Faith and Works

My grandmother used to tell me that a lady bug gained a spot every time she did a good deed. Photo by Derek Purdy, creative commons license.

One of Christianity’s key debates is that of faith versus works. Is our salvation based on faith? Or is it based on good works, good deeds? Do we have to be a good person to go to heaven? Or are we really saved by faith in God and grace of God alone – no fine print?

In entering this debate, people often quote James 2:14-26. James starts by asking, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? […] Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. […] As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

Faith in God, James says, promotes good deeds, and the fruit of having the Holy Spirit live inside us creates the tangible manifestations of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. If we are living by the Spirit, we will have both, no debate required. We are saved by faith and the grace of God, and we show our gratefulness by living a good life.

I am thinking about this debate when I read yoga sutras 1.20-1.21. Here’s Desikachar’s translation:

1.20 Through faith, which will give sufficient energy to achieve success against all odds, direction will be maintained. The realization of the goal of Yoga is a matter of time. 1.21 The more intense the faith and the effort, the closer the goal.

In 1.21, Desikachar makes the correlation between faith and effort clear: the more faith and effort, the closer the goal.

And what is the goal? Desikachar answers: “The goal is the ability to direct the mind toward an object without any distraction, resulting, in time, in a clear and correct understanding of that object.” This ability to concentrate without distraction – with the idea that it leads to enlightenment – is the goal of yoga.

The thought-process behind this, then, is the detachment from all else. I’ve discussed detachment a lot on this blog, and I think it has much value for the Christian. I know detachment has value for my personality type.

But the thought behind detachment is the Eastern idea that attachment causes suffering, and that if we detach from all our attachments, we can avoid suffering and achieve liberation from this life’s troubles. This liberation is so attractive. If we sit, concentrating on one object to the exclusivity of all else, we will eventually not feel pain. But it also means doing this on our own.

Desikachar goes on to write that, “Faith is the unshakable conviction that we can arrive at that goal. We must not be lulled by complacency in success or discouraged by failure. We must work hard and steadily through all distractions, whether seemingly good or bad.” Here, he is very clear that this goal can be arrived at by our own effort. Salvation – liberation – through works.

This is a nice notion, except that I know I can’t do it. There is not a single bone in my body that can sit still long enough for me to be able to concentrate on one thing only. There is not a single piece of my spirit that can believe this – I am too entrenched in the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity that I know humans cannot save themselves. And to be honest, I wouldn’t want the pressure of having to save myself.

So here, I guess, is where I diverge from Desikachar and his sutra commentary. If I ever achieve anything like enlightenment or the goal of Yoga, it is because the grace of God leads me there. The presence of God – the Holy Spirit – living in me makes that spiritual connection possible.

The spiritual disciplines like yoga and meditation have been proven biologically and psychologically to change the chemistry in the brain. Practicing these along with my faith is like eating broccoli and apples. Just because the Bible says I’ll receive a new body in heaven doesn’t mean I subsist solely on Cheese-Its now. I like being healthy today—body, mind, and spirit.

When I come to the mat, my practice is an act of trust and faith in the Trinity. My practice is a fruit of faith that helps me focus on God and cultivate all those lovely fruits of the spirit. Faith first, not effort.


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5 thoughts on “Faith and Works

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’ve been pondering these same thoughts lately – especially the idea of faith v. good works. I’ve written about it on my blog. I agree with your throughts on the power of the Holy Spirit and how our good works will be fruit of the Spirit. Thank you again for sharing!

  2. Renee – I like all of this, and some of it really struck a chord in me. I know in my own experience, my enlightenment experience in China showed up out of the blue. Not that I’m fully enlightened, but it was an amazing experience on the journey to… enlightenment or heaven or (I kinda hope) sainthood or whatever God has in store for me. I was reading a lot about various forms of religious wisdom, but there’s no way that my hard work at reading was solely responsible for that experience. It was a gift from the Divine. Which is coming up on its 10-year anniversary, incredibly enough. I need to do something to mark the day.

    Thanks for writing this. I hope you and your husband are well. Can we play boardgames sometime?

    1. Julie,
      I think you’re totally right: there’s nothing you could have done to “earn” that experience. It was a gift. Hope you are doing well too!

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