Thursday, July 27, 2023

Faith’s Got Legs

It’s been a good winter for walking.

There’s hardly been any ice on the sidewalks, for one thing. For another, you could go out in February and march about in a thin jacket.

My little terrier has been ecstatic, actually. He loves a good walk. Dogs need a couple every day; and unlike in other winters, there have been plenty of smells around for him to get into. He stops everywhere, and he finds everything delightful. My dog trainer would never approve, but I can’t resist indulging him a little bit, and so our peregrinations contain frequent pauses to let him sniff about. Sometimes I actually think we walk his nose more than we walk my legs. But who could begrudge him a winter like this?

Some people share my pup’s enthusiasm for walking. The Brits are famous rovers; they have public trails all over England. But then, they have the weather for that. A few of my local pals are serious trekkers, the kind of loonies who march up mountains with fifty pounds of equipment in tow, just “because it is there”. I’ll go with them for company sometimes, but I never really caught the bug for walking without purpose. Me, I’d rather go fishing.

I hear that a lot of people are even less enthused with walking. Apparently, the average American takes 4,000-5,000 steps a day — less than two miles — though the recommended minimum for health is 10,000 — closer to five miles. And as for Canadians, only 15% get the amount of walking they really need on a daily basis.

The Walking Life

Walking is a skill. You learn it by doing it; but you can do it better or worse. I can remember as a young man trooping off routinely for long distances, settling into the easy, rhythmic pace of a long stride, and riding that motion for hours, covering unimaginable distances in the youthful search of fun. In those days I had no car, so I went most places on foot. My legs were like rock, my heart was a jackhammer and my lung endurance was massive.

Ah, dear dead days beyond recall …

But walking to places takes time and effort, and most of us get shorter of those things as we get older. We also lose patience, I’m afraid. And so we forget to walk. Too bad, really. Because walking every day is something we were born to do.

In this world, and for the sake of the next.

The Walk of Faith

I like the book of James. It reminds us so eloquently that faith is not just the having of a belief, but an active walk. That’s a reminder I need every day. Like physical walking, it’s very good for me, it makes me healthy, and it takes me places I could otherwise never go. But, like ordinary walking, it’s time-consuming, a bit tiring and, alas, I all too easily lose patience with it and start to imagine I have other things to do. From time to time, I need James to remind me that it’s just not optional.

But I gather Martin Luther didn’t like that particular book. Apparently he called it “a right strawy epistle”. You can hear his frustration in his language — a lack of principled objection, broken down into petty name-calling.

Well, Luther was a great man for his time, but not always a good one. Some of what he said (his anti-Semitism, for example) was actually rather stupid. But in this case, he was clearly just channeling his frustration.

You see, Luther’s great insight had been that faith alone is able to save. Sola fide, as he put it in Latin. This was what drove him to break away from Catholicism, with its rituals and icons, its penances and indulgences, but above all, its focus on salvation by works. For Luther, the idea that faith saves had swept all that away; and for his followers, it had become the chief rallying cry of the Reformation: “Faith alone!”

We can well understand, therefore, that it was very inconvenient that any passage should exist in scripture that should even seem to cast a shadow on his great insight. So if James did that, then so much the worse for James, Luther figured.

But throwing out James did not save Luther from the error against which James had tried to warn us. For you see, the very phrase “faith alone” is ambiguous: it can be taken to mean “only faith can save”, and yet it is all too easy to slip over into thinking it means, “faith saves in the absence of anything else”. And that last one is actually wrong.

An Illustration

Let me try to explain why. Take the phrase, “Only a doctor can treat cancer.” That might well be true; and if it is, it means that without a qualified oncologist, cancer cannot be remedied. But does it mean that an oncologist can cure cancer without a linear accelerator, or an x-ray machine, or chemicals, or a scalpel, or a needle, or even a stethoscope? Of course not. These things are entailed in the treatment.

Likewise, only faith saves a soul; but the kind of faith that saves is only the kind that issues in obedience. It’s not mere mental assent. It’s a change of mind [metanoia] that automatically issues in immediate, practical works that demonstrate its reality.

Luther was wrong. James wasn’t denigrating faith. He was describing it. He was telling us, so we would be able to recognize it, what a real faith looks like. And the only practical way we could see that would be external, physical and enacted in the actual world around us. If it was anything but that, it was not saving faith at all.

Obedience by the Bard

It all reminds me of Hamlet’s little exchange with his father’s ghost. You remember that, as the story goes, his dead dad starts showing up and haunting the gates of Castle Elsinore. Hamlet chases off into the woods after the ghost. When it turns, he charges it to speak to him:

Hamlet: “Speak; I am bound to hear.”

Ghost: “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.”

In a parallel way, yes, we are obligated to hear the word of God. And like Hamlet, having heard, we are bound in that same moment to act upon what we hear. The ghost is saying that there can be no distinction, no separation of thought and action there; they are of a piece. So Hamlet responds:

“Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge ...”

He says that to hear is to do. And likewise, that’s the natural pairing, at least when it comes to the word of God. If you think they’re different, either you haven’t heard, or you just haven’t obeyed. There is no such thing as obedience-in-the-secret-mind; only obedience-in-the-sinews-and-limbs.

Faith without works is dead.

Hear and Do

Faith is the agent; works are the product. But when you’ve got no product, you’d better worry that there isn’t any agent there either. You know what a tree is by its fruit. A good apple tree isn’t the pretty one, the one that’s straight and tall and symmetrical; it’s that twisted, gnarled old thing at the corner of the orchard, the one that produces twice as much fruit as every other tree in the garden. That’s a good apple tree.

The Lord warned us against the same mistake, didn’t he? He told the scribes and Pharisees that all their claims of loyalty to God were not worth squat unless they issued in obedience, that the cheats and whores would be in heaven if they repented, but the pompous religious asses who just talked about being obedient would be out on the ears. Interestingly, James does the same thing: he points to two great people of faith — Abraham, the consummate man of faith and progenitor of the Chosen People, and Rahab the alien prostitute. One was already a fairly good person, we might say, and the other … well, we shouldn’t imagine details, but we know you can’t get to be a harlot by studying theory. Yet she put her faith into practice, fearing the one true God in spite of her genetics and her past; and all that was wiped out because she had shown that she really had the faith that works.

The right kind of faith can cleanse our consciences utterly from dead works. But a kind of “faith” that doesn’t demand any works can’t cleanse anything.

Faith’s Got Legs

Do we know how to use them? Are we aware of what obligation falls on us just for having heard the word? Are we fully conscious of the fact that God himself will one day put us to the examination before him of what we have and have not done with what we heard? Or are we content to hear, and hear, and hear … and never do?

I wonder how that will work out for us?

Now, I’m speaking to myself here. If you want to listen in, go ahead. I never manage to do enough works to make myself believe I’ve arrived. From time to time, I get all guilty about that, and resolve to do better; but I’m not terribly satisfied by the results. I guess that’s what happens when you start out by the Spirit, and then get thinking you can be perfected by the flesh (i.e. your own resolve). So I find myself thrown back again and again on the mercy of the God who has forgiven me, and I beg him to continue his work of changing me into something better than I am.

But we’ve got to move. We can’t just sit on our faith and wait for the final trumpet. It won’t be our resolve that carries us; rather, it will be our genuine belief that we have been saved from so much that almost against our own wills, we will be compelled to actions expressing that faith in God. Just knowing we have been loved as we have will drive us to obedience. If you really believe it, it can do nothing else.

Either / Or

If it doesn’t do that, then you don’t believe it. It’s that simple. And it isn’t hard for us to see if we do, in fact, believe what we say. If we do, we will be brought to works of faith, actions of love, deeds of gratitude to our God.

So we’ve heard the good news. Big deal: plenty of people hear it, and it does them no good at all. If you have any faith in it, the works are going to come. There’s just no other way things happen.

I can’t tell you what you are supposed to be doing. You don’t stand or fall to me. But I can tell you that you need to be doing something. If you have faith, then faith’s got legs.

How’s the walking going lately?


  1. Phew (wiping sweat from my brow), finally, that was long in coming. Something I have insisted on and saw as a terrible flaw in Protestantism, namely, the (what seemed apparent to me)denial of the importance of works going together with faith. I for one never meant to imply that works can replace or substitute for faith but that, as you say, they belong together. Now, if we could just get rid of those pretty vestments and funny hats Catholic clergy insists on and we could reverse the negative results of the Reformation. How about this, when I worked for IBM it was known as Big Blue because if you did not wear a blue shirt to work your promotion may be skipped over. So then, now that we are halfway there to bring every Christian together we could better that if we all wear Jean's and Nero shirts. Oh, I forgot, some do like the taste of apples (and the consequences) and some don't. Hmm, why does the world have to be so complicated?