause we choose to engage in and support the people on the "other side" must never get the impression that we hate them.
In addition, the Great Controversy helps us to remember what is really important. Many people involved in activism become obsessed with their cause. Christians cannot afford to do this. Jesus and his saving grace should be the our theme and song. It is not healthy to approach any of these causes with an obsessive legalistic attitude that breeds elitism, bigotry, and conspiracy theorizing which leads to the demonization of everything and everyone in our culture. Jesus. His love. His grace. His power. This is to be the heart-beat of our activism. If it is, I believe we can engage in these causes in a way that will promote healing, kindness, and love.
So there you have it. Just a brief overview of some of Adventisms core beliefs. Adventism isn't simply compatible with social justice, it oozes it! The question is, do you? And if you don't, is it possible that you have missed the heart-beat of the story Adventism tells? And if you have, then take the opportunity right now, in prayer and repentance, to be reborn into a Christian experience that embraces the responsibility to stand for justice and equity for all. Note: This blog was originally published under the title "Adventism and Activism". It has been rewritten and republished at thehaystack.org and at this location. __________ * For the sake of clarity, let it be known that I am in no way shape or form equating any of the practices and lifestyles mentioned in this statement with one another. ** http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/june/fitness-driven-church.html
I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.What makes you think I want all your sacrifices? I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath and your special days for fasting—they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:11-17).
The two texts above came to mind during a church discussion on social action. These writings highlight a major flaw in the religious expression of many. We often reason that so long as we are obeying God's law we are being obedient. But such is not the case. Like the Rich Young Ruler many of us are obedient only externally, but our hearts are far from God. For example. Every Sabbath I pause and celebrate the rest that I have in God. By honoring the Sabbath I am being obedient to the fourth commandment. How cool is that? But the flaw is this: In all my Sabbath keeping have I ever stopped to think of those who do not know what rest is? There are 27 to 30 million slaves in the world today who never get to rest.* Do I care for them? Do I pray for them? Do I give of myself for them? Do I do whatever I can to help them experience the freedom and rest I celebrate each 7th day? If not, I wonder, does God even accept my Sabbath-keeping? Or does he likewise say, "Marcos, I hate all your show and pretense. Away with your Sabbath-keeping! I want to see a mighty flood of justice..." Keeping God's commandments is not about observing a list of restrictions in order to become holy. God's law is a law of love, and commandment keeping is really just a tool to spur us toward that end. God wants us to be lovers not just "obey-ers". He is seeking passion, not "robot-ism". Many of us pride ourselves with our commandment keeping, but if our commandment keeping is void of seeking justice, helping the oppressed, defending the cause of orphans, and fighting for the rights of widows - what good is it? Allow me to answer that rhetorical question with a single word: useless. James said it best when he wrote, "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 1:27). Unfortunately, I have spent most of my life focused on the second (keeping myself from being polluted) but have paid little to no attention to the first (caring for orphans and widows). James is, of course, appealing to common social problems of his day - problems which remain to this day. But the list is much greater. Whether it be Syrian refugees, local homeless, victims of abuse, human trafficking, or racism/ bigotry we are called to "help", "defend", "fight for" and "look after" them all. To ignore this while continuing our "commandment keeping" and "religious meetings" is, indeed, an insult to God.
But God calls us to act, and thankfully we don't have to wait for someone with a title to do it. We can take the challenge and run with it right away trusting that the God who called us to it will strengthen us through it. As Ellen White so eloquently put it, "All His biddings are enablings."** So today I challenge both myself and anyone reading this, lets stand up for the oppressed and the suffering. Let's reject useless religion and embrace the call to make a difference in this world. And thankfully, we don't have to start from scratch. Many are already engaged in this mission. All we have to do is join the ranks. Here are some steps on how to get started:
Find what you are passionate about. There are thousands of causes to support. You are only one person. You can't support all of them. Find one or two that you are passionate about and give your time and energy to them.
Seek out reputable organizations. As I said above, you don't have to start from scratch, sell your house, pack your bags, and move to a refugee camp to serve food. There are tons of reputable organizations out there that do amazing things already (Red Cross, ADRA, Compassion International, etc.) so why not start by joining and supporting them? If God leads you to something bigger, then go for it! But at least begin by taking a small step of support.
Invest yourself in the cause. It's one thing to donate money from the comfort of your direct debit account. You can give to some cause and never have to think about it. But if you do, you will miss out on a huge blessing. Instead, invest yourself in the cause you support and show people that you care.
Be creative. While you don't have to reinvent the wheel, you certainly can. Be creative. Start a campaign. Get others involved. And make a difference where you are. The following link has a step by step process on how to do this: How to plan a Social Justice Event
A religion that leads men to place a low estimate upon human beings, whom Christ has esteemed of such value as to give Himself for them; a religion that would lead us to be careless of human needs, sufferings, or rights, is a spurious religion. In slighting the claims of the poor, the suffering, and the sinful, we are proving ourselves traitors to Christ. It is because men take upon themselves the name of Christ, while in life they deny His character, that Christianity has so little power in the world. The name of the Lord is blasphemed because of these things… Search heaven and earth, and there is no truth revealed more powerful than that which is made manifest in works of mercy to those who need our sympathy and aid. This is the truth as it is in Jesus. When those who profess the name of Christ shall practice the principles of the golden rule, the same power will attend the gospel as in apostolic times (Ellen White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 137).
* United Nations Estimate. **Christ’s Object Lessons, 331-333.