In the 2009 film The Way, Martin Sheen plays a man whose son died while walking the Way of St. James, the five-hundred-mile pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Though the father is not religious, he decides to honor his son by finishing the walk, carrying his son’s ashes as a way of honoring his memory. To complete the route, he must stop at every altar along the way. At first, these stops seem trivial to him, but as he continues the journey, he gets caught up in the sacred places and rites, and begins to heal from his grief, as God meets him on the way.
Pilgrimages may seem strange to modern believers, especially those raised in Protestant or Evangelical traditions, which look on rituals as “vain repetition.” But our bodies must worship, along with our minds and hearts. Bodily action is one of the ways we experience God. We learn to say prayers before we understand their meaning. We go to church before we understand the sermon. The habits of faith may precede understanding. When doubts close in on us, or depression clouds our hearts, ritual action may point us to God when reason and emotions do not. They are signposts left in their lives to point us back to faith.
“The Way” was the first name given to Christianity. Christianity was a journey to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Being a Christian is not just a way of thinking or feeling, but of acting and behaving.
Christians act on their faith in two different ways—by doing and not doing. Submission, not doing, is the passive side of faith. It is learning to wait and be patient. Witness, doing, is the active part of faith. It is being willing to speak out for the faith, take a stand on issues, and perform acts of love. Both are a necessary part of living out our faith in Jesus.
Of the two ways, activism is the one that gets the most attention in the church, but it is neither the first nor the most important. Most people focus on the one that they feel most at home in, and most of us are far more comfortable performing in sight of the world than in the presence of God alone. But it is just as important to learn patience and stillness as to learn being active and forceful. Without the one, we cannot have the other.
Submission isn’t just something people of faith do. We all have something on which we stand, that we do not question, but accept. An atheist has faith in the supremacy of reason, the ability to see beyond the deceptions of the heart and cultural bias, and arrive at what is “true.” This is an illusion, of course; he can be just as enslaved by his own cultural bias as any fervent believer, and has offered himself in submission to that bias without even noticing. A greedy person submits self to the pursuit of money and power without ever questioning whether or not they are worth it, and acts upon the presupposition of the value of wealth.
Activism is the logical outplaying of faith in the world. To paraphrase James, “Faith that does not express itself in outer behavior is dead faith.” As long as we live in the world, we are active. What we are active doing reveals what is our actual faith. If our bodies behave in one way and our heart believes in another, our heart is deceived, while our bodies tell the truth.
Our faith is expressed in what we do. That is why the disciplines of the faith are so important.
The disciplines of the Christian life include prayer, Bible study, journaling, meditation, praise, confession, forgiveness, silence, solitude, Sabbath, tithing, simplicity, celebration, and giving thanks. The depth of our relationship with God is mostly determined not by how we think about Him or feel about Him, but from our willingness to submit to Him by developing godly habits, or exercises. These habits have the power to bring us closer to Him in ways that thinking and feeling do not. By practicing these habits regularly, they become a means of grace.