As I look at our verses for today, I see a list of powerful statements which affect the daily lives of believers profoundly. It’s easy for us to get our heads in the clouds, sorting out the big theological issues and forget that God intends for them to be translated into our daily lives. The practical issues raised from our study today will change your life in noticeable ways if you let them. Let’s get started with the first couple of verses.
James 1:19-21 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
Notice with me that James began this section of his letter with the expression “beloved brethren,” a term he used three times in this brief letter. He clearly had a pastoral affection for his readers which hopefully had the effect of their opening their hearts to him. He was about to touch on some rather personal issues, so he began by drawing them in. While we are not part of the original audience James had in mind, this letter has a lot to say to us in the 21st Century. I trust we too will open our hearts to the apostle.
Once he had their attention, he began to address the issues of listening, talking and anger. Most of us would rather talk than listen. Talking makes us the centre of attention. It increases the likelihood of our point of view predominating. And it raises our status in the group. But James stood all this on its head. He indicated that the way of Christ involves listening more than talking. Listening provides the opportunity to truly understand the others who are part of the conversation. It reflects the humility of Christ in social situations and it allows communal wisdom and guidance to take precedence over our own limited personal perspective.
I suspect James knew that listening to others can sometimes lead to frustration and anger arising in our hearts, so he mentioned specifically that along with being quick to hear and slow to speak, we should also be slow to become angry. Anger has a way of shutting down conversations which need to continue and voices which need to be heard. Remember that the apostle did not lay down the law here; rather he entreated his readers as beloved family members. He modelled the attitude that he wanted to see in them.
Then, because anger is such a big issue in relationships, he reminded his beloved brothers and sisters that human anger does not produce divine righteousness. My, how we don’t like to hear that! As our tempers flare, we convince ourselves that anyone else who does not see things the way we do is just plain wrong and must be shut down. The problem is that as soon as we let our anger get the better of us, we cease being rational. A person dominated by the emotion of anger no longer thinks clearly and logically. Sadly, angry Christians can run a church off the rails faster than almost anything else.
The righteousness of God is associated with the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control of the Spirit. It is about actively submitting to God and His stated purposes for us, not trying to have things work out best for the vocal minority. None of this is remotely possible when one is in a fit of rage. No wonder James warned about the false idea that human anger gets God’s work done in the world.
All of us have our own ideas about how things are and how they should be. While we like to think these are well thought out visions of reality, often they are not. We have limited perspectives and understanding. Oddly, these are usually not enough to keep us from holding forth authoritatively as if we could see and understand everything. James knew that the problem of anger is rooted in personal opinions, points of view and preferences. So he moved on, emphasizing the importance of the Bible — the word of God. Let’s read the next few verses.
James 1:21-25 Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 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 observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues [in it], and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
James began this section by challenging his readers to lay aside all of the corruption that proceeds from human hearts, especially human hearts out of control, and to meekly receive the word of God which has saving power. It seems that the wise old apostle knew that anything he said could be twisted and used by the enemy, so he went on immediately with a specific crucial instruction about the word of God which he wanted his readers to receive. He said “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
It would be the easiest thing in the world for the young believers to focus on saturating their minds with scripture without letting it affect their lives in a meaningful way. I’ve seen this in some churches, the people who are quickest to argue fine points of theology from the Bible, marshalling all kinds of obscure passages to support their contentions, are the least Christ-like in their attitudes and actions. Maybe you know people like this. I hate to tell you, this: you likely are one. Most of us would rather argue about the truth than set aside our preferences, tendencies and inclinations to do it. I mention this not to insult you or to put you down, but to remind you that we all share this “quality” (if I can call it that) and that being aware of it can help us begin to reduce its negative impact.
James taught that if we hear the word without doing it, we deceive ourselves. Imagine that! Here we are engaged in the noble pursuit of receiving the word of God and, at the same time, deceiving ourselves about its role in our lives. James drove the point home with a simple illustration. He asked his readers to picture a man looking at himself in a mirror. There, he observes that his face is dirty, but instead of washing himself, he turns away and as soon as he does, he forgets about the smudge there that everyone else can see.
Similarly, a man reading the Bible learns a lot about himself. He sees that he has sin in his life. Then, he closes the book and goes off to live his life without a second thought regarding what he just saw. He soon forgets about it entirely, blissfully unaware that everyone else sees what he saw and chose to ignore. This is how Christians get a reputation for being hypocrites. It is easy to know what the Bible says about a lot of things. We encourage others to live according to our knowledge, but fail to do so ourselves.
This passage serves as an example of what the writer was trying to convey. Don’t tell me that as you read these words about our honest personal response to the word of God you didn’t see some sin hidden away in a corner of your life! Now are you going to be a hearer and turn off this program and forget what you just heard, or are you going to be a doer — confessing your sin to God, turning away from it, and doing whatever needs to be done to set things right in your community which your sin has affected.
A lot of people talk about Christianity as being one of the world’s principal religions. It may interest you to know that religion, as it is usually defined, is not as important to God as it is to people. It might also shock you to know that the word religion occurs in the New Testament just 5 times and the word religious only once. We have examples of each in the last two verses we’re going to look at today.
James 1:26 and 27 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion [is] useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, [and] to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
It is quite common these days to hear people say things like “I don’t like organized religion, but I’m a spiritual person.” By this they mean that they don’t go to church, or perform ritual ceremonies, or recite prayers, but they do have a sense of a spiritual dimension, and maybe even of God. Based on these verses, I think James would agree in large measure. Let’s consider what he wrote here.
He started from the position that “being religious” is a positive thing. In most cultures around the world, through the ages, it has been seen this way. Current Western Culture has adopted a rather anti-religious position, by some definitions. By others, it has just become more pagan — adopting secular words, but still serving gods devotedly. Though today’s gods are typically things like pleasure, money, self, nature, and so on. But I digress.
James issued a challenge here, saying that if you think you’re religious, (in other words, if you think you’re a good person) and your tongue is out of control, you are deceived. Your religion is useless. Religion that is all about what you say doesn’t have any value. Anyone can talk. What matters is what you do. I like that James goes after the two things that are often most important to people – how they look (remember the mirror) and what they say (to impress others). This takes us back to his earlier principle of being quick to hear but slow to speak.
After pointing out that religion that is all talk is useless, James went on to mention two characteristics of the real thing. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Notice James doesn’t say that this is all that is required to be a godly person, but you can’t be one without caring for the destitute and being pure. Let’s expand on this a little.
The kind of religious activity that pleases God reflects His own likeness in the community and in our lives. Pay attention to these words.
Psalm 68:4-6 Sing to God, sing praises to His name; Extol Him who rides on the clouds, By His name YAH, And rejoice before Him. A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, Is God in His holy habitation. God sets the solitary in families; He brings out those who are bound into prosperity; But the rebellious dwell in a dry land.
God, Himself is the father of the fatherless and defender of widows. When we actively care for the disadvantaged in our community, we are demonstrating God’s love for them. James basically says, godly people will act like God. If they don’t they aren’t. But let’s not forget that there was a second aspect to pure and undefiled religion. That is “keeping ourselves unspotted from the world.”
Once again, this is being like God. God is holy — that is, He is separate from sin. He also calls us to be holy — as James puts it here, “unspotted from the world.” Not only do we not do the evil things which the world approves of as acceptable, normal, even necessary, we don’t even share it’s perspective, values, or philosophy.
This section of James is intensely practical. Imagine what the church would be like if every Christian took time to listen before speaking, never gave way to anger, rejected all personal inclinations toward selfishness that could possibly harm anyone, and instead diligently pursued an active life faithful to the teachings of Jesus. On top of this, all Christians would actively care for the suffering and marginalized and live a life of holy devotion to God. Wow! We’re going to stop here. I want to excuse myself and try to imagine what the church would be like if I were like that!