There is a great clip on YouTube, where Bob Newhart is a therapist who attempts to help a lady with a problem. For whatever reason, she can’t stop thinking certain negative thoughts, and that bothers her. Bob’s advice is classic, accurate, but powerless: he tells her to just “stop it.” As if knowing something is the key to doing something.
Maybe that works for you, but it doesn’t work for me. I mean, the being-told-what-to-do part. Most of us who are adults cannot be made to do anything we really don’t want to do. We usually do what we’ve always done, and try to skate by on a good explanation.
That’s why the book of James is such a peculiar book. I’m sure this was running through Micah Dodson’s head this week as he prepared for Sunday and even as he spoke: How do I get across the idea that these statements by James are common sense realities and not just empty words and useless advice?
The whole key to living a fulfilled, active life as a follower of Jesus is doing a certain few things, among them acting well with the poor and oppressed. As if what we do reflects the one we follow and what we believe, as James would put it.
Maybe that makes you squirm a bit, that we would need to act on what we say we believe. It can get a bit much, especially if we’re the kind of person who feels like we’ve been rescued from a religion that requires completing tasks and have been put into a place where we are completely accepted as we are.
I don’t honestly think James is contradicting that. He’s not saying “if you don’t perform these tasks you are a wretch.” He’s making the perfectly reasonable statement that you act solely upon what you believe and value.
It’s as if you were to say “I am the number one Seahawks fan,” but if I ask “well, who is in the starting lineup? Who plays center? Who scored the most goals last year in the game with Pittsburgh?” and you responded, “Well, I don’t need to actually know anything about the Seahawks, or watch any of their games to be their number one fan.” I’m pretty sure you would feel – well, peculiar – if you made such a statement. A fan of the Seahawks has certain characteristics. Not every fan shares every one, and good fans can disagree on some of them, but there are some core elements, among them a desire to watch a game and to root for them, especially when they play Pittsburgh.
That’s all James is saying. If you claim to follow Jesus, then you would show that. All the words you might express don’t mean that much. All the good feelings and pleasant thoughts simply stay in your head, apart from reality. The only thing I can see that expresses what you say you believe is what you actually do.
That’s not something to condemn you or to make you feel rejected. It’s simply a checkpoint, and a good way to see if your religion is actually working in your life.
If you examine your life and find that it doesn’t match what you claim you believe, just admit that you haven’t gotten it all together yet. Ask for help and strength, and commit to changing your actions when you it comes to your attention.
I’m not saying this because you just need to stop it. I’m only trying to help you start it – start living what you believe. Because you have someone who will help you, if you ask.