“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” - James 2:14-26
The Protestant-Catholic divide is sometimes described as fundamentally being a disagreement over whether faith or works should take primacy in the life of Christians. In this view, Protestants believe that orienting oneself to Christ, professing belief in the Creator, and taking the wisdom of the Bible to heart is what marks one as a Christian — faith is triumphant. Catholics, on the other hand, teach that doing good in the world, avoiding sin in your day to day life, and striving to lead a virtuous life are what being Christian means — works are king.
I believed that works took primacy over faith for a long time, not just because I’m a Catholic, but because I was brought back to Jesus Christ by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s Christianity is strange. He was a rationalist and thought that the supernatural elements in Christianity were nonsense. To him, Jesus was simply a great moral teacher, not the son of God. He believed that if so called Christians actually put into practice what Jesus taught, especially those commandments related to non-violence, then all of the evil in this world would simply fade away. No need to think about his divine nature. Tolstoy reasoned his way into believing that the Way of Christ was objectively the correct way for humans to live. His rationalistic Christianity appealed to me because at the time I didn’t know if there was a Living God. This flavor of Christianity requires no faith, just works.
He told readers of his Christian apologetic, What I Believe, to strip their minds of any preconceived notions about Christianity and to read the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes. Then they would understand why it was true. So I did just that. I opened my Bible, flipped to Matthew Chapter 5, and absorbed the words of Christ. I don’t know on which re-read of the Sermon that the Spirit moved within me, but I remember crying with joy once I saw the truth that lay in these teachings. Now, I thought, here is a way to live. This moment was key in bringing me back to the Catholic Church.
My next spiritual awakening was not so pretty. I entered into the deepest depression of my life in August 2020, sparked by my (stupid) decision to stop taking my psychiatric medications cold turkey and conditioned by my Grandmother’s own descent into madness. During this trial I questioned everything about my life. Why do I exist? Why should I go on living? What am I to do? In the midst of this seemingly never-ending despair, I read Tolstoy’s autobiographical account of his own spiritual war with nihilism, A Confession. He described the existential crisis he underwent in his 50s, which was shockingly similar to what I was then experiencing. He then discussed how putting into practice the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in his daily life, as literally as possible, was what lead him out of the crippling darkness and into the life-giving light.
So I again did just what Tolstoy prescribed. I decided to live out the Sermon on the Mount to escape the hole that I was in. The commandment I found the most opportunity to practice is found in Matthew 5:42 - “Give to those who ask of thee, and of those who would borrow of thee, turn not away”. At this time I lived in downtown Houston, and I met many homeless people who could use help. So whenever I was asked, be it a request for money or for a hot shower, I gave. Serving others pushed the void away. I felt like I was bringing some small amount of light into a world so full of darkness, and that in itself was a reason to live. My works worked!
As the initial rush of ecstasy from discovering a salve for my psychological wounds wore off, I began to sense that something was wrong. My prayer life was arid and I felt far away from God. I couldn’t diagnose what the issue was. What was I missing? Were these good things I was doing solely serving selfish desires? In what sense does practicing what Jesus preached make sense if they aren’t done out of genuine love for the God who spoke them? I did believe in God, but I had become so focused on worldly works that the faith which was supposed inspire them was laid to the side. I was acting according to the letter of Jesus’ law, but wasn’t invigorated by the Spirit of it. I thought that I was in control of my life, that I could win my way to heaven without God’s grace.
Reflecting on my acts of “charity” among the poor session sparked this realization. Charity is defined by the Catholic Church as “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” CCC 1822. I discovered that I wasn’t serving others out of a sense of love, but out of self-centeredness and pride. Helping other brought me mental relief, while also making me feel proud about what a good person I was becoming. I wasn’t truly living for others, because I wasn’t acting out of love for the God who created them. I had conducted good works out of a mistaken faith in myself.
Good works without true faith are not meaningless, but they are not the Christian way. I’m actively figuring out the implications of this statement, but some examples of how I’ve changed since coming to this insight are: I’ve begun speaking to God directly rather than solely praying the Jesus Prayer as I had before, I dedicate my acts of charity explicitly to God when I conduct them, and I try to see God in the eyes of every person I interact with. Integrating faith and works is a difficult task. I am trying to strike an appropriate synthesis. I have no answers, only questions. And that is faith!