James 1:19-27: Listening and Doing

Last time, we talked about how everyone is on an equal footing before God, but not in a good way. Every human being is sinful and does not seek God as he or she ought. We also saw that, to Paul, the Law means little if it is used as a measure of one’s holiness because…well…all the Law does is make it clear that humanity is messed up.

That said, obedience is important. James makes that very clear. And so it is to James that we turn now.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20 ESV)

Before James can begin discussing obedience, he must silence those who think they don’t need to hear this message. He knows that what he is about to say is going to offend his listeners in probably many different ways, so he says, in essence, “Hold up! Before I go any further, I want everyone to keep quiet until I am finished. You need to hear this.”

James admonishes his listeners to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, [and] slow to anger.” He wants them to listen to what he has to say and keep their mouths shut. But he also wants them to be careful not to get angry. Obedience is a touchy subject, especially for those who think they have their lives all together.

And he wants them to do all of this because anger simply does not make one righteous. If we don’t wanna hear what someone has to say to us, and we become angry, we are apt to shut out what they are saying. And their words fall on deaf ears. And they do us no good and produce no positive fruit.

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)

As is typical of James, he pulls no punches. He jumps right in and calls his listeners to simply get rid of the “moral filth” (as the NIV states it) and wickedness that runs rampant in their lives and receive God’s word. This is directly tied to his admonition above to be quiet and listen to what he has to say. But he says this in a most interesting manner. He tells them to “receive the implanted word.” What does this mean?

I think James is admonishing his hearers to acknowledge what God has already given them. They have the word in their hearts, implanted by God as per Jeremiah 31:33, but since James is also speaking to Jews, these are people who have been given the Law in a form they can see and claim as their own. And James, speaking as God’s messenger, is claiming that his words are of the same caliber as the written and implanted Law. To “receive the implanted word,” therefore, is to hear an outside voice speaking what we already know to be true deep within.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)

But James doesn’t just want his audience to merely hear what he says and move on. After all, what he has to say is the word that has the power to save their souls. He wants them to put it into practice in their daily lives. He then uses the now cliche analogy of someone looking at themselves in a mirror and, as soon as they walk away, forgetting what they look like to describe those who only hear God’s word but never put it into practice. It’s pointless. It’s a deception. You think you have seen yourself but you really haven’t because you took no inventory of your appearance. It’s the same with God’s word. If you hear it but don’t let it have its effect on you, what use was hearing it in the first place? It’s pointless.

On the other hand, God blesses those who hear His word and actually do what it says. After all, as we stated above, God’s word has the power to save one’s very soul. We will unpack this idea a little more in later posts.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

While this is pretty clearly an admonition to control one’s words, it also a continuation of how worthless it is to hear God’s word and not do it. I think James is pointing out a tendency that we have as humans to simply repeat what we have heard and pretend that that is enough. We say all kinds of religious things but we have never let them impact our hearts. It is an outward religion that is nothing more than talk. And it is worthless.

But James doesn’t leave it at that. He proceeds to explain what true religion that has changed a heart actually looks like.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)

James is preparing to confront the sin of partiality, and this is a subtle hint as to where he is going. These Jews were putting more emphasis on the outward appearance of being religious than they were on actually being what God had wanted them to be. They were catering their services to the needs and desires of a wealthy few or were seeking to promote the actions of the State. But they were ignoring true needs, both physical and spiritual.

They were ignoring suffering widows and orphans. And they were ignoring their standing before a holy God.

Actually, they were not much different than us. Our churches are quick to endorse candidates for president and worthwhile moral and social issues like pro-life campaigns and immigration reform, but not so quick to see what needs to be done within the four walls of our respective local congregations. James says this should not be the case at all. For James, true religion is something completely different. It’s dirty. It’s not pretty. And it sometimes hits more close to home than we would prefer. Most importantly, it is not merely meeting physical needs. It involves living a life of holiness before God and others and maintaining that no matter who or what we come in contact with.


2 thoughts on “James 1:19-27: Listening and Doing

  1. Jason Alexander says:

    Thanks for the thoughts…My children and I have memorized James and we are starting on Romans 1 and I was really excited to read your thoughts on both. I always thought James was choppy and went from one topic to the next. Thanks for explaining how it all flows together. Example: Slow to speak…I thought he jsut throw that in there. I didn’t realize he was setting up his next comment. Thanks….

    • To be totally honest, I didn’t catch it until I was preparing for this entry. I have always heard sermons and teachings that broke the “slow to speak” idea away from the flow of the letter. It was like the teachers were treating James like the book of Proverbs: a continuous flow of unrelated or loosely-related ideas, each verse or sentence being its own stand alone thought. But the ESV catches the nuance by beginning verse 22 with the word “but,” which implies a direct connection with the previous thought. The NIV misses this by simply making verse 22 a new paragraph with a seemingly whole new idea.

      Not that, in my opinion, it is wrong to pull that idea out on its own. We all need to be better about reigning in our speech. But that may not be the most honest dealing with the Biblical text.

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