I have discovered an interesting reality concerning conflict over the years. Often, when things get so highly polarized that there are two very clear competing sides, neither of the sides has the truth–or better, neither of the sides has all the truth. It often seems to me that each side in one of these conflicts has latched onto one part of the truth and closed itself to anything else. The full picture requires both sides of the debate to come together, not surrendering their truth but surrendering their need to control the truth.
This is the case with the polarization around spiritual growth and development. The people who champion words and the people who champion works need to get together because they need each other to have a complete picture of the Christian life. And once we have a complete picture of Christian life, we have a better sense of where and how to grow spiritually.
Probably one of the best places to start in bringing the two poles together is with the book of James. This book has had some controversy attached to it over the years. Martin Luther, for example, would have preferred that it wasn’t part of Scripture. Fortunately for the church, he didn’t get his way on that.
Part of the problem with the letter of James is that people often forget what it is. James is not a letter to new believers seeking to help them as they struggle with their new found faith. James is writing to established believers, people who have been in the faith for a while, who have faced persecution for their faith, who have struggled with doubts, who need something more than the milk of the Gospel message.
James writes assuming that they have passed the beginning stages of their faith and know the basics. Understanding that helps as we read the letter. Rather than championing an activist faith that doesn’t worry about anything but what we do, James is seeking to help readers understand what to do with what they believe.
He wants them to integrate the words they believe with the way they live. Neither the words nor the deeds are enough by themselves. As he points out in 2.19, the demons have the right words but that isn’t enough. James wants us to see that the faith we have needs to be shown in our lives. If we believe the words, those words need to affect not only what we do but also who we are becoming.
When, for example, he talks about caring for the needs in 2.14-17, he is not just telling us that we need to feed and clothe the needy, he is also telling us that our faith needs to be helping us develop the compassion, love and concern that will transform us from observers of the human situation to active participants who model the concern and compassion of Jesus.
The goal of spiritual growth and development is Christlikeness–not knowing the precise formulation of our theology, not doing exactly the right thing at the right time but becoming like Christ. And since our being has been shaped by the unchristlike world that we live in, there is much about us that needs to be changed–both what we believe and what we do, as well as how we believe and why we do things are affected by the pre-Christian life we lived and need to be changed to become more like what Christ is and what we were meant to be.
The poles of words and works each take part of the truth and try to ignore the rest of the truth. Both miss a significant part of the truth. The truth is that the intellectual content of our faith is important but isn’t the fullness of the faith, especially since the other side has as good a theology as we have. But the things we do, no matter how valuable and helpful, aren’t enough either.
Growth in faith is the process of discovering how the things we have come to accept about our faith affect our lives. Faith needs to be seen as a major renovation project where every aspect of our lives is seen in the light of Christ and adjustments and modifications and rebuilds are the order of the day. But unlike most renovation projects, this one goes on for our whole life after becoming a believer because there is always something that God wants us to look at and work on.
May the peace of God be with you.