James, in his epistle, says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17). His stark warning is spiritual food for thought. Yet it also raises this question: What does faith look like if it does have works? For the answer, we turn to three well-known Bible stories.
Faith with works looks like Abram leaving his comfort zone in Genesis 12
The Lord approached Abram with an offer that was equally unsettling (literally so) and tantalizing. Walk away from everything you’ve built for yourself, He instructed Abram. Step away—a long way—from the place where you feel safe and comfortable. Embark on a journey into an unfamiliar and hostile land toward a destination you know nothing about. Trust first in the fact that I can be depended upon to fulfill My promise. Trust second in the fact that I can protect you and provide for you along the way. Trust third in the fact that what I offer is better than what you have now.
Abram departed immediately. He didn’t know what lay ahead. He didn’t have all his questions answered. He may not have been entirely comfortable with what he was doing. But he sensed that God could be trusted, that God knew more than he did, and that God had something extraordinary in the works. That was all Abram needed to give up everything.
Faith with works looks like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego standing alone in Daniel 3
There was no gray area in King Nebuchadnezzar’s decree. He erected a giant gold image of himself. Anyone in his kingdom who did not bow down to it would be burned to death in a furnace. When the time came, everyone in the kingdom bowed down—except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego.
Faced with the prospect of being thrown into a furnace, the trio delivered a stirring testimony to God’s power—and to the priorities that guided them. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:16–18).
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego understood God’s power. They knew He was able to deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. What they didn’t know was His specific plan for them in that moment. So they added a caveat: “But if not.” And in those three words, we find the essence of faith.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego remained faithful to God, not because of what He would do for them in return, but because they trusted in His plan—no matter what it meant for them. They placed their complete faith in Him.
Faith with works looks like Peter stepping out of the boat in Matthew 14
Peter, like his fellow disciples, felt overwhelmed by his circumstances—until he was able to recognize Jesus in the midst of them. Suddenly, the darkness no longer intimidated him. The rough conditions no longer made him uneasy. The unknown no longer frightened him.
Peter stepped out of the boat because he saw no good reason not to. Peter wanted to be where Jesus was; Jesus was on the water. Nothing else mattered. By focusing his attention on the Lord, Peter was able to do something extraordinary. The moment he shifted his focus back to his circumstances, he became ordinary again. Faith gave him his courage and kept him buoyant.
The question we must ask ourselves is this: What does faith with works look like in our lives? Thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, it bears a strong resemblance to the faith at work in Abram, in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, and in Peter.
The Holy Spirit nudges us out of our comfort zone. He bolsters our adventurous spirit so that we can venture into places—physically and relationally—where we’re less than comfortable. He works through our unease to help us strengthen our faith and experience the joy of obedience. He makes the journeys we take by faith well worth our effort.
The Holy Spirit gives us the courage to stand firm when all eyes are on us. He gives us the voice to speak up when God’s Word is being questioned. He gives us the boldness to face the fire, even when there’s a risk of our getting burned. He gives us discernment to recognize God’s will in tense or unnerving situations. He also gives us the wisdom to understand that obeying His will, regardless of the consequences to us, is always our best course of action.
The Holy Spirit gives us the opportunity to step out in faith as the storms of life rage around us. He gives us the opportunity to imitate Christ in a way that draws people’s attention to Him. We may not have the opportunity to step out of a literal boat, but we can sacrifice something important to us for the sake of someone else. We can turn the other cheek when people mistreat us. We can do good things for our enemies. In other words, we can make a difference in people’s lives, as Jesus did.