There are things I believe intellectually but make no impact on me emotionally; it’s just information. For example, I believe most New Yorkers love either the Yankees or the Mets, but it makes no difference to me (though of course it makes a great deal of difference to them). There are things I believe and in which I have some personal investment: I believe my favorite sports team to be the best, and want to see them win the championship. And I may believe so much in my team that I’ll pay good money to see them play, or sing their praises to others; my belief affects my behavior.
So here’s the question: what kind of belief is it when Christians say, “I believe in Jesus”?
Is it that I believe that Jesus existed, lived at a particular time and in a particular place, and said some of the words attributed to him? Yes, at least that. Is it that I believe Jesus was who he said he was, the Son of God, the one whose blood would purchase our pardon from sin? That’s a big step up. Moreover, if I believe in both those ways, do I care? And if I care, do I care enough to do something about it, even to reorganize my life around that belief so it changes what I think, say, and do?
These are the kinds of questions we’ve been exploring recently in the letter of James. True Christian faith, he teaches, can’t be the kind of belief that doesn’t make a difference to how we live. When faith is the real deal, it changes the way we think about and relate to others.
In the previous post, I tied that idea into a vision from the book of Revelation: one day, at the wedding of the Lamb, the church as the bride will be beautifully adorned by the righteous deeds of the saints throughout history (Rev 19:8). It’s an encouragement to me, and I hope to you, to think that our faithful deeds today will be part of that glorious heavenly celebration.
This time, I want to go the other direction, and pick up some background music for James from Psalm 71. Why Psalm 71? Because it happens to be the one I’ve been studying lately as I continue to journal my way through the Psalms. You never know what you’re going to find.
. . .
Psalm 71 seems to be written as a prayer for help from someone who has trusted God from childhood, but now is much older. Praise is his default setting, and he never wants to stop telling others about God’s righteousness and strength. But for some reason, his enemies see him as having been forsaken by God and therefore vulnerable. Now, they say to each other, is the time to strike.
Thus the psalmist prays, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent” (Psalm 71:9, NRSV). Despite the threat, however, he still hopes in God; he still looks forward to praising God as he always has. His confidence is unshaken:
O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might
to all the generations to come.
Your power and your righteousness, O God,
reach the high heavens. (Ps 71:17-19a, NRSV)
“You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?” the psalmist says (vs. 19b). But here’s what I want us to notice, what can be noticed throughout the Psalter: though the psalmist praises God for his character, he knows that character through God’s deeds. He knows who God is because he knows what God does. And he praises God for both, as two sides of a divine coin.
To the psalmist, God is not merely righteous in the abstract, as a theological postulate; God is righteous in his acts. Similarly, throughout the Psalter, when the psalmists waver in their confidence, they don’t try to convince themselves with logic; they cling to the stories of God’s past faithfulness. Just remember, they tell themselves. That’s the truth of who God is.
Character, in other words, is more than mere behavior, but it is demonstrated in the consistency of behavior. That’s true of God, and it should be true of those who have a living, breathing faith in God and his Son.