Let faith do its work

Some who read this blog or who have heard me teach know that I highly recommend reading more than one translation of Scripture. Naturally, we get used to our favorite versions, and the familiarity of the words can be comforting in itself. But after repeated readings of the same verses in the same translation, we take their meaning for granted. Reading the same passage in a different translation, however, can bring us up short: Wait — that’s not what it’s supposed to say! We’re forced to dig more deeply as we’re confronted anew with the infinite depth of Scripture.

Similarly, even within the same translation, a single word may be translated one way in one passage, and a different way in another. We saw this in the previous post, where essentially the same Greek word — meaning fullness, completion, maturity, or perfection — is translated three different ways in just two verses.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised. Words of any language, including English, have multiple related meanings that depend on context. Most of the time, the differences between one translation and the next are minor. But not always. And what we might miss are the ways one text may echo another, deepening its meaning.

We’ve seen how James echoes Jesus. In this post, I want to suggest a way in which James also echoes himself, an echo that gets lost in translation.

. . .

Again, one of the main themes of the letter of James is the relationship between “faith” and “works.” The clearest statement of this comes well into the letter, at the end of chapter 2, where the word “works” appears a dozen times in nine verses. Here is a sampling of that passage:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? … So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:14,17-18, NRSV)

One might well ask, “If the relationship of faith and works is so important to James, why does he wait so long to bring it up?” And this is my point: he doesn’t. We may simply not notice it because, as I suggested above, his words get lost in translation.

Here again is how James begins his letter, after the opening greeting:

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Notice the two words I’ve highlighted in boldface, as I highlighted the word “works” in the previous passage. Here, the word “effect” is the same noun as translated “works” in James 2, and the word “produces” is a verb based on the same Greek root: erg. If you were a physics major in college, you know that in English, an “erg” is a unit for measuring work (force applied over a distance). For everyone else, think office furniture: you may have a chair that was designed to be “ergonomic,” to fit the way you work.

Thus, when James turns to an explicit (and controversial!) discussion of faith and works in chapter 2, it helps to remember that he’s already opened the letter with a related lesson: one could say that endurance is the work or outworking of faith, and maturity is the outworking of endurance.

James isn’t discussing faith and works in the abstract; he’s doing so against the background of a vision of maturity. People of faith should live in a way that shows how faith has shaped their character for the good, that is, in a way that demonstrates the character of our Father.

In particular, the lesson here is similar to the old saw that Christians are like teabags: you don’t know what they’re really like until you get them in hot water! James is talking about faith in practice, faith as obedience to God in the midst of difficult circumstances. The more faithful we are in such situations, the more we develop the ability to endure — the ability to stay calm and remain steady under pressure. And the more we endure, the more we grow in godliness.

Or to put it more simply: “Let faith do its work.” And when we come to James’ more explicit discussion of faith and works later, we’ll need to keep that assumption in mind: that faith is supposed to do work in us, to change us.