I cannot escape the notion that what we do matters far more than what we believe. This is an old debate. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the primary reasons Protestantism exists today. Sure, having both faith and works is optimal–two of the Buddha’s eight big things (known formally as the Noble Eightfold Path) are right understanding and right action. Martin Luther, the man largely responsible for the sola fide doctrine in the first place even recognized that
“Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”
In Martin Luther’s view, faith leads inexorably to good works. Good works are the measure of faith: Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. Same as the Buddha: right understanding is the foundation of right intention and, next, right action. I really love what (I just found out) Scottish theologian John Murray said,
Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (Gal. 5:6).
I recognize that this is a very nuanced area; I feel myself wanting to set up an antinomian straw man that I can knock down in service of my point that what you and I do on this earth matters. Instead of doing that, let me tell you a couple reasons why I think the church gets it wrong if we insist on faith instead of insisting on action.
I am, therefore I choose
I believe that suffering and pain exist because God allows them to. Given God’s omnipotence, God could easily have created a world in which God’s creations were automatons incapable of either wrong thought or wrong action, capable only of embodying God’s will 24/7. But, that’s (clearly) not what has happened. Most suffering and pain exist because of very human failures: greed, selfishness, cowardliness. Failures God allows us.
The implications of this are enormous. Suffering, injustice, oppression, pain–all are abhorrent to God. But, more abhorrent would be a world without agency. Choice, then, has to serve as the justification for all of life’s pain, all of the systemic inequalities that bestow riches and inflicts poverty. For God, your freedom to believe and do as you please is everything. Or, if not everything, at least worth suffering for.
Freedom appears foundational to God’s creation. Everything flows from the primacy of freedom. What we do with that freedom matters. And, what I’m trying to say is that I think the real inquiry is what we do, not what we believe.
Would you rather live in a world in which everyone believed in Jesus or one in which everyone behaved like Jesus? Which do you think God would prefer?
I know that for Martin Luther and other nuanced protestants, separating belief from action is difficult if not impossible, but I’m not that sophisticated. For me, I’m trying to figure out whether if you had to choose between either belief or action, which would you choose as the modality that mattered more?
God decided to make this Earth one on which humans could inflict enormous suffering, unthinkable injustice, upon each other. Clearly, to God, freedom to act matters. It matters terribly. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that for God, choice is the foundational rock on which Creation rests.
For humans, choosing is inescapable: I am, therefore I choose. All day. Every day. Even the most mundane choices–where I eat, where I bank, what I drive, whether I drive–matter. These choices either foster humane, just relationships and systems or they reinforce systems that oppress and profit from pain. These things matter to God. We exist to make these choices, to act.
The only justification for suffering that makes any sense to me is that it exists because our freedom to act is more important than human suffering. Considering the cumulative amount of past, present, and future suffering on Earth, it’s on us to act with wisdom, compassion, and love. If we do not, all the suffering is for naught; the cruelty of the situation becomes overwhelming.
Second, in my experience, faith is the product of action, not the other way around. Asking people to believe first then act is backwards.
For me (and I suspect for a lot of people), the only way I have ever found faith is by backing into it. Do something that is a gift for someone else, act small against large injustice, especially act alongside someone else–WHAM! …there’s God. God wasn’t there before, but God’s here now. Faith is a constant process of backing up. Act, then believe. Faith can’t be thought, it has to be done.
I reject a model for right action that says first you believe, then the actions based on that right belief will be holy.
You give a hungry guy a peanut butter sandwich–that act is holy whether you believe in Jesus or not.
Elevating belief over act forecloses participation in the physical and spiritual life of a church for many modern Americans. Telling people, “First you must believe in all this blood and body stuff, then the good works count” drives a wedge between the church and many people who want desperately to participate in their neighbors’ lives, to make a difference in their neighbors lives and have their lives reciprocally enriched, deepened, challenged.
It says to people, “We can help you think your way out of that paper bag.”
Young people don’t want to think, they want to act. What is happening in America, what is happening on Earth is not okay. Poor kids grow up without a chance at success; drugs consume young people; people starve; they die from malaria; racism, homophobia, and xenophobia persist. Corporate power grows across political parties and across borders. Young people know that the economy they’ll inherit is one based upon exploitation of human and natural resources. They are not okay with any of this.
They want to do something about it.
They want some corporate power themselves, though they probably wouldn’t say it like that. They want to experience the power of living in a body of people trying to cultivate just systems, people willing to sacrifice, to work. The corporate power they seek is the power that flows from being part of the body of Christ on earth.
But you can’t say it like that.
You can’t say it at all.
You have to act it.
Young people hear a lot of cheap talk out of churches. They heard a lot of cheap talk from rich Christians when they were growing up–that’s why they’re not Christians anymore.
There’s a reason why Micah 6:8 is my favorite single verse from the Bible: it emphasizes action.
God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
Do justice. It’s not something you can think. You can’t do it from the pews on Sunday morning. It’s what happens after.
“The voice of the Lord cries to the city… ‘Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?’”
I don’t care what you believe about Jesus or his dad. If you cannot tolerate wicked scales, if you want to fight for honest weights, if you want to do justice, I am there for you.
If you will walk beside me, pick me up, I’ll do the same for you. You spread the peanut butter, I’ll cut the bread. I’m confident we’ll find faith together somewhere in the crumbs.
And if we don’t find faith, we’ll find each other. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough.
- Sola fide (Latin: by faith alone), also historically known as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is a Christian theological doctrine that distinguishes most Protestant denominations from Catholicism, Eastern Christianity, and some in the Restoration Movement. ↩
- as far as I can tell… through a glass darkly and all that… ↩
- Micah 6:9–11 ↩