Ceiba tree at Tikal

Are good works good if they’re all about you?

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Guatemala three times now, hopefully four times by the end of this year. My close friends Jim and Shelley Dinsmore are missionaries there, and God is doing a lot of really awesome things through them.

Usually we take a day off from working during the week and go do something fun, sometimes that means going to visit the ruins of Tikal. If you don’t know it by name, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of it. Tikal is a really awesome ancient collection of giant step pyramids built by the Mayans. I mean, these things are huge.

I live in Kansas, so I get used to something being old when it’s 100 years old. My house is 100 years old. And that’s old in Kansas. But in Tikal? These things are thousands of years old. In some cases, we’re talking BC.

Ceiba tree at Tikal
Ceiba tree at Tikal – Tikal, Peten, Guatemala

On the hike toward the actual ruins, there is a giant tree on the side of the path. I’m not good as estimating height, so I’ll let you try to figure it out. The guy standing at the roots is probably 5’8″. This tree is called a ceiba tree (I think I spelled that right). Sometimes it’s called a tarantula tree because of the way its limbs get all covered with fuzzy-looking lichen.

It’s massive. It’s so massive you have to see it to believe it.
Jim told me one time that the ceiba tree is the symbol of the Mayan religion. And I thought that was pretty fantastic. What an amazing thing to be able to show. But then he told me what a ceiba tree actually does.
Ceiba trees just look impressive. But they are really useless. They have bad root systems. Their bark can’t be used for anything. If you build a house with its wood you have to treat it so bugs won’t eat it. And they don’t have leaves to provide shade.
Pretty telling, huh? A religion with a useless symbol.
Today’s verse is James 2:17.
So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
This is one of those passages that if you don’t take it in context, you can get really confused. People have used this verse to say that you have to accomplish good works if you want to be saved. And that’s not true. The Bible never contradicts itself. So what does this mean?
Well, honestly, if you truly believe in Christ, you’re going to do good works. If your relationship with Christ is real and alive and growing, you’re going to want to do good things for other people. And if you don’t? If you’re not interested in helping others or supporting good causes, you might want to double check your heart.
If your good works are designed to make you feel proud of yourself or to bring fame to your name, are they really good? I mean, yes, good can come from them. But if it’s all about you, how can it be about doing good to others?
Works don’t save us. Christ did that. But our actions define us.
So it got me thinking about religions in general. I’ve had this discussion with many people, but when you really get down to it, all religion is useless when it comes to truly changing someone’s heart. It isn’t religion that does that; it’s Christ. Religion just changes someone’s behavior, and that’s an external change. Christ changes the heart, and that’s an internal change–something only He can do.
I’ve heard it said that religion is Man’s flailing attempt at reaching out to God. But that’s not what I read in the Bible. The Bible is the story of God reaching out to us.
Religion requires that we jump through hoops to reach a certain standard of living before God will accept us, and I don’t see that anywhere in Scripture. God loves us already. He loved us before we knew Him. All religion accomplishes on a personal level is to drive us further away from God, because we are trusting in our own righteousness to save us instead of His.
Whenever I think of religion now, I think of that ceiba tree, so magnificent and so useless. Truly following Christ isn’t about what you look like or how spectacularly talented you are. It isn’t about putting on a good show or a good performance. It isn’t about wearing a mask.
Truly following Christ is being who God made you and living every day by the Word, getting to know God on a personal level through Christ and allowing Him to change your heart to be like His. And the more your heart becomes like His, the more you will want to do for other people.