Mark Twain once said: “Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand.
The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.” Today’s passage is one such passage. It is very easy to understand, but we are perhaps not so keen to believe that the words apply to us!
James 1: 19-27.
Listening and Doing
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Given such a challenging and direct passage, perhaps we should pray before we mull it over…
Lord Jesus, thank you for your Word. Thank you that you give us wisdom to build us up as well as to help us to see ourselves honestly, so that we can in turn let you transform us into your likeness. As we consider today’s passage, please highlight for each one of us, those things that you want us to let go of or do differently or even take more seriously. Amen.
Let’s have a look at the three paragraphs in turn:
Verses 19-21: We all usually know someone who gets angry quickly, the smallest thing seems to set them off. The easiest thing to do is usually to avoid that person or at least to try to find neutral or safe subjects. But as I thought about this passage, I realised that anger isn’t always displayed in such an overt way – perhaps not in ‘English christian circles!’ Perhaps we are inclined to simmer quietly or even let off steam to others about whoever has upset us. Invariably our pride is behind our own anger and we stop listening or being open to others. That’s why James goes on to say, that we need to get rid of “all moral filth and evil,” which includes pride, gossiping, anger and hatred. Instead we need to humble ourselves before God and accept the truth of His Word.
Verse 22-25: How often have we listened to a sermon on Sunday and nodded in agreement with all the points made and perhaps even felt challenged to change our behaviour, but then by the time Monday comes, we have forgotten our resolutions, as we let our daily life taken over again. Then by the time the next Sunday comes, we don’t even remember what we had heard, let alone what we were going to do about it?
It is so easy to come up with excuses and reasons. But unfortunately, James has beaten us to it. In verse 22 – he tells us that our excuses are merely self-deceit. The commentator Matthew Henry puts it like this: “If we heard a sermon every day of the week, and an angel from heaven were the preacher, yet, if we rested in hearing only, it would never bring us to heaven. Mere hearers are self-deceivers; and self-deceit will be found the worst deceit at last.”
Instead, we need to take seriously the messages we are presented with. James tells us to “look intently into the perfect law”. This means that we need to stop and think about what we have heard or read. Talk about it to God and to others. By wrestling with God’s Word, it takes on a deeper meaning and goes into our hearts and minds to transform us. Then we become doers rather than just hearers of God’s Word.
Verse 26-27: Perhaps today, we don’t like to think of ourselves as ‘religious’. In this context it means ‘scrupulously observant of the rituals of one’s faith’. We like our rituals or traditions and in themselves there is nothing wrong with either. However, God is far more interested in the state of our hearts than the outward rituals that we go through. Time and again in the Old Testament, God spoke to his people through his prophets about how he hated their sacrifices and rituals, instead God wants us to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. (Micah 6:8) This involves caring for those around us and keeping our hearts and minds clean from the pollution of the world.
I didn’t say that today’s reading would be easy. But in summary James is encouraging us to seriously study God’s word and let it shine a light into every area of our lives, and then act on those findings, so that we will be found righteous before God.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, parts of your Word cause us to squirm, but we know that you want to transform us into your likeness. Help us to yield to your promptings and not be satisfied with just hearing your Word, but also determined to put it into practice. Amen
Tomorrow’s reading: James 2:1-4