“You believe that God is one: You do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!” Whatever else this passage reveals about James, the brother of Jesus, it certainly shows a tendency towards biting sarcasm (“You hold the same basic beliefs as demons do! Great job! Have a cookie.”). James is making the point that true theological knowledge is not salvific: After all, the demons, including Satan, possess true theological knowledge that is probably unequaled among humanity. But James goes even further, telling us how the demons’ knowledge prompts them to appropriate action: Given their status before God, the only appropriate response to knowledge about the Most High God is shuddering… and in this respect, the demons act more appropriately towards God than we often do.
Reading the Gospels, it becomes immediately apparent that a demon need do no more than set eyes on Jesus to know exactly who he is. But more importantly, that recognition is invariably followed by an an intense, often very specific reaction. Sometimes it’s spasming and frothing at the mouth at the sight of him, as in Mark 9:20. Sometimes it’s verbal, as in Mark 5:7, where the recognition is immediately followed by, “I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” In Mark 1:25, the demon asks, as if expecting an affirmative answer, “Have you come to destroy us?” In all these cases, the recognition of who Jesus is prompts an immediate, strong response: Fear. Trembling. An expectation of torment.
This is because the demons also know who they are. They fully understand that their actions are sinful. They fully understand that they are in a state of constant rebellion against God. More than that, they fully understand the majesty, power, and utter holiness of Christ. And because they fully understand all this, they have the appropriate response of absolute terror.
So what response do we have when we come to the Holy One of God? I only ask because I know that I myself often have an utterly and completely insufficient view of my own sinfulness. I often write off little sins as no big deal, or fail to notice them at all. When they do enter my mind, I often “recover” from repentance far too quickly: After all, no use crying over spilt milk, right?
And because of this lack of understanding concerning my own actions and being, my understanding of the love and grace of God suffers as well. I fail to understand just how loving Christ is in descending down to us: I fail to understand how incredibly graceful it is of the Father to love us and send Christ to us, even while we were still His enemies. I fail to understand just how incredibly holy and awesome and powerful God is in Himself, apart from us. I fail to understand how weak I am, and how powerful prayer is.
And because I fail to understand all these things, I often fail to have the correct response to Christ. “Fear and trembling,” at some points (Phil. 2:12). “Unceasing prayer” for those in need (Col. 1:9). Constant thankfulness to God (1 Thess. 1:2). Prayer is something that comes and goes throughout the day–coming fairly sporadically and going quickly. Awe and wonder are often restricted to an academic, abstract shadow of what they should be, impacting the mind but not the actions.
I fail to have the correct response to God and my own sin, because I fail to understand my sin and I fail to understand God. Grace becomes a “get out of jail free” card, allowing us to brush off sins without thinking. This causes both grace and sin to become something unimpressive and commonplace. Instead, we should recognize the severity and horrifying, blasphemous nature of the sin. We should recognize that such a sin is utterly unacceptable in the sight of our Holy God… and then, then we will recognize the wonder of grace and forgiveness. We will recognize the awesome love of God in loving us before we loved him,while we were still sinners. And I think that in this knowledge, we will find it easier to pray without ceasing. I think we will find it easier to thank God for what He has done, and to pray for him to do even more.
As we understand our own natural position before God, we will understand God’s utterly supernatural position towards us; as we do so, I hope that we may come to act more and more appropriately towards God, with utter fear and trembling, followed by unceasing thankfulness, joy, and wonder.