Passage – James 1:19-27
We’d just spilled out of our socially distanced, mask-wearing, non-singing morning service and one of the youngsters informed me on the pavement outside that “we have two ears and one mouth and that we’re to use them in those proportions!” I don’t think that he was having a dig at the preacher, but I told him that the expression comes from a Bible verse and challenged him to find out where? Well, the following week he informed me that it was James 1:19. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” I was delighted to present the young fella with a Crunchie as a reward!! Listening is terribly important, isn’t it? Sadly, many of us (and I include myself) love the sound of our own voices and fail to properly understand situations and people because we don’t take time to listen. But James, in his typically punchy style, won’t let us get away with simply becoming better listeners, even though that would be an improvement for many of us, he wants us to be doers!! In one of the most memorable verses in the New Testament James writes- “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (1:22) You may remember Nike’s catchy advertising slogan- Just Do It! Well that could be a good summary of what James wants the followers of Jesus to be all about.
Be hearers of the Word (v19-21)
In v18 James reminds us of something miraculous that God has done through his Word- “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” God gives us new birth through the Gospel that we’d be a people set apart for Him. But we don’t remain babies. We must grow and that growth takes place through the Word. In telling us to be quick to listen, he is not referring to life in general but to be quick to listen to the Word. The Word by which our new birth took place (v18), is the Word that is planted in us and we are to humbly accept (v19), is the Word that we are not to be merely listeners of (v22) and is the perfect law that gives freedom (v25). Hearing God’s Word, whether in a daily quiet time, a sermon, small group Bible study or podcast, is not merely a box-ticking exercise but it is to shape the whole trajectory of our lives. As James says, it is to influence the words that come out of our mouths, and it is to restrain our anger. Most of the time when we get bent out of shape about stuff, it is not righteous anger, but because our pride has been hurt or our toes have been trodden on. James says that we are to “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (v21) We’re not to put ourselves above God’s Word, picking and choosing what we like and don’t like, but put ourselves under His Word and allow Him to change us. And James says- “Do not merely listen to the Word”. He doesn’t say don’t listen to it. We must listen to God’s Word. It’s absolutely crucial. But it doesn’t stop there.
Be doers of the Word (v22-25)
It’s possible to merely listen to the word, and when we do this then we’re deceiving ourselves. To help us see this, James uses a familiar illustration. We’ve all been in front of the mirror in the morning- what does the hair look like? Can you see the lines? Are the bags under the eyes obvious? Any unwanted spots? There’s usually a bit of work to be done- agreed? But what if at that point we just turn around and walk away and do nothing? How useful was our time in front of the mirror? It was a total waste. This illustration describes the person who having spent time exposed to God’s Word just ignores everything they’ve heard/read and goes about life regardless. It’s an act of massive self-deception if we think that hearing the Word is all that matters. James tells us- “Do what it says!” Then in v25 he describes the right approach- “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it- he will be blessed in what he does.” To look intently at something is not to glance at it but to study it with focus. It is the “perfect law that gives freedom” that is to be our focus. These are not rules and regulations that we’re to keep to earn God’s favour but the law of God written on our hearts that we’re to delight in because we’ve received God’s favour. As one writer puts it- “Obedience is the willing submission of my heart to God that causes me to do what God has commanded without challenge, excuse or delay.” (Ted Tripp)
Three areas for action (v26-27)
And then with breathtaking clarity, James lays before us three areas of life where action is required. Firstly, what we do with our tongues– “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” (v26) We can all speak nicely to one another when we meet, but how do we talk about one another behind closed doors? James will say much more about the tongue in chapter 3. Secondly, caring for those in need– “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (v27a) Throughout the scriptures two vulnerable groups are singled out for special care and love by the community of God’s people- orphans and widows. With no benefit system in place, such people would be in danger of serious neglect. A church’s theology may be solid, but if it neglects the needs of the poor and vulnerable in its community then that church is deceiving itself. More on this in chapter 2. Thirdly, personal holiness– “and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (v27b)Later he writes- “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.” (4:4) When our lives as followers of Christ are mirror images of our irreligious neighbours, then we’re in love with the world far more than we’re in love with Jesus. We’re deceiving ourselves. More in chapters 4 & 5.
Prayer– Dear Lord God, may I not as a Christian merely talk a good game but instead live my faith out in thankful obedience to you and radical love for all people. Amen