James 2:14-17: Is Your Faith Just A Condition Of Your Mind?
Is your faith just a condition of your mind?
In other words, is your faith just “all in your head?” You have wrestled with this very accusation and you have heard these very criticisms before: Christians are just people with an imaginary best friend. Christians are just people who believe in a sky fairy. Christians, those pie-in-the-sky ignorant apes, are just people who believe in a being that has the same intellectual integrity as the flying spaghetti monster.
Is your faith just “all in your head?”
Honestly, most of our experience in the world is all in our heads. Our opinion of ourselves is certainly all in our heads: one study conducted by a psychologists testified that seven out of ten Americans rated their “attractiveness” as above average. In other words, most Americans think they are more attractive than most Americans. In a similar study, eight out of ten Americans described their height as above average. So, if you lined up ten Americans from shortest to tallest, eight of them think they are on the right side.
Would it not also be true, then, that the Average American thinks she is more spiritual than she really is? Would it not be true that for many of us our faith is just all in our heads? These are the very people James is writing to with this precious text: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
In the paragraph’s controlling question, James alludes to the fact that there are different types of faiths, many of which are just imaginary faiths. At the end of verse 14, James asks: “can that faith save him?” To say it differently, there are different categories of faith: that faith, this faith, their faith, and not all of them are genuine faiths.
But you know this.
There’s faith in yourself. As one user on Yahoo Answers defined this faith, faith in yourself is the ability to “believe in yourself, (that) you will do your best. Believe in yourself and you can achieve things you never thought possible.” That’s an imaginary faith. But there’s also faith in humanity. In a Wikihow step-by-step guide (I swear I’m not making this up, this actually exists) called “How to Restore Your Faith in Humanity” several points are offered, like: keep a list of people who inspire you, practice random acts of kindness, and tell stories of human goodness. These aren’t bad tips, but faith in humanity is an imaginary faith. And there’s also dead faith. James describes this faith as a profession of Christianity (“he says he has faith”) without a demonstration of Christianity (“but he has no works”). This, too, is an imaginary faith.
To have dead faith is not to be a Christian, it’s to be an actor is some sort of spiritual remake of the classic comedy film Weekend at Bernie’s. Do you remember that film? The premise of the film is ludicrous: two young adult professionals are invited to a corporate party that is potentially loaded with career benefits. But when they show up early to the party, they discover that the host, Bernie, is dead. The film should be over, but here’s the crux of the film:
They still want the benefits of the party.
They want to establish friendships that will help them with upward mobility, they want to make connections to climb the corporate ladder, they want to meet the right people and experience the joys of the party. So they pretend that Bernie is alive (the film is not going to win any points in the believability category). They carry him around on their shoulders like a drunk, they prop him up on beach chairs, they tie a string to his wrist to emulate signs of life and people go along with it.
These are the Christians James is rebuking: you’re carrying your dead faith around on your shoulders, you’re propping your dead faith up on beach chairs, you’re trying to emulate signs of Christian living. All because you want to enjoy the benefits of Christianity: the comfort of believing in the afterlife, the communal benefits of belonging to the church, and so you are willing to fabricate a faith that is all in your head. James, very soberly and directly says: that faith will not save you. So, test yourself.
This is the test that James applies to his listeners: “what good (other literal translations say “benefit”) is your faith” particularly to a brother sister in need? The best thing for you to do, dear reader, is drive that question as close to home as possible. Chew on the question this way: does your faith benefit your local church? Or, perhaps you can bleed out the question a little more intimately: is the only real benefit of my faith the ease it provides my personal conscience? Or mediate on the question this way: does my faith benefit my family? My wife? My children?
Or, like the brother who says he has faith but has no works, does your faith just say things? You live in a world inhabited by people who need help, like the characters in the text’s parable who are poorly clothed and lacking in daily food. And to amplify the heat and turn up the temperature a little more, I would even suggest that you are the person poorly clothed and lacking in daily food.
And every religion, philosophy, and faith in the world can only say things to you. Buddhism can only say things to you, like the four noble truths: 1) Existence is unhappiness, 2) Unhappiness is caused by desire, 3) Desire can be eliminated, 4) It can be eliminated by the eight-fold path. True or false, helpful or unhelpful, at best Buddhism simply looks into your hungry eyes and says to you: “be warmed and filled.” Atheism can only say things to you. It might seem intellectually consistent and possess a pretty tidy worldview, but it’s three tenants only provide you with words: 1) the universe is purely material, 2) the universe is scientific, and 3) the universe is impersonal. It has the appearance of intellectual consistency, but at best, atheism looks at you poorly clothed and simply says: “be warmed and filled.”
But you are naked and hungry. You need clothing and food.
And only Jesus Christ in the glorious gospel actually feeds and clothes you. Only Jesus Christ can rise above the category of “teacher” and fulfill our hunger for a savior. Jesus Christ does not simply walk by you in your need and say, “be warmed and filled.” This is the gospel: on the cross, Jesus breaks his body to feed us and sheds his blood to clothe us. A belly full of the body of Christ and a back covered by the blood of Christ is the beginning of a faith that is not imaginary.
So, how do you know that your faith isn’t just in your head?
Because in the sovereignty of God, he has not merely given you faith by grace alone, he also given you works by grace alone. And these works that he has prepared for you before the foundation of the world are living evidences that remind you of your living faith. Because not only is faith without works dead, but life without works is dead.
Have you ever talked to people between jobs?
Life without works to accomplish feels like anxiety, directionlessness, lifelessness. One day away from works and deeds is a sabbath, one month away from works and deeds is torture, and one year away from works and deeds is hell. Works, whether at home or at the office or at church, whether with bosses or children or church members, are God-ordained and God-designed and God-provided opportunities to see your faith incarnate into flesh and breath. What grace!
One more boost of gospel confidence: in God’s omniscient knowing of everything, he foreknew that you would walk around day-to-day haunted by this question: “is my faith just make believe? Is it all just in my head?” So in his sovereignty he prepared good works and good deeds, so that upon doing them you might see that the proper place for your faith is not in a grave but in real life.
So, step into those works already prepared for you. Go, warm and fill people.