You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!
When I was a youngster growing up in western New York State, a friend of mine came to school one day wearing a hilarious (to us at the time) t-shirt. It featured popular cartoon feline Garfield with a rather unimpressed look on his face. Above him appeared this caption: “So this is Corning. Big, fat, hairy deal.”
Let me hasten to say that Corning NY is a very nice town with some great attractions (see here and here, for example). I also learned that the phrase “big, fat, hairy deal” comes from an old video game of the same name featuring – you guessed it – Garfield.
The point of all this is that the image of the less-than-impressed Garfield, together with the caption, comes to mind every time I read this text.
In the previous verses James has interacted with people who claim to be believers, but whose lives give no truth to that claim. So far he as exposed the irrationality of insisting that one can have faith unaccompanied by works. Now, he administers a devastating coup de grâce.
The set up
The part that takes me back to the Garfield t-shirt is James’s phrase “You do well.” His invisible interlocutors are insisting on their doctrinal orthodoxy. “We believe that God is one!” This of course goes back to the fundamental affirmation of Jewish belief:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”
James’s “you do well” response is filled to the brim and overflowing with sarcasm. Bringing this to today’s context, we could insert any doctrine that believers hold dear: “I believe in substitutionary atonement!” “I believe in the doctrines of Grace!” “I believe in baptism by immersion!” And if these beliefs are held accompanied by no apparent transformation of life, James’s response to us is the same: a bitingly sarcastic “you do well.”
Or, in my free Garfieldian translation: “Big, fat, hairy deal!”
The one-two punch
Why is James so unimpressed with orthodox belief? Well, because the demons, the epitome of evil, the servants of Satan himself, share the same beliefs. They know the truth, even though they have aligned themselves against it. And, there’s one more important detail: they tremble! Did you catch that? Not only do the demons hold to the same orthodox beliefs, but their beliefs actually have more of an impact on their daily lives.
None of this is to say that orthodox belief is unimportant. In truth, the beliefs of the people with whom James is arguing are only partially orthodox. And, as Miracle Max would tell us, there’s a big difference between partially orthodox and all orthodox. Partially orthodox is mostly heretical.
The Jewish believers of James’s day were in fact ignoring an important part of biblical orthodoxy, namely, the very next phrase in the text they quote:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
The “God is one” affirmation in Deuteronomy is followed immediately by an exhortation as to how our lives should look in light of that fact. Faith, resulting in action.
James leaves us with a very specific question to ask of ourselves: is our intellectual belief matched by our actions? If it is, praise God. Keep doing that. If not…well…God looks at our theological virtue signaling and says “big, fat, hairy deal.”
Banner image: from the cover of the original BFHD video game.
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