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The Practicality of Faith


James 1:19-27


Few things annoy us more than false piety. By “false piety” I mean the sickly-sweet sentimentality that appears to be so “heavenly” as to be of no earthly use. I mean the saccharine, maudlin mushiness that depicts Jesus as anything but manly and his followers as unreal and impractical.

Imagine that you are walking to the corner store when you come upon someone lying on the sidewalk. He has slipped on ice. His leg is broken, obviously broken, since the jagged end of the bone is sticking out through his trouser-leg. Just before you reach the man someone leans over him and sweetly says, “Brother, your leg is broken. Have you prayed about it?” The truth is, all of us have been exposed to something like this.

The apostle James was exposed to it too. He couldn’t stand it. False piety exasperated him. He decided to do something about it. He wrote a tract. The tract is brief; it has only 108 verses. Still, in these 108 verses James challenges his reader sixty times over. Sixty times over he charges his reader, dares his Christian reader to do something. James is fed up with Christians who turn in on themselves, comfort themselves with “sweet Jesus,” all the while turning faith into an interior sentimentality that ignores the concrete earthiness that ought to characterize all followers of Jesus Christ. After all, wasn’t Jesus doing every day of his public ministry?

James, you see, is always exasperated by the common misunderstanding of faith. Too may people, he has found, confuse faith with belief. Belief is purely cerebral; belief has to do with our mental furniture. Belief means we have the correct notions in our noodle. And concerning this James shouts, “So what? It isn’t faith.” Faith, on the other hand, is seizing him who has first seized us. Faith is embracing him who is the Word incarnate. If we are possessed not merely of belief but more profoundly of faith, then that faith which seizes the Word incarnate does something. Christians aren’t merely believers of the Word. Christians are possessed of faith in the Word. Therefore Christians are always doers of the Word.

In the sermon today we shan’t attempt to probe all of James’ sixty challenges. Three will be enough. For our attitude to three – any three – will tell others and ourselves whether we are in fact “doers of the Word.”


I: — One concrete challenge is this: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.” There is always great need for listening, real listening. Real listening isn’t done with our ears; real listening is done with our heart. This kind of listening, says James, is one way in which we are doers of the Word.

I don’t like to hear people sneer at my profession and therefore I don’t sneer at theirs. For this reason (although not for this reason alone) I don’t defame psychotherapists. Unquestionably there are psychotherapists of immense helpfulness who do fine work. At the same time, we should understand that if we are helped by a psychotherapist it isn’t because she belongs to one particular school of psychotherapy, and this one particular school is vastly more effective than all other schools. Right now, says Dr Bernard Zelberstam, a psychotherapist himself, there are 200 recognized schools of psychotherapy in North America , each claiming to be empirically rigorous – which is to say, says Dr Zelberstam, none of them is empirically rigorous. Nevertheless, he insists that people genuinely are helped by visiting a psychotherapist, whether of school “A,” “B,” or “C.” What helps people, says Zelberstam, isn’t the psychotherapist’s training in any one school; what helps them is the psychotherapist’s human warmth, her sensitivity, her empathy, her insight, her emotional intuition. This is what helps. And this, says Zelberstam, you can find in a good friend, a caring neighbour, perchance a high school guidance counsellor. Many people look to a bartender.

I have found that as life becomes busier life appears to become more compressed. As it becomes more compressed people’s sense of isolation intensifies. They start to feel that that they aren’t heard, aren’t listened to, and for this reason are as isolated as if they were the only person in a 20-room house.

James says we are to be quick to listen, slow to speak. If we listen only with our ears we’ll always be quick to speak; entirely too quick. If we listen with our hearts, on the other hand, we’ll find ourselves slow to speak. You see, when we listen only with our ears we don’t really hear the person in front of us; we are listening with only half our mind because the other half of our mind is working on what we are going to say as soon as we get the chance, what we are going to say about ourselves as soon as the other person pauses to inhale. Because we are listening with only half our mind while plotting our retort, our facial expression gives us away. The person opposite us quietly concludes once again she isn’t being heard; we aren’t listening to her. The result, of course, is that her isolation is worsened.

We must never excuse our failure to listen on the grounds that “we can’t do anything about Mrs. X’s problem in any case, since her problem is insoluble.” To be sure, her problem likely is insoluble. When I was a young minister I thought that most problems could be solved, most burdens could be dropped. I don’t think like this any more. I’ve learned that most burdens have to be carried along in life. The people to whom we’re to listen: they already know this. They aren’t looking for us to unravel their complication. They don’t expect us to wave the magic wand over them and dispel their perplexity. They simply crave being heard, for they know that the burden they can’t shed on the spot and the difficulty they can’t remedy for now are worsened to the extent that they themselves are isolated in their pain.

There’s another reason you and I should develop the ministry of listening; namely, six months from now our situation may have changed drastically and we shall need someone to listen to us in a way we can scarcely imagine at this moment. Regardless of what we can anticipate happening to us in the near future, there’s far more that we can’t anticipate. And – this is far more telling – regardless of how much we can anticipate with our head we can anticipate nothing with our heart. We all like to work out in advance how we are going to react if this or that happens to us. And we go to sleep at night assuming that we’ve worked it out and we’ll react in such-and-such way if “it” happens to us. When “it” happens, however, we find that we react in a way we didn’t anticipate at all. And this for one reason: what we can anticipate with our head we can never anticipate with our heart.

When needy people open their torn hearts to me they usually stop part way through and say with much embarrassment, “I feel silly talking like this. I know I sound stupid. I must be weak. I feel so fragile, so vulnerable, while you [Shepherd] appear so strong and well put-together.” I assure these people that there’s nothing shameful about being swamped in a tidal wave of turbulence. And I tell them as well that six months from now I could be the person squirming in the chair that they are now warming. I don’t know what life is going to bring me. I don’t know how I’m going to react. I do know this much however: I know that life is going to bring me what I can’t anticipate; and when I’m visited with it, I’ll react in a manner I couldn’t foresee. I’ll be surprised, shocked even, at what’s befallen me. And I’ll be dumbfounded at my helplessness in the face of it.

How do I know this? I’ve been there already. There have been several relatively minor “bumps” in my life, minor bumps as it turned out (even though they didn’t seem minor at the time.) There have also been two or three devastating bomb-bursts that left me floundering.

In some situations we appear strong. In all situations we’d like to be strong. The truth is, no one is strong. All of us are vulnerable, as fragile as eggshell. The day will come when we need to be listened to as we need little else.

While we are probing the word of brother James we should contemplate the word of his fellow-apostle, Peter. Peter writes, “Cast all your cares upon him, for he cares for you.” Peter is right: we can cast all our cares upon God because he does care for us. At the same time, people who need to hear this will find Peter’s word credible only as they find that they can cast their cares upon us because we care. And we’re going to convince them that we care only as we listen.   “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.”


II: — James urges more upon us: “Be slow to anger, for your anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” “Be slow to anger.” James doesn’t tell us we should never become angry. We should. The person who doesn’t become angry when he should be angry is psychologically deficient and morally blind. Jesus, after all, was livid on many occasions.

Yet we are to be slow to anger. We aren’t to be a pop-off. We aren’t to fly into tantrums like the four year old who overheats on a matter that’s ultimately insignificant.

James knows there’s no little difference between Christ’s anger and ours. Jesus becomes angry when he sees defenceless people abused, but he doesn’t become angry when he’s abused himself. Jesus becomes angry when he sees vulnerable people manipulated, but he pleads forgiveness for assassins who are nailing him to the wood.

You and I are just the opposite. Too often huge injustices find us unmoved, yet if we are pricked ever so slightly we explode in vindictive fury. “Slow to anger”? James is correct. For in our fallen condition our anger is hugely disproportionate to the slight we’ve received. We use a cannon to kill a mosquito.

“Be slow to anger.” If we are quick to anger we’ve plainly lost sight of the fact that what infuriates us most in other people is frequently found in ourselves. Psychologists call it projection. What we find hardest to accept about ourselves we project onto other people and then get angry at them for it. When someone says to me, “I can’t abide the person who…” I quietly say to myself, “You can’t abide that character defect in someone else? If I could shadow you for six weeks I’m sure I’d find the same character defect in you.” The person who is quick to anger is quick just because he’s unconsciously loathing in someone else what he can’t stand in himself.

James insists that quick anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. “Righteousness” has a two-fold meaning in scripture. Foundationally it means “right-relatedness.” The righteousness of God is God’s act of grace wherein he absorbs our guilt and rights us with himself. Thereafter our relationship with him is no longer capsized but righted. Reconciled to him, no longer estranged from him, our relationship with him is righted. This is the primary meaning of “righteousness.”

The secondary meaning refers to the right conduct of those who’ve been righted with God. If we are righteous in the sense of rightly related to God, we are thereafter to live righteously by doing what’s right.

James maintains that as we are slow to anger; that is, as we don’t become irascible, angry inappropriately, our discipleship furthers the righteousness of God. In which sense of righteousness: primary or secondary? In both senses. As we are slow to anger we mirror the patience and kindness and guilt-absorbing mercy of God. Therein we lend credibility to that gospel by which men and women come to be reconciled to God, rightly related to him, righteous.

As we are slow to anger we also further the righteousness of God in the secondary sense; we do what’s right. Not exploding at people childishly; not shouting at them contemptuously; not distressing them through carping at them; not discouraging them through temperamental touchiness: to act toward others in this way is to be a doer of the Word, both the Word of the gospel by which we were reconciled to God and the Word of gospel-command by which we behave toward others as Jesus Christ first behaved toward us. As we are slow to anger we produce God’s righteousness, says James. We produce God’s righteousness in both senses: we magnify the gospel of reconciliation (right-relationship with him) and we obey the command to live righteously.


III: — Of the fifty-eight remaining exhortations or challenges or charges in James’ tract let’s look at this one: “Care for widows and orphans in their distress.” Why single out widows and orphans? Aren’t there many other kinds of suffering besides the suffering of those who’ve been widowed or orphaned? Widows and orphans are singled out in scripture for one reason: they were economically destitute. In the ancient world there was little gainful employment for women, little remunerated work outside the home. When a woman was widowed there was no economic safety net, no mother’s allowance, no social welfare, nothing to catch her. Bereft of husband, she was thereafter materially bereft – unless someone, several people, looked out for her and supported her. Orphans were in exactly the same predicament. To say we are to “care for widows and orphans in their distress” is to say we are to care for those whose deprivation and destitution are unmistakable and undeniable.

Not for one minute am I minimizing the economic hardship of those who are financially straitened in our society. Neither am I pretending that such economic disadvantage is insignificant.

At the same time we have a financial safety net that our foreparents two generations back in Canada didn’t know. And if we agree that wealth is measured not by what we own but by what we have access to, then the materially poorest person in Canada is wealthy by world standards. We need think only of our health care system, the courts, and public education. Then who are the “widows and orphans” in our midst? Who are the most abjectly destitute? I maintain it’s those who are spiritually destitute. The apostle Paul (we’re switching now for a minute from James to Paul) speaks of the predicament of Gentiles before they came to faith in Jesus Christ. He writes, “Remember that you were…separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel , strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Doesn’t that sound bleak: “separated from Christ…having no hope, without God in the world”? It is bleak. It has to be bleak. But the bleakness of it all isn’t unfixable. The gospel is good news not because it’s a sweet-sounding idea; the gospel is good news, says Paul, because it is the operative power of God unto salvation. The gospel is an event happening right now; the gospel is the event of God in his operative power remedying human bleakness as he presses Christ upon people and forges in them the faith whereby they can embrace Christ. Thereafter they aren’t separated from Christ; they aren’t without hope; they aren’t without God in the world.

There are institutions without number in our society that rightly look out for people with assorted afflictions. We need think only of the Cancer Society, the Diabetic Association, the Kidney Foundation, the John Howard Society (for prisoners), Alcoholics Anonymous, etc. Good. We need them all. What institution is there in our society whose sole purpose is the service it can render God in his remedying the ultimate human affliction – namely, the bleakness of being separated from Christ, without hope, without God in the world? There is one institution: the church.

At the beginning of the sermon I said that the apostle James has no use for false piety, no use for the saccharine sentimentality of the religious romantics, no use for maudlin mushiness that can’t see the human suffering that abounds all around us. True. But while James has no use for false piety he has every use for genuine faith. He urges us to magnify Jesus Christ and commend faith in him, the only Saviour anyone can ever have. Then whatever else the church is about it always has to be about this, and as long as it’s about this it will never have forfeited its mandate and its place in God’s economy.


We began today with the need to listen. We must be slow to speak but quick to listen, for if we cease listening to our suffering neighbour we shall soon no longer be listening to God.

We must be slow to anger, for petulance and irritability and temper tantrums don’t produce the righteousness of God, and surely we want to commend God’s righteousness both in the sense of his righting people with himself and also in the sense of having them conduct themselves rightly thereafter.

We shall always be found doing this if we are first, last and always found “caring for widows and orphans in their distress”; that is, commending to the spiritually deprived their great God and Saviour. For he is always for them, never fails them, and has promised to bring them to their eternal home.

                                                                                       Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             March 20005