Traffic-Light Opportunities


“What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds” (James 2:14)?

As Christians, what should we do when we approach a red traffic light and see a person in the median with a cardboard sign, asking for help? Gather your answer(s), and I’ll get back to you.

In the span of just thirteen verses, James (the half-brother of Christ) reminds his Christian audience seven times that unless their faith evidences itself in good works, they are as dead in their supposed faith as a body is dead without its spirit (2:26a). Let’s hear James’ forcefulness:

  • “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (v.14). 
  • “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (v.17).  
  • “I will show you my faith by what I do” (v.18).   
  • “Faith without deeds is useless” (v.20).      
  • “Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did” (v.22).
  • “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (v.24).
  • “Faith without deeds is dead” (v.26).                                        

I don’t know if James counted or not, but seven is the number of completeness in the Bible. James’ point is impossible to miss, impossible to misunderstand, impossible to minimize. And impossible to confine to the early church. His admonition is for us to hear, too: 

Saving faith reveals itself in good deeds

The good deeds don’t come first, as a bargaining chip with God. We know Christ did all the work for our salvation. Our faith then transforms our lives and results in good works which, Paul tells us, “God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8). James tells us, “If you love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing right” (2:8). Love reveals itself in action. Not to act rightly by and for each other, then, raises this question: 

Can an inactive faith be genuine?

Let’s revisit my intro question. I’ve struggled with what a Christian response would be. I’m certainly not suggesting mine is right for you, but I eventually settled on handing out McDonald’s gift cards at traffic lights. With no shortage of needy people at intersections, however, I soon found myself thinking, “that neighborhood should take care of their own; I want my cards to help those near me.” So I kept my window up at increasingly more red lights. I justified myself by saying I felt sorry for the person at the light, but James quickly reminds me of the faith/action paradigm: “If you say [to a brother or sister in need], ‘I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but do nothing about his physical needs, what good is [your faith]” (2:16)? Ouch.

James shows us how to rightly align our behavior to our faith. I want to respond the way Christ would. I want to act like the follower I say I am. None of us can meet every need, but for me, at the next red light, no matter the neighborhood, I’m rolling down my window and putting my faith into action. 

Have James’ seven warnings stepped on your toes because you’ve felt your faith is strong but your good deeds are lacking? Or is it James’ warning about favoritism that’s hard to hear? I’ll suggest to you what I’m telling myself: if you see a need and you’re capable of helping, resist the impulse to tell yourself: “next time.”  That’s not how anyone wants to be treated when we need help. Remember: God prepared those good deeds for us to do. Let’s not prioritize or show favoritism. That’s certainly not how God saved us!


Thank you, Rosie and Heidi, for your comments. It is a struggle to know how and when and whom to help. There so myriad needs all around us. I think what you’re doing, Rosie, is very effective. Organizations can do so much more with our donations than we can individually.
I love your devo and your idea for helping people at traffic lights!
Thanks very much for a your thoughtful and insightful comment, Rosie -- and thanks for reading! One of the things I enjoyed about Deb's piece was its personal nature: she wasn't trying to say what all Christians should do, only what she felt she ought to do. I absolutely agree that there are many good ways to respond to the needs of our neighbors and world, and also that we are not responsible to meet every need we're aware of.
Thanks again for reading -- and commenting!
I have certainly struggled with this, but have settled on giving to organizations that support the homeless and less advantaged. I may occasionally give, but cannot give in all places of need.

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post have been disabled.