JAMES - Be Doers of the Word, and not Hearers Only
Studies in the Letter of James (by Dr. Richard Thomas)
Hearing and Doing (James 1:19-27)
19 So, then, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn’t bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The key words in this passage have to do with hearing and doing; both operations flow from being what Christians should be, the choicest of God’s creatures, destined to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). God is slow to anger, so must His children be (Psalm 103:8). The last phrase of this verse (19) dovetails with Ephesians 4:26, where Paul exhorts those who have put off their old nature not to let the sun set on their wrath. Let anger come slowly and leave swiftly for otherwise it will do far more harm than good. In any event the righteousness of God, divine justice cannot be promoted by violent measures (20). Believers facing provocation or persecution in Sudan, Uganda and North Korea have found this a hard lesson to learn, but in retrospect they recognize the aptness of this principle. God’s righteous anger works inexorably to set things right and punish wrong.
Strip off the vestiges of the old nature, writes James, in words reminding us of Paul. All that is sordid malicious must be weeded out. The Christian must attend to this, just as a conscientious gardener tends his lawn. The word first implanted to bring forth life is always available and needed for renewal and restoration. In the later part of the verse (21) James refers to the outcome of this process begun in rebirth as ‘save your souls’. We shall be looking into this concept of saving at a later stage, since the operative verb recurs in 2:14; 4:12; 5:20.
Hearing is better than speaking (19); doing is better still (22). In the Parable of the two Houses, Jesus lays down the condition of spiritual stability, hearing His words and doing them for rock-like firmness. James offers us a miniature parable (23) on the same theme but with a different metaphor. No one looking at a mirror carries away an image of himself quite so distinct as the faces of those he sees often. After a casual glance at the looking glass someone may mutter, “My, I look ghastly today”, or “Aren’t I handsome chap”, and then turn away without noticing much else. A little boy sees no reason why he should wash his grimy face reflected in the mirror; he walks away forgetting instantly what he looks like.
Here the mirror stands for God’s word (25). We are all familiar with distorting mirrors where folk are reduced to the thinness of rakes or blown out like balloons. No one has been able to invent a mirror to make the ugly beautiful. The word of God gives us an accurate portrait of ourselves. Not even a face lift results in permanent improvement of one’s appearance. God’s word can show me myself, and in showing me my Saviour brings me both blessing and transforming grace, so long as I look, hear and act in accordance to what I discover therein.
A variety of expressions can be used to describe the word of God. Those who hold the Bible in deep reverence revel in the numerous texts that adorn Psalm 19 and 119, that provide us with synonyms and similes for the Word – law, precepts, commandments, gold, honey, lamp. God’s word is commended and compared to desirable objects. To quote one example: “The law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul” (Psalm 19:7). James calls this the perfect law, the law of liberty. Law is regarded as restrictive, and the cry goes out for less legislation and more liberty. Yet someone has wisely declared: “There is no freedom without the law”. Most difficulties begin when man is able to do as he pleases. Freedom is simply an opportunity for choice, it gives no guidance as to what that choice should be. The law of liberty does give that guidance, and the Spirit of liberty gives the power to make us doers of what is right (2 Corinthians 3:17).
The concluding verses of the first chapter are both hard-hitting and memorable. There is religion that is futile. To hear and not to do is self-deception (22); to preach and not to practise is self-deception. To brag and not to serve is equally contemptible. Religion may refer to the external aspects of worship and conduct. Most Christians hold baptism and communion to be vital elements in spiritual growth; yet these are outward and visible signs. On the ethical plane the Lord requires the sort of conduct that would commend itself to all right-thinking men, and that even wrong-thinking men would secretly admire, to do justly and act mercifully (Micah 6:8). Nothing could be more visible than an act of mercy. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done.
To go back to ‘religious’ self-deception. Someone has pointed out that there are four ways whereby men dupe themselves as to their satisfactory status in God’s sight: By their fluency in repeating theological jargon, by religious fanaticism, by the pleasure they take in sermon-tasting, by their scrupulousness in ritual observance. To all such folk the venerable Preacher says, “Be not righteous over much” (Ecclesiastes 7:16).
What then is true religion, sincere and unaffected? First of all it is ‘before God’ (27); it is aware of the presence of God and acts in that light. For James it means first of all caring for those least able to fend for themselves, widows, orphans. These represent a far wider range of underprivileged and handicapped persons. James had doubtless observed his brother Jesus helping all and sundry each according to his need, the blind, the lame, lepers, the deaf, the poor (Matthew 11:5), and now he commends the weak and helpless to our care. God is spoken of as the Father of the fatherless and Judge of the widows (Psalm 68:5). A special curse is pronounced on these who afflict any widow or orphan (Exodus 22:22). May we not infer that God has a suitable blessing for those who assist any whom the world passes by.
In addition, the truly religious man keeps himself unspotted from the world. We read a great deal about pollution nowadays, and about the efforts that are being made to keep the world (or the earth) from being polluted by man’s sewage and garbage or plundered by his greed. Conscientious observers care about clean air and are alarmed at the destruction of nature’s balance. Most men and women, not to mention children, could hardly care less. For the believer facing moral and spiritual perils that are both environmental and hereditary the safest course is to avoid the corruption of worldly entanglements. Bengel counsels us to abstain from contact with those who are of no benefit to us nor we to them. Paul has a list of types of individuals whose company is hardly ever profitable and can at times be disastrous. Earlier still we are informed that “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the King’s delicacies” (Daniel 1:8). Such resoluteness stood him in good stead; God raised him to high office, but he had been prepared to sacrifice his prospects in loyalty to Jehovah.
Time spent with needy and deprived people is time redeemed, as are the moments when we pray. This leaves us less time to waste on worldly pursuits, and makes the task of keeping oneself unspotted from the world much lighter. Is this all there is to pure religion? James does not say so; he does claim that genuine piety involves us in a practical concern for others and in holy living. Elsewhere in the Bible we are reminded of other essentials for spiritual progress and lasting satisfaction, and James has further truths to share with us as he proceeds with his letter.