On Frederick Douglass and Putting Our Faith Into Action

“I prayed for twenty years, but I received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” – Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, orator, educator and runaway slave

https://deacondarrell.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/c631e-frederickdouglass.jpg?w=525

In my personal library I have more books on slavery than on any other subject with the exception of theology.

I mention this because in studying theology, I’ve become convicted that more than any other demonstrable human behavior, slavery – the idea that it is somehow not only acceptable to God but divinely ordained by Him that one human being created by God and in His image (imago Dei) exist in this world as the perpetual property of another human being created in that same image – is the single most tangible example of mankind’s innately depraved condition.

As such, I see both the what and the why of slavery as being inextricably linked to a proper biblical worldview.

Now, having said this, let me add that the purpose of this blog post is not necessarily to opine about the ills of slavery but how we, in contrast to what Douglas himself came to realize, can oftentimes “enslave” ourselves by adopting a strictly passive understanding of biblical theology, particularly as it relates to how the God of the Bible is active both in and through His people today.

It is this “through” part that so many of us fail to grasp in that we incorrectly assume that there is no connection or relationship between God answering our prayers, and the actions He would have us take as God brings those answers to fruition in our lives.

A good example of this is found in the book of Exodus where God, through a series of plagues, has delivered Moses and the Israelites from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. But Pharaoh, having hardened his heart against them, pursued the Israelites so that they were trapped against the Red Sea. The Israelites, seeing no logical way out, begin to complain against Moses for getting them into this lose-lose position where they would either die at the hands of Pharaoh or be drowned in the sea. In response, Moses begins to cry out to God, to which God forcefully replies:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land.” – Exodus 14:15-16

What we understand from this passage is that there comes a time when God’s people should pray, yes, but there is also a time when His people should cease with words and put their faith into action.

Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in 1818 but liberated himself in 1838 (after a third escape attempt) understood, perhaps much better than we, what the apostle James was talking about when he asked rhetorically:

“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” – James 2:14-17

Given the context of the above passage in James, I’m going to go out on a limb, to the dismay, perhaps, of people like Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, Rod Parsley among others, and say that Douglas probably did not hold to a worldview that was based in the so-called “prosperity gospel.” I seriously doubt he would have spent the majority of two decades in slavery “naming and claiming” his freedom from the shackles and chains that bound him, as if it sufficed to simply “declare and decree” his self-emancipation in order to “bring it into manifestation” (as the aforementioned individuals might proclaim.)

Douglass appreciated that to be created in the “imago Dei” was to exist in a continual state of freedom and equality which began from the moment he took his very first breath; and that the redress of any human violation of this divine standing required not only prayerful contemplation but also prayerful action. In other words Douglass, in a very practical sense, knew from experience what it meant for God to work both in His people (spiritually) and through His people (practically).

The faith of the Christian is not the faith of a potted plant. We are not saved simply to sit but to act. To impact the world around us. All of it.

It was not enough for Douglass to simply pray or hope to be free, as if to cross his fingers or click his spiritual heels together, as it were, but to endeavor to undertake whatever measures he deemed necessary to bring about a tangible end to what, in his eyes, was a most egregious sin against God and those who are created in His image. Namely, the enslavement of one human being by another human being.

There is a misnomer today among many professing Christians that our first and only response to the ungodliness and injustice we see around us is to “let go and let God.” That is, to simply pray and leave to a God who is “out there somewhere” the responsibility of handling it (whatever “it” happens to be.) As such, we have no theological construct of what it actually means to partner our faith in God with godly actions borne out of godly wisdom.

Instead, what we have today is a group of Christians who seem to only have faith in faith. They are the type of people who are akin to fideists, individuals who operate under the misguided notion that the God of the supernatural will autonomously intervene on their behalf apart from any act of human reasoning or logic on their part.

This mindset is at the heart of why many Christians do not bother to vote or, for that matter, engage in any level of political discourse; or speak out on social issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion; or on the murders of countless Christians by Islamic groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. Instead, they are completely content to sit on the sidelines while at the same time having the pious temerity to ask, “Why doesn’t God do something about this?”, when all the while God, as He did with Moses, is saying to them, “Why are you crying out to Me?”

Imagine if Douglass had exhibited such apathy. Not only would he more than likely have died a slave, but also other men, women and children with him, never being in position themselves to have benefited from his abolitionist efforts in the years subsequent to his own escape to freedom.

If we are to truly be an influence for Christ in the world, we cannot afford to rest on our salvation as if being eternally secure in Him carries with it only spiritual implications and not temporal ones.

Now, I don’t know about you but I, for one, am thankful that Douglass had faith in his legs as well as in the God who made them. The faith of the Christian is not the faith of a potted plant. We are not saved simply to sit. We are saved to act. To impact the world around us – all of it – as Christ has commanded us.

Too many Christians today have bought into the worldly notion that to imitate Christ is to be utterly passive and that to love one another is to go out of our way not to upset or offend anyone who doesn’t happen to subscribe to what we believe.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

How Christians came to develop this image of Jesus as being some sort of glorified hippie tossing rose petals wherever He went, talking only about “peace and love” while walking along sandy beaches as the sun is setting, I’ll never know.

Let us not forget that it is Christ Himself who said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” This is not to say Christians are to be confrontational in confronting the culture. Not at all. Nevertheless, we are to confront the culture.

If, as followers of Christ, we are to truly be an influence for Christ in the world, we cannot afford to rest on our salvation as if being eternally secure in Him carried with it implications for only the next life and not this current one.

Like Frederick Douglass, our faith must have legs. It must be a faith that practices as well as prays.

As God told Moses to act in accordance with His will so should we, because, when you really think about it, while you’re sitting around waiting on God to act, it could very well be that it is God who is waiting on you.

Think about it.

DBH

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