“Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He wiled to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. Humbly welcome the word that is planted in you and can save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27)
There are several themes that resound through the book of James. The clearest and most dominant of them all, though, is the one captured in verse 22: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” Faith as a matter of mere mental assent or mere positive sentiment has no place. Faith requires action and obedience. As he says in chapter two, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”(v.26) For James, it is only those who, as the saying goes, walk the walk, not just talk the talk, who are faithful.
Moreover, this is not just James talking; he is saying the same thing, only slightly more forcefully, as all the writers of the New Testament. And they and he are truly only following the teaching of their Lord and ours: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord,Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) and “But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11:28) Faith acts or it is not faith.
This is always an important reminder for it is so easy for our Christian practice to fall into the habit of and to be content with hearing, discussing, learning, contemplating and affirming. All these things are good in themselves , each has its own important benefit. But we fall short if we stop before completing them with action. Benedict XVI says it well as he talks about prayerful Bible reading, Lectio Divina :
“ Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us ‘the mind of Christ’…We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity.’ (Verbum Domini, p 129)
James’ own summary of what this active life should look like, “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world”, is meant to be illustrative, not comprehensive. In short, it is to do good (as God defines good), particularly acts of love to those in need, and not to do evil (as God defines evil). And obviously these practices are to be regular, intentional, and even habitual. Only such a life demonstrates the sincerity of our faith.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, realized this, insisting that every member of a Methodist society (then, in 1739, a renewal movement within the Anglican Church), subscribe to three “General Rules” if they were to remain in the society:
“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies : ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come , and to be saved from their sins.’ But whenever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected that they should continue to evidence their desire for salvation, First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced….Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity , doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men. Thirdly: By attending upon the ordinances of God (ex. The ministry of the Word read and proclaimed, the Eucharist) These are the general rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in His written Word… And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts.”
Through the years I have found no better reminder to be a “doer of the word and not a hearer only” than these three little rules. I have also found them to be a very helpful tool at the end of the day as part of my examination of conscience, asking myself what good I have done or not done, what evil I have avoided or not, and how close I have stayed to God through his means of grace. Perhaps they may be a help to you as well.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.