Just Do It
I often am asked why my millennial generation is fleeing the Church. There’s a host of reasons, most far beyond any single congregation or cause. But among the biggest reasons younger people are leaving, however, is rampant Christian hypocrisy. My generation grew up with the Moral Majority preaching on sexual ethics… while the Catholic Church (and many Protestant churches too) hid the vast numbers of clergy who were sexually abusing children. My generation grew up with neighbors and parents saying Jesus loved them… and Christians like Westboro Baptist or Washington state’s Matt Shea saying Jesus wants them dead. My generation grew up hearing Christians preach chaste sobriety at them… but excusing their own crimes as forgiven by Jesus which somehow frees them from making amends to those they’ve hurt. The causes of American Christianity’s numerical dip are many, but Church-wide hypocrisy is certainly high among them. Presented with a two-faced Christianity… many young people walked away in disgust. Ironically, the integrity their Christian parents taught them often is what pushed many to leave behind a insincere Church those same morals could no longer excuse. Or as U.S. Marine-turned-Catholic-priest, Brennan Manning, pointed out as early as the 1990s: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
The Book of James uses a powerful metaphor today to describe our inconsistency. James, the half-brother of Jesus the Messiah, writes: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, upon going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” Be doers of the word, not merely hearers. Doers of faith, not merely hearts of it.
When we Christians look into the mirror, which is to say when you’re reading scripture, hearing a sermon, praying, reflecting on your life or whenever else you feel holy or spiritual… it’s easy to make grand decisions in then, easy to resolve to be kinder towards an annoying relative, to offer a helping hand to the beggar you pass each day, or to avoid that temptation that keeps dragging you down. It’s easy to decide that stuff in your own head, in isolation, in those holy times. It’s easy for me to talk about faith up here. But once we step out of this sanctuary into the wider world? Like someone forgetting their own face after seeing it in a mirror, we can lose sight of all our big decisions and end up claiming to believe one thing… while doing the opposite. It’s been a little over a month since New Year’s Eve. I wonder how many New Year’s resolutions made it through January’s 31 days. I wonder how many gym memberships already rust unused. Let me tell you, at 11pm the night before a gym session, I am a fitness guru: I’ll plan to wake up 2 hours early, figure out exactly what my routine will be, know my stretching pattern as well. But at 5am the day-of, when I actually have to roll out of bed, let out the dog, drink coffee and trudge through the snow to actually reach my gym? It’s a lot harder. James thinks it’s the same with Christian ethics: it’s easy to be moral in here, far tougher when rubber meets road out there.
And lest any of us pride ourselves that, while that may be true for the person seated next to you, James’ criticism certainly isn’t aimed at you, experienced and wise Christian you are… remember that Jesus’ brother wrote this letter specifically to mature, well-versed believers. The more experienced a Christian you are, the more James’ warnings for you. Because the youthful zeal of conversion eventually fades, and if not replaced by something else… hypocrisy will inevitably fill that void. Because as one grows more well-versed in the faith, it’s easy to settle for good enough, just this once, it’s okay for me to do it because I’m one of the good guys already. It’s easy hold Christian ideals in theory, and it’s easy to lose those ideals in practice.
But how do we get there? If being two-faced is the temptation facing every mature believer, if forgetting our Christian path is so common… then how do we do better? First, hear again James’ key words: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, upon going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” Believing one thing but then doing another, to be a hypocrite, James says… it’s like someone thinking they know who they are because they see their face in the mirror. Sure, you know what you look like as you brush your teeth, clean your face and comb your hair. But once you’ve left the mirror, you don’t quite exactly know what you look like anymore and certainly haven’t gained any deep inner understanding of yourself, so mirror faith sees itself clearly in the privacy of the home but quickly forgets itself once out on the street. Mirror faith makes bold decisions in your heart and mind but acts little different towards neighbors or the Lord.
In contrast, true faith finds itself, knows itself, not by looking at itself in the mirror… but by looking into the perfect law of God, the law of liberty. What I think James means—and there’s debate over his exact intent here—what I think James means is that true faith looks always into God’s grace, which gives us the law of Moses, which sets believers at liberty from sin and death, which guides our hearts as we walk our earthly ways. True faith doesn’t preen and prance in the mirror, marveling over how wise, how knowledgeable, how better-than-the-other-guy it is. Faith that looks only at itself in the mirror forgets itself and falls into hypocrisy. Durable faith looks always into the grace of God. And by always looking into God’s grace, the mature Christian knows who they are wherever they go. As a Zen master who is one with the world, true faith finds its center and peace by looking away from itself and into God’s loving arms, for God is the object of faith but also the giver, the source, the guide and sustainer of faith. And so ironically, a lasting, steadfast faith that doesn’t fall into hypocrisy as it matures must necessarily look away from the believer’s faith and worth… and ever towards the Almighty’s grace and love instead. Focus only on yourself, on your own wants, on your own Christian success or strength? And you’ve only got a mirror faith that forgets itself quickly. But if you adopt the habit of always turning to look into God’s grace, that perfect law that sets us free, then you are infused with humility and confidence, courage and gentleness, self-control and a sense of grace for those times when you fail. In essence, the more experienced a Christian you are, the more you need to go back to the basics of God’s grace when it comes to your daily living and ethics. So what does that look like?
First, at the start of today’s scripture, James writes: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” It’s strange that James—just before talking about hypocrisy—mentions being eager to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. James is almost suggesting Christians should talk like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry or the man with no name: quiet and attentive to better understand the world around you… yet slow and deliberate when talking so as not to indulge a stray thought or errant word.
Oddly, again James is writing this to experienced Christians. You’d think James would want mature followers of Jesus to talk all the time: they’re veterans at faith after all, so it makes sense they should talk more, are probably angry only for good cause, have reason to boast, etc. But it’s precisely mature, experienced Christians who should talk less, listen more, live more humbly, James says. Because fast-talking anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Remember: a lasting faith looks not at itself in the mirror but constantly turns back to God’s grace to know itself. And so this faith that keeps looking to God is indeed slow to speak, slow to anger, eager to listen… because it realizes that it’s not about what I the human wish to say… but about what God wants the other person to hear, what they need to experience God’s grace in that moment. It’s less about what I the tempted Christian desire but about what God’s grace inspires me to do. By slowing down, James thinks, we give more time for ourselves to remember grace and embrace that instead.
Second, shortly after his central reflection on hypocrisy, James writes: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Once again, self-control, slowing down and thinking less about how good you are and more about how gracious God is to you… are critical to mature Christianity. But notice also what James boils Christian action down to: care for widows and orphans—who in James’ day were the two groups of people unable to get work and without a breadwinner to support them—so care for the needy and poor… and keep yourself unstained from the world—which is to say to avoid moral temptations like lust, greed, gluttony, and so on. As you become a mature believer, just as it’s important to slow down your speech and actions so you act not from selfish impulse but from deliberate, faithful reflection on God’s grace… so too is it important to remember that Jesus tells us whatever we do for “the least of these” we do for him and that he calls us to repent and sin no more. It’s so simple to say yet so hard to do. But James reminds us that mature faith doesn’t mean our calling ever changes. James reminds us our calling as Christians, whether new converts or decades-long believers, consists of the basics of loving our neighbors and loving the Lord. The more experienced you get at faith, the more familiar those may become, but the calling itself never changes. Love neighbors. Love the Lord. That’s it.
Hypocrisy remains a sweeping danger for the Church here in America. We’ve puffed ourselves up, thinking the good news means we’re better than others. We treat the grace of God as a get-out-of-jail free card that frees us from making amends to the people we’ve hurt here on earth. The world sees our posture of do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do, and shrugs our witness off as irrelevant and powerless, for if it hasn’t changed us how could it ever change a nonbeliever? But! James reminds us this temptation—or should I say this challenge—is common to all believers as they age and mature. Hypocrisy tempts every experienced believer. And therefore James gives us three tools, three reminders. Slow down your acting and speaking, speed up your listening… so that your desire to do God’s will remains in the driver’s seat rather than selfish impulse. Second, when you’re unsure about Christian action, go back to the basics: as James says, pure religion leads us to care for the least of these in your society… while remaining unstained by the evils and temptations of this world yourself. But most of all, James reminds us that a steadfast, lasting faith… looks not at itself, not at the believer’s own worth or piety… but at the perfect law of liberty, the grace of God that sets us free. Keeping our eyes trained on God’s grace reminds us to be humble, since it’s not by our worth we are freed but by God’s mercy; keeps us confident, since it’s not our strength but the Almighty God’s that carries the day; and keeps us self-critical and self-aware, ever alert for hypocrisy, for grace reminds us that we’ve been forgiven once and so may need forgiving again. And so self-control, simple actions of holy mercy, and keeping our eyes trained on the Lord’s love instead of ourselves… James believes that mature believers must return to these fundamentals if they are to avoid hypocrisy and double-mindedness. So when you feel confident as a Christian, strong as a believer, take that time to go back to basics like a basketball player practicing a simple layup over and over or a musician reviewing her chords and scales every morning. Because it is not our Christian wisdom or experience that matters in the end… but rather the simple, free gift of God’s grace. Amen.
 Brennan Manning served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War, and upon his return pursued ordination as a Franciscan priest. Manning’s early career centered on simplicity and service to the poor across Europe, which at various times led him to live among prison inmates or as an isolated desert hermit. After returning to the U.S., Manning started a new monastic outreach community among Alabama fishermen, left the priesthood in order to marry, later divorced, and eventually confessed to and overcame alcoholism. While his life story is rather complicated, Manning found comfort and hope in God, which inspired his later writing career that celebrated God’s grace and the Christian calling to simplicity and kindness. Manning is perhaps most famous for his 1990 book The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out. However, I as a young Christian personally first encountered Manning’s work when one of his sermons was excerpted by the 1995 song What If I Stumble?, by Christian hip hop band DC Talk.