Spiritual conversion describes an inner transformation, and good works are the exterior evidence for it. Do the good works done by sheer
force of will bring about a spiritual conversion, or are they an effortless byproduct of conversion? This question is a point of contention in New Testament scripture. Pharisees were the pillars of Jewish life and quite popular among the peasant class. They were devoted to practicing good works that were widely perceived to benefit all in the community.
Paradoxically, they received New Testament criticism for their commitment to good works.
In the Christian tradition, the cause-or-effect question has a two-part answer. First, works flow from the natural inclination of one with faith. God desires relationship, and we act out that relationship in how we treat our fellow man. Hence, good works inspired by our love for God bring joy to God, our fellow man and ourselves. Martin Luther wrote that it is “impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.” By contrast, works done for the sake of correct behavior alone or for the sake of social stature miss the central point of relationship with God, and that is the New Testament warning to the Pharisees.
The second part of the Christian answer lies in the actions we can undertake to develop our spirituality and thereby enhance our natural inclinations towards good works. The spiritual disciplines which strengthen and prepare us for good works are distinct from the fruits of a strong faith. The apostle Paul warns the Colossians against following disciplines for their own sake:
If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)
Spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. They are a cause of spiritual strength. Those who desire the effect of spiritual strength will have great difficulty producing it through sheer force of will without submitting to the process of actual transformation. It would be like joining a baseball team with the expectation of batting 300 without any practice or training simply because one wills it to be so. Practice may not make performance perfect, but it does make performance possible. Thus, spiritual disciplines condition us for good works.
The consideration of good works brings us back to God’s will. He wants to be in a relationship with you. He wants you to be a partner in your own re-creation. He wants to do some heavy lifting for you. He delights in the fruits of your faithfulness. We are drawn to do good works not to earn God’s love but because we love him back.
As is often the case, the Twelve Step tradition crystalizes this cause and effect wisdom in a pithy one-liner: “Fake it ‘till you make it.”
Join the conversation. What good works do you wish flowed naturally from your faith?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.