Doing the Word
Doing the Word (James 1:19-27)
"Now hear this!" These words ring familiar to many veterans of military service. Just such a command opens James 1:19-27: "Know this, my beloved brethren" (1:19). James softened what he wrote with a reminder of his relationship to the readers. They were "beloved brethren." Born of the same Father, they shared a fraternal love. Nevertheless, James used an imperative, a command. He had reminded his readers of the life-giving character of the "word of truth" (1:18). Evidently, he feared that some of his readers could not hear that Word. Nothing physical deafened them. James sensed that they could not hear because they had too much to say themselves, and some of them were angry about it!
Hearing the Word (1:19-21)
Today's Christian has access to countless words from God. Radio, television, tapes, conferences, seminars, films, and books— not to mention church services—all present God's Word. How should one listen? James counseled the believer to listen quickly: "Be quick to hear" (1:19). This demand did not refer to general daily conversation. In the context, it referred directly to hearing God's Word. "Quick" translates a word from which the English word tachometer comes. This instrument measures how fast any piece of machinery operates. The believer should respond to opportunities for hearing the Word swiftly, not reluctantly.
Closely related to the demand to be "quick to hear" is the exhortation that the believer listen to the Word of God quietly: "Be... slow to speak." Richard Foster observed: "If we hope to move beyond the superficialities of our culture... we must be willing to go down into the recreating silences." Perhaps James's readers experienced noisy church services such as those in Corinth. In such services, everyone wanted to talk, and no one wanted to listen (1 Cor. 14:26-33). Long before James, another wise writer warned: "Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Prov. 29:20). G. B. Duncan observed: "God still comes, where he can find someone quiet enough to listen and alone enough to heed."
James urged his readers to listen to God's Word calmly: "Be... slow to anger" (Jas. 1:19). The phrase suggests the danger of smoldering resentment or wrath. When such anger burns in a person's heart, the Word of God cannot share the same quarters. When believers harbor inner rage, God's Word cannot be heard.
People's anger never accomplishes God's righteous purpose: "The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God" (1:20). Not only does rage keep one from hearing God's Word, but it also fails to produce God's purposes in the world. Smoldering, resentful wrath is wrong. James may have had in mind outbursts among Christians or resentment against persecutors. Bitter anger falls short of God's standard in one's life and fails to work out God's righteous program in the world. Such anger may work powerfully in the secular political world, but it is utterly alien to God's kingdom. Perhaps James remembered Jesus' awesome, stern words concerning anger. (See Matt. 5:21-22.) In Jesus' new order, destructive anger deserves the same punishment as murder in the old order.
God wanted Moses to lead the Exodus. Yet, Moses first tried the right thing the wrong way. From anger, he murdered an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew (Ex. 2:12). He tried to perform God's will through human anger. Moses learned the painful lesson that God will do His work in His way.
Can you remember any occasion when anger furthered God's cause between two believers? Has an outburst in a church business meeting ever forwarded Christ's cause? Such a case would be rare if not nonexistent. According to Will Rogers, "People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing."
Dealing with anger alone is not enough. James called for decisive disposal of every attitude that hinders the inward work of the Word: "Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness" (1:21). A person who is careful about his/her appearance quickly removes a soiled garment. James's word refers to a resolute removal of a stained garment. Some attitudes soil the covering of Christian character. James suggested: Change clothes immediately. The Christian should remove everything of any kind that suggests moral uncleanness and greed. James's word denoted various kinds of filth, and it even was used for disgusting earwax. Such filth plugs up the spiritual ear so that God's Word cannot enter. Likewise, the believer must strip off "rank... wickedness" or ill will, the desire to injure another. The thought implies the dangerous capacity of malicious wickedness to overflow the banks of control.
A Christian must not adopt a policy of gradual elimination for the moral monsters that James pointed out. One must strike a death blow immediately. God's Word mandates that the believer drive a silver nail through the dark heart of all filthy wickedness. The human body does just this physically. With the help of a microscope, Lennart Nilsson captured on film the process by which the body seeks and destroys all impurities. White blood cells ooze around the impurities and engulf them. At this point, the process looks like a misshapen, undefined blob. Then, an eerie glow appears as the cells first absorb and then literally explode the impurity. The body deals decisively with invading impurity. James, called on the spiritual life to deal just as drastically with all moral impurities.
Implanting the Word (1:21)
When believers decisively eradicate sin, they are preparing for a spiritual implant: "Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (1:21). In contrast to anger which blocks God's Word, one must welcome His Word with an attitude of meekness. Often, meekness is misunderstood. It indicates an attitude of gentle considerateness; it is a receptivity that is the opposite of angry self-assertion. One hot September evening, a new student rang the doorbell to the president's office at Union Theological Seminary. "A man in shirt sleeves answered the door and led the student to the dormitory office. 'Are you the janitor?' asked the student. 'No, but I try to be helpful to the janitor.'" The speaker, who did not identify himself, was the president of the seminary. Such gentle consideration speaks of fertile soil for the Word of God.
Today, we hope to prolong life with organ implants. James cautioned his readers to allow God to save spiritual life with a spiritual implant: His Word. In verse 21, James used an expression that appears nowhere else in the New Testament. He wrote of God's Word as "implanted" within the believer. The background of this idea may have been Jesus' parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9). Preaching sows the life-giving seed in human hearts. James warned that believers must take care to give the seed a fertile reception.
Readers may be familiar with the process by which implants that are grafted into native root stock produce beautiful hybrid roses. Tyler, Texas, enjoys fame as the rose capital of the world. The native Tyler rosebush has the finest root system; but it has only a poor, stunted bloom. When workers implant buds from beautiful hybrids into the native root stock, an extraordinary and beautiful rosebush grows. God designed human nature with the capacity to welcome His implanted Word. Such an implant ultimately leads to the rescue of the whole person at the last day.
Practicing the Word (1:22-25)
The implant alone is not enough. The Word that is planted within a person calls for the Word to be practiced without: "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (1:22). The authentic believer continually strives for more and more practical obedience to the Word that already has been implanted. The "word" indicates particularly Jesus' ethical teachings. Jesus ended His great Sermon on the Mount with this emphasis. Hearing and doing build life on an unshakable rock. Hearing without doing undermines life and results in disaster at the end (Matt. 7:21-27). In biblical culture, the word "hearers" identified those who attended a lecture without becoming disciples. James favored the "doers." Doer was a word that he used four of its six times in the New Testament. People who hold that hearing alone is enough deceive themselves at the point of their own salvation. Such deception betrays ultimate spiritual danger. An anonymous believer noted: "Christ's sheep are marked in the ear and the foot; they hear his voice and they follow him." Doers of the Word are the only hearers who respond in the right manner. James continued with an unforgettable illustration of the difference between hearing and doing.
First, James gave the negative example (1:23-24); then, he gave the positive example (1:25). A rushed person's casual glance into a poor mirror illustrates those who hear God's Word without being obedient. The context suggests a man who only glances at his face.
The mirror of biblical times usually consisted of bronze, copper, tin, and sometimes silver polished to reflect light. Such a mirror certainly gave an inferior reflection. The man peeked at his temporal, mortal face. True to life, he glanced at his face and forgot what he saw, Suddenly and permanently, he turned away from the mirror. The process left no lasting effect. When the mirror was left behind, the impression was gone. How many church members deal with God's Word in that fashion? How many can remember the text of last Sunday's sermon?
To read God's Word and see someone else's picture in it is easy. To gaze into that Word and see oneself is another matter.
Positively, the believer who hears and practices God's Word is like a man who carefully looks into a perfect mirror (1:25). James dropped the figure of a mirror and pictured the believer bending over the perfect law (God's ripe fulfillment of the Law in Jesus and His teachings). Unlike a poor metal mirror, Jesus' Word in the Gospels is perfect. Jesus claimed that His reinterpretation of Moses' law fulfilled that law (Matt. 5:17). Jesus made the Law perfect in two senses: (1) He perfectly embodied and kept the Law. In His teachings, the Law rose to its perfect intention. (2) What is more, Jesus' perfect law gives liberty. To most people, the word "law" indicates confinement and restriction. Yet Jesus' law liberates those who obey it. They experience a new freedom that previously they had not known. What is more, the blessing in keeping Jesus' law does not come after obedience; it comes in the midst of obeying the law. Obedient keepers of Jesus' law of liberty receive their own personal beatitude.
The laws that God has woven into His universe give liberty. Music does not result from random banging on a piano keyboard. Musicians must confine themselves to the discipline of the lines, spaces, key signatures, and so forth, that make music what it is. Artists must confine themselves to a canvas, golfers to an inside or outside swing, and motorists to the rules of the road. In each instance, not to find the laws involved will lead to chaos and failure. The Ten Commandments set Israel free from the chaos of anarchy. In a much greater way, Christ's new law set one absolutely free, not only in outward act but in inward attitude. Lawless living is slavery. Perfect law produces perfect liberty. If you think not, consider the chaos and paralysis that would tyrannize each home and family if God gave no law for the husband, the wife, and the children. Are households that are ignorant of God's law really free? Are they not slaves to the chaos of unregulated life? Are they not like ships that navigate treacherous waters without a compass? God's law sets people free.
Human language fails when it attempts to describe the Word of God. James called that Word a seed which God implants (1:21). Just as a seed does, the Word contains the power to germinate, root itself, and grow. From another perspective, God's Word is a mirror. Unlike any natural mirror, it shows people what they are in sin; and it also shows what they can be in righteousness. Finally, God's Word is a perfect law. Every human statute falls short of perfection and cannot make anyone perfect. God's law is perfect and ultimately will make perfect those who keep it in Christ.
Do you spend as much time preparing the soil of your heart for the Word as you do preparing the soil of your lawn or garden? Do you spend as much time gazing into the mirror of the Word as you do the mirror on the wall? Do you dare not forget the city's laws but forget the Lord's law?
Real Religion (1:26-27)
James never was content with the general; he was particular about doing the Word. Real religion includes taming the tongue, helping the helpless, and maintaining personal purity from the world.
If persons claim real religion, they must tame the tongue. James mentioned an aspect of speech in every chapter of his letter. James 3:1-12 well may be the greatest passage on the tongue in the Bible. James suggested that the tongue is a wild beast that must be tamed (3:7-8). In 1:26, he focused on one who seemed to be religious but did not control his speech. Such a person fancied that he was genuinely pious. That person's emphasis rested on the externals of religious performance. He was addicted to forms of religion. For the Jewish Christians to whom James wrote, religious externals included prayer, fasting, worship, and almsgiving. Remember that Jesus sternly warned against the danger of religious form without content (Matt. 6:1-18). Yet for all of his religious activity, the man who only followed religious forms failed to "bridle" his tongue. This is the first biblical use of the word "bridle" to refer to the tongue. Such a vivid word aptly describes the untamed potency of the unwatched tongue.
External religious activity minus disciplined speech uncovers a person's self-deception. Here, the danger is not hypocrisy; it is self-deception. Such a person feels religiously authentic, but in reality he possesses only counterfeit Christianity. Deception seizes his heart—the center of personal life. What is more, all of his external religious activity is uselessly empty. Like a nutshell without a kernel inside, his religious activity reveals a disappointing inner emptiness. James's word for "vain" pointed particularly to the worship of idols in the Old Testament. He believed that such undisciplined religion without controlled conversation might be as unprofitable as bowing before an idol.
A woman came during the invitation. She was earnest in her search for God. After the pastor asked her several questions, he found her to be distressed by her Christian employer's harshness. He suggested that she find other employment. When the girl lifted her head, the pastor discovered that she was his housekeeper. Conviction gripped him because he had nullified his witness with his unbridled tongue.
Who cannot identify with that story? How many chant, "O, for a thousand tongues to sing" on Sunday; yet they use their tongues to contradict their witness on Monday? Why not take an inventory of those situations where undisciplined speech may overcome a person? Husband-wife discussions about money, schedules, or child rearing often set the scene for heated words. Office gossip sessions about an absent co-worker can contradict Christian profession. Relaxed recreational settings sometimes loosen the tongues of otherwise disciplined disciples.
Real religion is a contrast to empty ceremony (1:27). Help for the helpless and personal purity mark real faith. James did not mean that religion exhausts God's will. However, he did view real religion as exemplary of genuine Christianity. Authentic Christianity is described positively as "pure" and negatively as "undefiled," without filth. Together, these two terms signify absolute purity. Unfortunately, as the Old Testament period had progressed, such words had drifted toward mere correctness of religious ceremony. James took up the prophetic demand that God does not desire pure ceremony as much as He desires pure people.
Additionally, real religion is pure "before God." For religious performance to impress people is one thing. Some people can give academy award performances of religious activities. But for God to view their acts as pure is another thing. What kind of activity pleases the discerning eye of the Almighty? One pleases God when that person cares for people who are helpless. In the Old Testament, "orphans and widows" represented all those who were without defense, protection, or provision. Remember that no social-security or child-welfare organizations existed. The loss of a - husband or parents often meant total disaster. Widows sometimes became prostitutes, and orphans were sold into slavery. James wrote that as a habit of life, sincere Christians should look in on ("visit") such need. The text calls for more than a single instance and more than secondhand charity. James meant more than merely to call on those who were in need; the term translated visit meant to assume responsibility for and to support.
In a closely related demand, James called for personal purity. Genuine believers guard against contact with pervading moral pollution in the culture around them. In James's sense, "the world" indicates the spirit of the age—in every age—which reflects a godless agenda for personal and community life. While witnessing Christians are to love the lost world of humanity, they should shun the spirit of the age. Believers are to correct the spirit of the age, not catch it.
Real religion must incarnate itself into life, not just generally but particularly, in actual cases. W. A. Criswell related the following disturbing poem:
"A certain pastor of great austerity
Climbed up in his high church steeple
To be nearer God that he might hand
God's word down to the people.
He cried from his steeple,
"Where art Thou, Lord?"
And the Lord replied,
"I'm down here with my people."
God's concern for starving children, lonely widows in a rest home, and the empty-eyed transients on the street is as real as His concern for busy church programs.
Lessons for Life from James 1:19-27
Listen to God's Word quietly and calmly.—One should have a definite preparation when approaching the Word of God. A great golfer such as Jack Nicklaus has consistent approaches for the various shots that he must make. How much more discipline should the believer bring to preparation for hearing God's Word? In private devotional life, one should find a place of quietness and stillness. Sit with your eyes closed in meditation until the hurry and anger of the day fades. Sometimes, deep and controlled breathing for several minutes helps the believer to concentrate on the Word.
Deal with anger before it deals with you.—The mental, spiritual, and physical impact of anger destroys life. One needs to make a decisive, life-changing decision concerning anger. With great deliberation, decide once-and-for-all that anger does not pay. This one great decision will help with a thousand little decisions to rid yourself of rage.
Dare to make a list of religious professions versus religious practices.—On one side of the page, write what you profess to believe. Opposite that, write the concrete impact in life. Do you believe that God is merciful? When did you last show mercy? Do you believe that God loves you and others unconditionally and forgives freely? When did you last forgive someone without attaching any strings?
Inventory your personal religious activities.—Which activities are merely external with no inner spiritual significance? Which activities actually show God's concern for the helpless people? What should be added and subtracted from your weekly round of "religious" activities to align yourself with God's priorities?
Personal Learning Activities
1. In 1:19, James advised his readers to be quick to ______, slow to ________, and slow to ________.
2. James indicated that to hear the Word was sufficient for Christian living.
□ True □ False
3. James defined the perfect law as (choose the correct answer from the list):
□ (1) Restrictive.
□ (2) Harsh.
□ (3) Difficult.
□ (4) The law of liberty.
4. James stated that one who really is religious must ________________ (Select the proper response from the list.)
□ (1) Go to church
□ (2) Tithe
□ (3) Keep the law
□ (4) Bridle the tongue
5. According to James, what constitutes pure and undefiled religion?
1. Hear, speak, anger: 2. False; 3. (4); 4. (4); 5. To visit orphans and widows, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.