Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
I woke up early one damp, cool morning and made my way to the cafeteria for breakfast and some time alone. It was the fall semester of my freshman year at a small liberal arts college just outside of New York City, and in those days I would spend the early hours of most days studying Scripture before the other students were out of bed, long before classes began. This week I had been working my way through the book of James. Always one of my favorites.
I was reading my way through the fourth chapter when I came to the final verse in the passage. It was the last sentence before the next section and at that moment my attention was grabbed by the heading of the next chapter. “Warning to Rich Oppressors,” it read. I nearly skipped over what I was reading to get to the verses below that titillating headline. Catching myself, I went back and reread that final verse.
I never did get to the next section that day. The words I read in the final verse of James chapter 4 captured my imagination in a way that no verse had to that point. I found myself reading it over and over again. As if seeing it for the first time, though I had read it on numerous occasions before that day.
For the first time I became aware that it was not only my actions that were to be measured against God’s holy standard, but also my inactions. It was then that I realized that the things I didn’t do had equal footing with my most flagrant sins. I would be measured and judged not only by the sins I commit against God and others, but also by those times that I failed to act when I knew it was the right thing to do.
Apathy was no longer an option.
It’s no wonder then that when the people of Israel asked God what they could do to appease him, what offering they should bring to show their repentance for neglecting him, he first told them to “do justice.” Some translations say “act justly,” while others say “do justly.” The thread between them all is the term “justice,” or “rightness.”
It is paramount to the life lived in faith that we simply do the right thing.
Each day we are faced with an infinite number of choices. Some, like what I have for breakfast or which songs I put on my iPod, have very little significance as far as my faith life is concerned. But many are moral choices which require discernment. And it’s in making those choices where it is very important that I’m in tune with the heart of God.
God’s heart is with the poor.
There are literally hundreds of verses throughout the Bible which speak to God’s desire for his people to tend to the needs of the poor. Time after time he admonishes those who oppress and take advantage of the poor. Constantly he instructs those who love him to care for the poor, the sick and the oppressed. It is abundantly clear that God cares about the suffering of others, and has instructed his people to bring healing to those he loves.
The heart tuned to God’s can’t bear the thought that tens of thousands of children die each day because they don’t have access to clean drinking water or vaccines that are produced for pennies elsewhere in the world. The heart tuned to God’s breaks when it hears that there are people sleeping on the streets in the richest nation in the history of the world. It is furious when it hears that the neighbor regularly forces himself on his daughters. It mourns the children born into four generations of poverty, violence and addiction.
But it is not without hope. It knows that one small act of kindness can change the course for someone who is suffering. It gets involved when children’s lives are in danger. It joins the search party when a child is smuggled into the sex trade. It funds malaria research. It collects food and delivers it to men sleeping in abandoned subway tunnels. It digs wells. It raises its voice. It gives of itself. It protects. It intervenes.
It does justice because it knows that anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. And sin is the enemy.
Apathy is no longer an option.