Is faith intellectual?

James 1:14-24 says (NLT):

14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? 17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. 18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” 19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20 How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? 21 Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. 23 And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. 24 So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.

Notice again verse 18:

“How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

It is sometimes difficult for me to separate faith from intellectual conclusion. It is very tempting for me to need to intellectually understand what I’m believing in. Yet, in this passage, James seems to address the difference between faith and intellect. If faith is simply a conclusion based on a logical progression of ideas, then it can be “shown” to others by directing them down the same logical progression. Assuming the other follows the same logic, they will come to the same conclusion. It is just a mental exercise and good deeds are irrelevant.

However, James draws and inseparable connection between the thing he calls “faith” and “deeds”. So much so that he says faith is un-showable unless it is shown through deeds.

So, using logic :), we must conclude that if faith can only be demonstrated by deeds and the intellectual faith I described above does not require deeds, the this type of intellectual faith must not be faith at all, but something else entirely if James is the authority for defining what faith is.

Since, James was the step-brother of Jesus and lived for years with the God-man witnessing what it means to live by faith, I think he’s got pretty good credentials for being an authority on this topic. Therefore, the intellectual faith I’m so tempted to adopt is false and worse – it is vain conceit.

So if faith is not the product of an intellectual argument, what is it? James describes faith here as a life-changing belief, a conviction that transforms. Simply put, if one does not show the acting out of one’s faith through deeds of mercy and kindness, that one has no faith at all. If he claims to have faith, but no deeds to manifest it, he is fooling himself and is deluded by his own pride. He does not really believe, nor is he convicted because he does not act.

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Let your faith grow

I just completed a seminar called Family-ID designed to help parents create a multi-generational vision, family motto and a plan for growing their family in such a way that it matches their values.  At the end of the seminar, the leaders challenged us to read certain books of the bible each day for the next six weeks.  The first assigned book is James.  Now, I’ve never been very disciplined at reading my bible on a daily basis, but I’m trying to take this assignment seriously.

So, on the first day, I picked up my NLT (New Living Translation) and begin reading James 1.  Here’s what jumped out at me.  Beginning in 1:2…

“…when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.  For you know that when you faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So let it grow…”

I’ve read this passage many times, but it’s always been in different translations.  I re-read this in the King James and the New International Version and neither version communicates the idea of trouble as being an opportunity for growth.  The meaning communicated by the NLT is that when we are faced with trouble, specifically trouble that tests or challenges our faith in God, we are presented with a choice.  James, through the NLT translators, encourages his readers to make a choice to interpret their present trouble as a positive experience.  This jumped off the page at me because I saw James telling us that we have multiple options for perceiving reality.  Reality happens, but how we interpret it is left up to us.

The impact of this on me was great in light of my previous post where I expressed my doubts regarding making petitions to God through prayer.  As I read James, I began to consider what it means to test our faith.  What is a test of faith?  What does it mean to have our faith shaken?  I concluded that we are witnesses and subjects of events and experiences throughout our lives that test our faith.  These events and experiences test us because they inject doubt into the foundations of our faith.  So when our faith is tested, this means that something has happened that makes us doubt or question whether our God-oriented view of the world is truly representative of reality.

Something happens and we may ask if God really exists.  We may ask why God allows his children to experience pain and so forth.  Events occur which introduce doubt and skepticism, which cause us to ask questions about the framework of our faith system, which threaten to change what we believe in.  It is in this place that we are presented with the choice to give up a portion of our faith or continue to believe in spite of our doubts and questions.

Interestingly, James seems to presuppose that we do not currently have, nor will we ever have, all the answers or a full understanding of who God is and why God does what he does. Building on this presupposition, James makes it clear that it is our decision regarding how we will react when faced with the uncertainty in our faith.  Yet, James doesn’t just manifest this decision and leave it at that.  He encourages us to choose faith in spite of doubt.  And this is the crux of the matter for me.  “James, how can I choose to believe in something when my doubts remain and my questions go unanswered?”  James replies, “let [your faith] grow.”  He didn’t say, “choose faith” implying an intellectual exercise in suspending doubt.  He said “let” or allow your faith to grow.  The common denominator between choosing for your faith to grow and allowing it to grow is control.  When I try to make a choice for my faith to grow in spite of my present doubts, I’m attempting to control my own faith.  However, when I allow it to grow, I acknowledge that my faith is a power that is part of, yet beyond my intellectual activity and capacity – it is a force or energy that is released or held back based on my willingness to surrender.

I have long believed that the very presence of my faith is attributable to God and not myself (Eph. 2:8).  For years, I struggled to make my own faith and I always failed.  But when I stopped trying, after a while, faith miraculously was created in me.  This is what James is alluding to at the beginning of verse four.  He is encouraging us to surrender our doubts and questions to God.  It is through this act of surrender that we choose to let our faith grow.  We release our control, taking our hands off the reigns and allow God to work his growing power in us.  And over time, through repeated surrenders during our tests of faith, God works in us to build endurance so that eventually, even as the tests continue to come, we will be less prone to grab the reigns again and will trust God to continue steering us on our way.  This is what it means in the last part of verse four, that once “our endurance is fully developed, [we] will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”  We will not need answers to our questions and doubts because we will know with ever increasing surrender that the One steering us will lead us straight and true to Him.

Thank you Father for this revelation.