When I was a little boy in Southern West Virginia, my mom sometimes listened to religious programs on the radio as she ironed and cooked. I forgot most of them. however, there is still one of them stuck in my head: Brother Earl Hissom. I don't know what he preached. I just remember he was old and that his voice shook when he sang the program's theme song.
Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
Make friends of God's children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
His song was haunting, maybe just because his voice shook.
I still hear it as I write, and I'm asking myself, "what does it mean, take time to be holy?” For that matter, what does it mean to be holy?” And if one takes the time to be whatever being holy means, with what does one fill that time set apart to cultivate holiness?
Questions like this, about holiness, go to the core of Christianity’s claim to speak on God’s behalf. I don’t think we have been answering those questions lately. I think we have just been yelling louder.
The most challenging question an unbeliever can ask about our faith isn’t connected to the challenges of science, political life or moral values. We have responses for those kinds of questions. They are not always good responses, often they are not much more than cliches; but they impress us enough to keep us from questioning our own faith.
No, the question that really stumps Christians is one few people ever think to ask: if Jesus rose from the dead and is now at work in us, why are we not transformed?
Why are so many Christians still addicted, gossipy, lustful, greedy, and vindictive? Even more to the point, why do so few of us seem to change if indeed the Holy Spirit has come to live in our hearts?
The cute bumper sticker, “I’m not perfect; just forgiven,” deflects the heat of this question. What it really means is, “I am not going to answer. I don’t have to be changed. I just profess Christianity and then get on with the enjoyable work of straightening out your sorry behind.”
It’s not an answer at all. It is an admission: that Christian life does not change us. If that is the case, then our moralism, political fervor and religious zeal flows from a passionate conviction based upon nothing. We offer no evidence that our faith is anything more than a fervent insistence that what we wish to be true, actually is true. We are using faith to get our way, in other words, particularly when it comes to our politics and moral convictions.
The Apostle James said this a long time ago, in his short contribution to the New Testament. He claimed that demons believe in Christ. So he was not impressed with fervent confusions of faith. He said that if our life never gets transformed by grace, it is unlikely that grace is even present. He doesn’t just say this about individuals; he says it about churches. Congregations that cater to the wealthy and ignore, or esteem less, those who are poor, are devoid of grace, he says.
Those are difficult words, but James isn't yelling at us. He is instructing us about how to walk toward transformation in grace.
He said that works and faith are synergistic components of grace that transforms one’s life. English translators usually render his word synergistic as “working together.” The Greek text however, uses that one word, synergia. The Latin text uses cooperateur. You can draw your own conclusions from those words. They’re close enough to English to leave as they are, untranslated.
The Protestant Reformers, reacting against the abuses of religious legalism, were uncomfortable with the idea of cooperating with grace. They pushed the idea of faith alone, which ought to result in good works. But the apostle James pushes back. “No,” he says, “wishing someone well when they are hungry does not feed them and simply claiming to be saved doesn’t save. Real faith results in transformation of character that becomes visible in the way a believer talks, acts and walks through life.” One who believes acts differently. One who, in obedience, acts differently, discovers that his obedience leads to dependence upon God who alone gives the ability to act differently, which increases our faith.
That's what James means by synergy.
That's what James means by synergy.
James does not ask us to pretend we are holy. That is the way of religious legalism. It results in sickening hypocrisy. The world understandably mocks it. Indeed, if we are to believe the Old Testament prophets, God mocks it too.
John Wesley worked to recover the concept of cooperation with grace as a means of transformation. And who can argue with his results? The Wesleyan streams of Christian faith converted our continent and propelled Christianity into every corner of the globe. Universities, hospitals, inner city missions and churches around the world are testimonies of nearly two centuries of fruit from Wesley’s insight.
The problem is, the holiness movement he birthed became increasingly concerned with trivialities. Instead of teaching people to cooperate with grace and grow into virtue, its leaders began to define what sorts of dress and behavior constituted holiness. As a result, some of the meanest people I have met on this planet have been preachers who chatter incessantly about holiness. I would rather spend the day with an honest atheist than with such bags of wind. They have done more to discredit the appeal to holy living than any Voltaire.
The question of holiness remains though, despite the repulsive fruit of those who highjacked the word. Do people whose lives are not noticeably different from their neighbors have anything significant to say? And I don’t mean to imply that people who shave their heads and wear white gowns earn the right to say much. Weird is not holy.
And how does a Christian fundamentalist, raging on the television at socialists and homosexuals, differ from an Islamic jihadist? The Christian claims to speak for God. I get that. So does the jihadist. The jihadist threatens to blow up my house if I don’t get right with Allah. Some Christians tells me that God will destroy my country if I don’t force unbelievers to live by our rules. Forgive me if the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us ‘doesn’t seem that clear sometimes.
But OK, we good Christians aren’t like those raging crazies. We are polished and urbane. We insist that God doesn’t punish anyone. He is up there cheering us on to the finish line. God is your greatest fan! He doesn’t demand anything. He doesn’t care much if we keep his suggestions about morality or piety. In the end, God will receive us all into his kingdom whether or not we ever change our lives.
That’s a really cool religion. I like it! Don’t you?
It is certainly not offensive. How can it be? It doesn’t say much of anything about anything. It’s a smiley face some child has drawn upon a large stage. It makes us smile. After we look at it, we can go on with the rest of our day. It’s a heck of a lot happier symbol than the cross, which is why so many of us have removed that old offensive symbol from our churches.
So is that it? Do we choose between some raging hate-monger, who seems to want nothing less than a full blown war with secularism and other world religions, and the religious equivalent of a multilevel marketing convention? Is it the raised fist VS the smiley face? Does our history, full of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Brother Lawrence, Thomas a Kempis, the Wesleys, and C. S. Lewis end up like this, without a choice that leads to transformation in God?
The apostle James seems to say that real faith results in lives that exude a unique quality called holiness. These lives become compelling pieces of evidence for the presence of God in the world. Although there are worship spaces that seem to radiate a sense of God’s presence, pieces of music that seem to open the soul to eternity, and works of literature that grab a person’s heart and drags them Godward – these are not the main ways in which God is known in the world. The main way God is known in the world is by experiencing His presence through the lives of believers.
An unbeliever ought to be saying something like, “I don’t get the whole resurrection / miracle / supernatural thing, but I have to admit that Christians seem to exhibit a superior way of living. They are honest, kind, intellectually curious, hard working, and help everyone they meet. I don’t have an answer for the fascinating quality of life they seem to develop.”
Instead, unbelievers hear Christians telling them how to vote, yelling at them for not living up to convictions we voluntarily assumed because of our faith, and dismissing their honest questions that they believe science poses to any literate person living in the twenty-first century.
There is so much in the Christian world to deplore. Many of our well-known spokespeople make a very good living avoiding most of the crucial questions of life. Some of our churches have built religious empires based on strategies to attract good looking and well put together people. Our sermons rarely demonstrate a sincere openness to honest questions. Church squabbles routinely emerge from individuals who enjoy drama and seem not to care about the collateral damage they inflict upon the young and the vulnerable.
We don’t need intelligent unbelievers to dismantle our faith. We can do it by ourselves.
I have sometimes looked at this stuff and been tempted to just walk away from it all. But we are like the disciples who said to Jesus, “where would we go? Only you have the words of eternal life?”
So I turn off the television, open my Bible to the Book of James, and learn how to get on with being transformed. As I read, I hear a voice in the back of my mind, croaking about how to find my way home:
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.