November 29, 2020

A Guest Homily on the Second Chapter of James


Farmers planting potatoes, van Gogh

Introductory Note:  Father Hollowell is pastor of two Catholic parishes in western Indiana, one of which I attend.  He delivered this homily recently, and I asked him to submit it to Internet Monk as a gentle statement of the relationship between faith and works – a heated issue in the Christian world in general, even if we’ve pretty well hashed it out here.

• Damaris Zehner

• • •

Homily on the Second Chapter of James
by Father John Hollowell

There is a saying that I really like.  No one seems to be quite sure who said it first, but it goes something like this: “Our actions slowly become our habits, our habits slowly become our character, and our character slowly becomes our destiny.”

That is to say that the “works” that I do, over time, start to work their way inward and change me at deeper and deeper levels.

Most Americans today know this principle from the world of sports.  I played football for 11 years and played the position of wide receiver (the guy who catches the ball when the quarterback throws it).  Being the math nerd that I am, I estimate that I caught a football 35,000 times in practice.  In 11 years of games, I caught about 20.  That’s 1,750 practice catches per game catch.

The same goes for all types of sports.  If you watch a professional golfer practice, you’ll see him hit the same shot over and over and over again.  And then he’ll throw a ball in a sand bunker and start hitting that shot over and over and over again.  And then he will putt the same putt over and over again.  And he does this day after day after day after month after year.

I bring this up because when I was in high school ministry, I would hear students say, quite frequently, “I want to be the next Lebron James” or “I want to be the next Andrew Luck.”  I would always ask the students, “But do you want to WORK like Lebron James?  Do you want to work like Andrew Luck?”  Andrew Luck didn’t “luck” into being Andrew Luck.

This principle holds in so many areas of life.  Our parish’s sacred music director has been having classes for anyone interested in improving their singing.  I went expecting some form of magic potion that I could drink to become a better singer.  I found out that to become a better singer you just have to sing “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do” four trillion times, and then you start to see improvement after a few years.

In our Faith we do the same thing.  I know I certainly do.  We see a saintly person that we know, or we see someone that we know of from a distance and we say “I want to be a saint like ______.”  I know I’ve had the thought many times that “I’d like to be like Mother Teresa.”

But just like in sports or music or so many other things, the question is “Do we want to do the little actions, day in and day out, month after month after month, that change us into better people?”

St. James says something very controversial today – Faith without works is dead.  We are often accused, as Catholics, of saying “we work our way into Heaven.”  This, of course, is completely false.  I am justified through Christ, through my baptism, through God’s Grace, etc.

So what role do works play in my life of Faith?

The works that I do, over and over again, time after time, helping the poor, genuflecting, kneeling, praying, reading Scripture, etc….these all have the effect of changing me into the person God is calling me to be.

Jesus helps us with all of this by providing us with three actions that I can do to be a disciple and grow in my Faith.  Jesus says

  1. DENY yourself
  2. TAKE UP your cross
  3. FOLLOW me

The thing I love about this list is that all three things are verbs, they are works, they are acts and not just feelings; they are things we are to DO.  Apparently Jesus thinks works have a part to play in our Faith.

Denying myself means I have to physically want something with my heart and my being, and I have to want it badly, but I have to stand up and tell myself “No.”  Jesus isn’t saying we can never have fun, never eat, etc. but he is saying that we need to make a regular habit of denying ourselves.

Taking up my cross means that there needs to be some big dark object that plops itself right in the middle of my path and it has to be a problem and it has to entail difficulty, and it has to be something about which a part of me is screaming – “Run away!  Don’t deal with this…leave it alone.”  Taking up my cross means I have to tell those parts of me that shrink from that task “No,” and I need to bend down, take that cross up, and carry it.  If it is a relationship that needs work, if it is a conversation that needs to be had, if it is illness of whatever form…whatever it is I need to pick it up.

Follow me” is not a vague request to be spiritual, it is does not imply waiting around to hear choirs of angels, it does not imply waiting to feel a certain emotion or consolation; it is following Jesus in a real and physical way through our works.  Pope Francis has called us to the margins and we must go there because Christ is there…we must follow Christ to the places where Christ says He is – at Mass, in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, in the poor, etc.  Do we show up there, over and over and over again, trusting that our actions, our works, will change us at deeper and deeper levels as we continue to perform them?

Faith without works is dead.  I don’t work my way into Heaven, but through my works, over time, Heaven works its way into me.


  1. To be conformed to His image…to be hammered, chiseled, and WORKED into His image. It is not a magical process, nor does it happen despite our own will, it takes effort.

  2. Eckhart Trolle says

    “Character is destiny” is from Heraclitus (fr. 119, via Plutarch), and seems to have been an ancient proverb. As for the rest of the quote, some online sources trace variations of it to the Dhammapada (this is apparently spurious), Emerson, Gandhi, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and/or one Frank Outlaw. Meryl Streep, playing Margaret Thatcher, also said something to this effect in “The Iron Lady.” Jesus’s reported sayings have a similarly convoluted textual history!

    • If God did indeed build us and our world, then it would make sense that non-Christians would pick up on some of the principles God built into creation. Unlike fundamentalism, other branches of Christianity don’t insist that they are the only source of truth or have NOTHING in common with other faith systems.

  3. The works that I have undertaken in my following of Jesus are those of Lazarus, and Lazarus. I look to neither my own faith nor my own works, but to the grace of God as given to us in Jesus Christ.

    • “The works that I have undertaken in my following of Jesus are those of Lazarus, and Lazarus.”

      Assuming that was intended as written, an intriguing comment. One man desperately, miserably poor, the other affluent enough to host Jesus and crew over extended periods. Aside from having their name in common, each died and had their death used to illustrate a point for the benefit of the followers of Jesus, then and now. Trusting that this particular work is not what you have in mind, I’m curious as to what works you find in these two in particular.

      • You got it right: both died, were dead, and received. That’s the starting point for me, and I start over again and again each moment and each day. The Lazaruses are my patron saints.

  4. It seems to me that, for Christians as for everyone else, works, good or bad, are inevitable; as Christians, we choose to shape our own works by the model of Jesus, however imperfectly we may do that. But I do wonder: in what way does an infant who dies in infancy deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Jesus, so that her character may be shaped into a heavenly one, and heaven may work its way into her? Or a severely mentally challenged adult? How do these individuals shape their own character by their own intentional actions in opposition to their desires and fears?

    • They don’t need to – unlike most of us, they are not resisting communion with God with their wills, so they don’t need to constantly check that tendency by doing intentional actions to align their wills with His. The stronger our decision making ability is, the more we need to use it for good intentionally.

      In the limited way that the analogy of the swimmer and lifeguard can be used helpfully, they are not hampering the life guard’s efforts to pull them out of the undertow.

      I’m not sure that is how a Catholic would put it, but it seems pretty clearly spelled out in the Orthodox sacramental approach. Infants are baptized and begin receiving Communion that same day, but don’t go to their first confession until age 7+.

      • That makes a certain amount of sense. So, in Orthodoxy, baptism is not administered to infants to assure their salvation now, but to start them on the road of discipline and sacramental life that they will need to utilize when they get older and their resistance grows?

        One thing: does Orthodoxy assert that infants have no desires that get in the way of God’s communion with them? Or fears, for that matter? I mean, the denial that’s talked about in this post is denial of desires, and rejection of fears; it seems to me that infants have plenty of both.

        • Does the fact that they don’t intentionally do things that impede God’s communion with them mean that infants, and severely mentally challenged adults, have no will that might impede God’s communion with them? Is will a function of intelligence and self-aware cognition?

          • Isn’t it possible to have intentions without intelligent self-awareness? Isn’t that what we mean when we talk about will? Or does one have to arise to a certain level of intelligent self-awareness to possess intention?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > Isn’t it possible to have intentions without intelligent self-awareness?

            Certainly. The animal kingdom demonstrates this in wide array. Intent springs from a well which lies well below self-awareness. How often do we learn about ourselves, often surprisingly (and disappointingly), from observing our own actions and reactions? Intention can be shaped, by training and [re]habituation, which is what this post points towards. If its roots were so shallow as to lie above self-awareness it would be a much easier task.

            > Or does one have to arise to a certain level of intelligent self-awareness
            > to possess intention?

            I will admit there is a part of me that wants to say “Yes!”. But really…. I believe the truth is “No”. Such a question is, IMO, leaving reality and driving into the bottomless mists of philosophy/psychology. An action with the appearance of intentionality is intentional [walks like a duck, quacks like a duck]. Or perhaps even all actions of living beings are intentional, I might even go that far.

        • I’m writing way above my pay grade at this point, keep in mind. Also, Orthodoxy is hard to talk about in snippets!

          Orthodoxy sees salvation as something accomplished in the past, being accomplished in the future, and something that will happen in the future. In the Anaphora, we thank the Lord for all his salvatory works, “the cross, the tomb, the rising from the dead, the ascending into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, the second and glorious coming” as if one of those things wasn’t in the future for those of us saying it now.

          So an infant baptized this morning was saved in 33ish AD, is being saved now, and is assured of the completion of Christ’s dispensation for mankind in the future. However, at some point, he or she becomes capable of rejecting the life she is being granted and is currently living in and embracing death instead. Baptism doesn’t take away free will. The sacraments do give material aid in pursuing life, but the best pair of prosthetic legs does nothing for a person who decides they don’t want to walk.

          The same is true for me, baptized later in life. I am sometimes that mentally challenged adult, as occasionally my health is so bad for so long that I fall into periods of delirium. I trust in God’s mercy to keep me, and I don’t worry about what happens if I die in such a state. Instead, with the rest of my brethren, in every great litany I ask to live the rest of my life in peace and repentance, for a Christian ending unto life, and trust that when my brain fails, God is still capable of granting this.

          In short, it is timey-wimey and wibbly-wobbly, because we aren’t capable of actually understanding the intersection of temporal and extratemporal metaphysics. Our language stinks for even thinking about it, let alone trying to convey our thoughts.

          I don’t know what level of will and choice a baby has, but I am sure that God knows and in his love for mankind designed his salvation plan with those limitations in mind. For the large subset of humanity that can hear and process the words, “Faith without works are dead,” it is a true statement. If what we believe isn’t expressed at all in our choices, we probably don’t actually believe what we claim.

          That doesn’t mean we make up some crazy barometer to measure how our works are doing and then check a chart to see if we believe, but it does encourage us to live out our faith intentionally. To do otherwise tends to drag us into practical agnosticism.

          • This seems to me a very good and comforting way to look at our relationship with God, Tokah.

            As you say, “I don’t know what level of will and choice a baby has, but I am sure that God knows and in his love for mankind designed his salvation plan with those limitations in mind.” And Jesus insisted more than once that a child *was* “the kingdom of heaven.” Certainly those He referred to in His life were not baptized Christians or recipients of any Christian religious ceremonies. They were “innocents,” like infants, mentally disabled people, and even people in delirium.

            On another note, I’m so sorry you have to go through that, Tokah.

          • Thanks, Tokah, for your careful response to my questions. I will continue to work out my salvation in fear and trembling in my little corner of the universe, and of the Church; I trust that you will continue to do the same in yours. The peace of the Lord be always with you.

  5. This is so helpful, thank you. It dovetails nicely with Chaplain Mikes teachings on works.

  6. David Cornwell says

    This is one of the best short and clear outlines of the meaning of “faith and works” that I’ve read anywhere. I’ve never understood why it has become such a difficult subject for Christians.

    As Jesus, who justifies us, becomes more and more a part of our life, we become more and more a part of His life. And the works that he does, we do also. I think we have permitted some of the confusing language of Reformation conflict us as to the simplicity of what it means to do His works.

  7. The insights are greatly appreciated. Very good post.

  8. Thank you, Father Hollowell, for this good and insightful post.

  9. ‘ . . . in giving, we receive

    in pardoning, we are pardoned

    and in dying, we are born to eternal life . . . ‘

    Franciscan thought so often binds together the fractured parts of the Church and it does so with simplicity and gentle healing.
    Pehaps that’s why the Franciscan model of Christianity is followed by many Protestants as well as Catholics.

  10. Eckhart Trolle says

    How come faith and works are the only choices? (Maybe grace too, whatever that is.) If I was a church marketing type, I’d bet there’d be some traction for “salvation by love.” Ooo, fuzzy feelings!

    What–too Rob Bell?

    • “I’d bet there’d be some traction for “salvation by love.” Ooo, fuzzy feelings!”

      Mr. Trolle, if you are equating God’s love with fuzzy feelings, you haven’t been listening very close. And if you are under the impression that you thought up healing of soul in God’s love, you might consider taking the course over again. God’s love could heal even your soul.

  11. I was thinking about Mr. Trolle’s ‘salvation by love’ and his questioning of the dichotomy of ‘works’ and ‘faith’, and I remembered this quote (actually, I had to look it up as my memory isn’t THAT good) 🙂

    “For those too who through no fault of their own do not know Christ and are not recognized as Christians, the divine plan has provided a way of salvation. As we read in the Council’s Decree Ad Gentes, we believe that “God in ways known to himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel” to the faith necessary for salvation (AG 7). Certainly, the condition “inculpably ignorant” cannot be verified nor weighed by human evaluation, but must be left to the divine judgment alone. For this reason, the Council states in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes that in the heart of every man of good will, “Grace works in an unseen way…. The Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery”

    And for them what relies specifically on sacred Scripture, there is this to think about:
    “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)

    As Mr. Trolle is good enough to make us stop and think about more than ‘the usual’, I commend him.
    And I commend also good Pope Benedict for his words, these: “Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to His life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into His love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).”

  12. Thanks to Damaris for bringing the Internet Monk to my attention. This looks like a wonderful community!

    Please keep Pope Francis in your prayers, and our nation as well, as he prepares to visit the USA over the next few days.

    God bless you all in your journeys!