James 1:17-27

Faith – An Action Verb

By Richard Niell Donovan

It is not easy to be a Christian. We think of the early Christians and the obstacles they faced—persecution, lions in the Coliseum, crosses lining the roadside—and we are glad that the government does not slay us for our beliefs.

But it is not easy to be a Christian today, either.

• Being a Christian requires commitment.
• Being a Christian requires service.
• Being a Christian requires sacrifice.
• Being a Christian requires living by faith even when the pathway is dark.

Being a Christian requires living by principles and ideals, even when some might label us fanatics. After all, there is a whole world out there saying, “Everybody is doing it! What’s wrong with you?” We teach our children to “Just Say No,” but that requires courage and faith—and gets no easier as we grow older.

Jesus doesn’t make it easy for us. We like to think of Christianity as a comforting faith—and it is—but Jesus also challenges us with words like these:

• Forgive your enemies.
• Pray for them that persecute you.
• Be reconciled to your brother before coming to the altar.
• Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.

Contrast those words of Jesus with the kinds of messages that you hear around you every day. Listen to these titles of popular books:

Winning Through Intimidation by Robert Ringer.
Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand.
Power: How to Get It, How to Use It by Michael Korda.

Listen to these bits of 20th Century American philosophy:

• It’s a dog-eat-dog world. All is fair in love, war, and business.

• You can’t expect young people to abstain from sex, so we must teach them about “safe sex” and provide them with condoms.

• Don’t worry about the homeless. It’s their own fault.

But James says, “Be doers of the word, and not only hearers” (1:22). God calls us to a high calling. He calls us to rise above the ordinary. Why should he expect so much of us?

First of all, God expects so much of us because of who we are. We are his children, created in his image, and he calls us to look and act like our father.

James says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (1:18). In other words, God has caused us to be reborn—to become his children. And he wants us to look like our father.

Some years ago, a minister friend of mine told me about a conversation between his wife and his teenage daughter. They were talking about sex, and the wife was encouraging the daughter to abstain from sex until marriage. The young woman responded, “You don’t have to worry, Mom. I wouldn’t do anything that would embarrass Dad.”

In other words, this young woman knew who her father was and what he stood for. Her father was someone special, and that made her something special. And so she could say, “You don’t have to worry, Mom. I wouldn’t do anything that would embarrass Dad.” Wouldn’t you love to have a daughter like that? My friend was just full of joy that his daughter paid him such high honor.

And so it is that God says, “Be doers of the word, and not only hearers.” He is saying, “I have created you in my own image. Now live as if you were my child—because you are.”

Secondly, God expects so much of us because our actions make such a difference in the lives of other people. We can’t help other people to know Christ unless it is pretty obvious that we know him ourselves. And we have a responsibility as Christians to draw people to Christ.

When I preached here in May, I told you that I had decided to use that sermon to talk about our mission as Christians. In his parting words to his disciples, Jesus had said:

“Go, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you.
Behold, I am with you always,
even to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:19-20).

That is our mission—to make disciples. How can we do that unless we are disciples ourselves.

Edgar Guest captured the idea in just a few words a century or so ago. He said:

“I’d rather see a sermon
than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me
than merely tell the way.”

In other words, what we do speaks louder than what we say. If we want to tell people about Christ, we need to show them Christ in our lives. If we want to tell them what Christ can do in their lives, we need to be able to show them what Christ has done in our lives. James says, “Be doers of the word, and not only hearers.”

And finally, God expects so much of us, because he provides us with the strength to do what he asks us to do.

I served in the Army for twenty-six years. An axiom of Army leadership is that you cannot require a person to do a job unless you also provide the resources required to get the job done. My commander made me responsible for the religious program in his command, but that was not the end of his job. He had to give me the necessary resources—a chapel, a staff and a budget. He didn’t have to give me as much as I wanted, but he had to give me what I really needed.

When God calls us to be doers of the word, he also gives us the resources necessary to do the job. That doesn’t mean that he gives us everything we want, but he does give us what we need. He helps us along the way.

And God doesn’t always give us everything “up front.” Sometimes he expects us to strike out in faith. An old German proverb says, “Begin to weave, and God will give the thread.”

Indeed, God blesses faithfulness. I read a newspaper clipping recently about Truett Cathy, the founder and CEO of Chick-fil-A, a fast-food company with 365 restaurants.

Cathy founded his company in 1964. It has grown to number three nationally in chicken fast-food sales. His corporate goal is highly non-traditional. It reads, “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us; and, to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

Cathy is a man of deep Christian faith, and that faith shapes his decisions. He helps his employees. For instance, he has given $1000 scholarships to nearly 8000 part-time employees. He sponsors five foster homes in Brazil and the United States. He gives away millions of dollars in scholarships at Berry College. He provides support for summer camps. He has taught a Sunday School class of 13-year-old boys for 30 years. Don’t expect to eat at a Chick-fil-A restaurant on Sunday—they are closed. The locked doors bear witness to Cathy’s conviction that God created us to need a day of rest. When people question the policy, he says that the policy helps to attract employees who want to attend church on Sunday. He also notes that his restaurants generate more sales in six days than most do in seven.

Len Gay, operator of the Chick-fil-A restaurant in Annapolis, says, “His Christianity functions in business and outside of business.” Cathy is a doer of the word—not a hearer only—and God has blessed his faithfulness.

James says, “But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does” (1:25).

And that’s a promise.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006 Richard Niell Donovan