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Genuine Belief and What Demons Believe

What would you think of a boss who said he believes you are the best person for an important job in your company, but then every time you applied for that job, that boss hired someone else? Or what if that boss said he believes you are the most competent person he’s ever hired, but then gives you only the most elemental tasks to complete that are otherwise always given to the most untrained and inexperienced employees. And what would you think of a husband who claims that he believes his wife to be the most beautiful woman in the world, but then never celebrates that beauty in any visible ways, and instead, appears to chase after the beauty of other women? Chances are you’d think those people were lying, or that they unconsciously believed something different than what they were saying. In other words, you’d think the beliefs they were proclaiming were dead or useless.

The apostle James addresses that very dynamic, and makes the case that the behaviors a person exhibits are inseparable from what that person actually trusts to be true (James 2:14-26). In fact, he specifically argues that a faith or trust that does not produce any kind of prosocial behaviors is dead or useless. You probably wouldn’t keep working for your boss, afterall, if you didn’t trust that he’d keep paying you.

James goes on to make a very powerful statement. He quotes a ritual Hebrew confession of faith called the Shema. The confession combines and cites sections of the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers, and is considered the most important declaration in the Jewish religion. It begins with, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Because he is writing to a Jewish Christian audience, the Shema would be unmistakably familiar to them. James argues that believing God is singular doesn’t mean very much since even the Demons believe the first part of the Shema and tremble when they hear it (James 2:19). James’ point is that trusting God with an honest faith is very different than honoring the fact of his monotheistic nature. Real faith is trusting the goodness of that nature, and then because of it, loving its God with everything you have. In fact, the very next part of the Shema reminds a Jewish adherent to be committed to God with all of his heart, soul, and might. This is not a kind of faith that demons possess. And it isn’t the faith that incomplete believers possess. People who love God, or are committed to God in that way, will love and be committed to those things that God loves and to which God is committed. And they will behave in ways that reflect what they actually believe about God and his love. For instance, they will be committed to their neighbor’s wellbeing with the same kind of behaviors with which they are committed to themselves. They won’t just see a hungry neighbor and pray that they be filled (James 2:14-17). They’ll bring that neighbor some food.

This concept doesn’t just apply to the Shema. It also applies to the Gospel. If you really believe that Christ loved you so much that he died a bloody, horrible and shameful death to heal you from your sins, save you from Hell, and transform you into something eternally glorious, then you will be gratefully serving Christ with your life even when it is hard. And if you don’t believe the Gospel, then you will instead serve the idols that you actually believe in.

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