One of the most deep-seated and complicated problems in human existence lies in the disjunction between knowledge and action, or knowing and doing. This problem also produces some of the most frustrating, disappointing, and destructive conditions and behaviors in our lives. In my own life, for example, I know, without question, that this or that behavior would be good to do, both for me and for others. Yet I do not act upon it. Likewise, I know, without question, that this or that behavior would be wrong to do, both for me and others. Yet I act upon it. The disjunction and even conflict between knowing and doing plague us all in various ways.
In the context of the deepest and most vital chamber of our life – namely, our faith – James addressed this problem of knowing and doing. Can we say we have faith in God if our belief in God does not issue in certain kinds of actions? James adamantly replied, “No! Faith not expressed in good deeds is useless, even dead. Faith expressed in good deeds is alive and useful.” That is, faith does not really exist where actions do not express it. There can be no genuine faith in God without embodying and enacting it.
As James concretely observed, the principal way to express genuine faith consists in acts of charity on behalf of others. The claim to faith in God apart from such acts basically focuses on self. It is self-absorbed and self-deluded. This cannot be genuine faith. Jesus made it clear that love for God and love for neighbor inextricably intertwine. Certainly, priority belongs to loving God. Yet God takes the love we give him, turns it right around, and directs it to others by calling us to love our neighbor. It is impossible to be faithful to God by claiming to love him if we do not also show love to others. Though James did not quote Jesus, Jesus’ teaching on love firmly underlies James’s argument on faith and actions.
Genuine faith encompasses belief and commitment. At the deepest and most vital level of our being, such faith begins to overcome the fragmentation between what we know and what we do. It yields true integrity in our beliefs and our actions. In genuine faith, rooted in love for God and love for our neighbor, knowing and doing come together in wholeness, a wholeness substantiated in us through God’s transforming grace. This is saving faith, the only true faith in God.