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Faith at work: Are you listening to God?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: James 1:19-27

I grew up defining Christians as people who go to church. A Rotarian is someone who goes to Rotary Club meetings; a Buddhist is a person who worships at a Buddhist temple; a Christian is someone who attends services at a Christian church. Ours is not the first generation to make that mistake.

Six centuries before Christ, the Orphic cult taught that our souls existed in a preincarnate, spiritual state, only to be placed in physical bodies for punitive purposes. The “spiritual” is good, the “secular” bad. The point of philosophy–and life–was to return the soul to its first state. This wedge between body and soul has persisted in Western and Christian thinking for most of our history.

We define the spiritual as that which is done inside the church, and the secular as that which is outside it. And we measure spirituality by time spent in church activities. A “good Christian” is someone who goes to worship and Bible study regularly and participates in the life of the church.

James begs to differ. He knows that listening to sermons and Sunday school lessons and attending church activities is no guarantee of spiritual health. I can spend all day in a health spa, but if my lifestyle does not reflect the values of my surroundings, I’m deceiving myself. Sitting in a garage doesn’t make me a car.

What commitments do lead to spiritual health, joy, and purpose? What kind of “religion” does God value and bless? When he examines your spiritual life, is he pleased?

Verse 19: “Know you, my beloved brothers. But let every man be swift for to hear, slow for to speak, slow to wrath.”

Know you is a transitional phrase which ties this section to the previous narrative: we are the “firstfruits” of his new creation, and now must act out our identity. It is best understood as an imperative, something we must know and believe (Gideon 16); “take note of this” (NIV).

Every man is another example of James’ use of anthropos (man) for mankind or humanity; no exceptions are permitted. Be is part of the present infinitive construction, a command for now and for all time.

Swift to hear (infinitive with a preposition) can be translated, “swift for the purpose of hearing”; or it can mean, “swift with reference to hearing” (Rienecker 379). The meaning is essentially the same: always choose to listen before you speak, being ready to hear from all people at all times. James probably refers to the word of God–be eager to learn from the spoken Scriptures (v. 21; Adamson 78). The order is clear: we are to “hear” (v. 19), “receive (v. 21), and “do” (vs. 22-25). This is an attitude of the heart–every time we hear or read the word, we are to be quick to seek its life-transforming message for our lives.

Slow to speak means that we are to put listening before speaking. Proverbs warns us repeatedly that many words lead to sin: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (10:19); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (13:3); “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (17:28); “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (29:20; Barclay 55). The Stoic philosopher Zeno observed, “We have two ears but only one mouth, that we may hear more and speak less” (quoted in Barclay 55). One of the rabbis said, “Speech for a shekel, silence for two; it is like a precious stone” (Qoheleth Rabba v. 5, quoted in Oesterley 431).

With relation to the word of God, we are to learn from the Bible before we seek to teach its truths to others. James does not mean that we are never to speak, but that our speaking should follow our learning.

Wrath is the word for the flashes of frustration we all experience, not the Greek term for murderous rage. We are to be “slow to wrath,” demonstrating that such anger is inevitable in life. But to be “slow” is to control such anger: “in your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, quoting Psalm 4:4). The rabbis warned that to lose one’s temper was to lose the Shekinah glory of God (Adamson 78). If we will listen and learn from the word of God, our attitudes towards others will be affected and our anger released. Likewise, if we will be “slow to speak” when we are angry, we will sin less and release our anger more quickly (cf. Robertson 21; Moo 84).

Verse 20: “For wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.”

Does not is another present tense, admitting no exceptions–there is never a time when our anger expresses the righteous will and work of God. Work is present tense, “practice” or “bring to pass.”

Righteousness of God speaks not of his character but his expectations for us (Rienecker 379)–wrath keeps us from living out the will of God for our lives. In addition, James may mean that our anger does not bring about the justice or judgment of God, that we should leave vengeance to him: “Do not leave room for revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19; Adamson 79).

Verse 21: “Wherefore putting away all filthiness and prevalence of evil in meekness receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls.”

Putting away is another present tense, a requirement for this moment. The word is a metaphor for stripping off dirty clothes (Romans 13:12; Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 4:22, 25; 1 Peter 2:1; Rienecker 379; Robertson 22), and carries the sense of getting rid of that which hinders and entangles us spiritually (Hebrews 12:1). All allows no exceptions.

Filthiness relates to dirty clothes, as in Zechariah 3:4, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Here it is a metaphor for dirty souls, physical and moral defilement. Its root originally had the meaning of ear wax as well, and may retain it here–“unplug your ears to the word of God” may be the sense (cf. Barclay 57). Prevalence means overabundance or excess, “superfluity” in the KJV. Evil points to wickedness, moral depravity; not mistakes but immoral choices which reflect immoral character. The word speaks to general evil but also to intentional malice (cf. Stulac 68-9).

Meekness is strength under control (cf. Matthew 5:5), subservient to God and willing to receive all that he intends to give. Receive is an aorist imperative, a decisive action God expects of us today. The word means “to welcome,” in the sense of the Bereans’ reception of the word of God (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Gideon 17). Note that we must put away sin to receive the word of God. As Moody wrote in the flyleaf of a Bible he gave a friend, “Either this book will separate you from your sins, or your sins will separate you from this book.”

Implanted relates to an experience which happens not at birth but later in life (Rienecker 379, vs. Motyer 67), something added to us or planted in the preexistent soil of our souls. This is a “seed” which must be nurtured by obedience, and which is hindered by the weeds and poison of sin.

The word we are to receive is the Scripture, as James will make clear repeatedly (cf. 2:8-11, 21-23, 25; 5:10, 11, 17-18; Motyer 63). Able to save your souls points to the gospel which the word conveys to us. The message of God’s grace is the means by which he brings us to repentance and salvation: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

Verse 22: “And become doers of word, and not hearers only misleading yourselves.”

Become implies that they are not this now. The present tense calls for habitual commitment and action. Doers of word would be understood by the Hebrews to mean “one who practices or keeps the word of God” (Rienecker 379).

Not hearers only indicates that this is their current status. The people would hear the word of God read each week in Sabbath worship. Such hearing is encouraged by James (v. 19). But they were to act on it, not merely listen to its recitation. Studies indicate that we retain only 5-10% of what we hear, 40% of what we hear and see, and 90% of what we hear, see, and do.

Misleading yourselves means to deceive through fallacious reasoning, to misjudge or miscalculate (Rienecker 380). James means that those who hear the word but do not act on it think they have done all it requires, but they are self-deceived and wrong.

Verse 23: “Because if anyone is a hearer of word and not a doer, this one is like a man perceiving the face of his birth in a mirror.”

If anyone can be translated, “since some are.” Perceiving means to examine carefully, becoming thoroughly familiar with the object viewed (Burdick 175).

Face of his birth means his natural appearance without modification or adjustment–the way we look first thing in the morning. Here James means our untransformed nature, the “natural man” without the work of grace. A mirror was generally made of highly polished metal, not glass.

Verse 24: “For he perceived himself and has gone away, and immediately forgot what sort he was.”

Perceived himself shows that the word of God reveals our true nature to us. When we read and hear it, we find revealed the God we are to imitate, the standards we are to emulate. In this sense “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Has gone away in the perfect tense demonstrates that he did this instantly, the moment he learned the truth about himself; “he went away quickly” would capture the sense, or “he is off!” (Adamson 83-4).

Immediately shows the effect of sin in preventing the transforming work of God’s word in our lives. Sin keeps us from understanding the meaning of Scripture for our lives. Then, as Jesus warned us: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart” (Matthew 13:19).

Verse 25: “But the one having looked into the perfect law of freedom and remaining, not becoming a forgetful hearer but a doer of work, this one will be blessed in his doing.”

Having looked could be rendered, “having stooped down and examined something to understand it” (cf. Rienecker 380; John 20:5, 11; 1 Peter 1:12). This is an intentional action, not the habitual or occasional glancing at the mirror but a deliberate act of self-examination (such as a doctor might do during a physical examination).

Perfect means to be complete, doing everything it is intended by its Author to accomplish. The word of God is all we need to follow God’s will every day. Law of freedom is a wonderful contrast: we are free to the degree that we live out the law of God. His word is intended to set us free from our sinful, fallen nature and world. It will guide us into the abundant life of Jesus (John 10:10), as the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). The world thinks that living by God’s word is shackling and restricting, when in fact it frees us from the shackles and restrictions of sin and failure.

Remaining means to stay in the word, to meditate on its truth until it permeates and changes our lives. We are to meditate in the law of the Lord, day and night (Psalm 1:2). Our Bible study is not complete until our lives are different in some practical way. Doer of work is literally, “a doer who does,” a person whose life is characterized by doing and obeying the word of God (cf. Robertson 24).

The logic of James’ argument in vs. 23-25 can be pictured (adapted from Martin 50-1):

  • The listener (vs. 23-24)
  • Sees himself
  • In a mirror
  • Immediately forgets
  • (Forfeits what he has learned)
  • The do’er (v. 25)
  • Looks intently
  • Into the perfect law that gives freedom
  • Continues to do this
  • Will be blessed in what he does

Verse 26: “If anyone thinks to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his heart, of this one vain the religion.”

Now James introduces the three main concerns of his letter, three ways to demonstrate that our faith is genuine: control your tongue (1:26; 3:1-12); care for the needy (1:27a; 2:1-16); and maintain personal purity (1:27b; 3:13-5:6; Motyer 11-13).

If anyone could be rendered, “Those who.” To be religious means to be scrupulous in religious exercise, devout in every way. Bridling his tongue means to hinder and direct his mouth and life, as a bridle hinders and directs a horse’s mouth and work. James will later refer to slander (4:11), a sin which the rabbis called the “third tongue” in that it injured the speaker, the one hearing, and the one spoken of (Adamson 78). We are to put the bridle in our own mouths, for no one else can.

Vain is empty, nonproductive, useless, dead (Rienecker 380), without any merit or purpose whatsoever. Religion relates to worship and service, every dimension of life before God, practical as well as devotional (cf. Romans 12:1-2, where “worship” requires the commitment of our “bodies” and lives). James points out that we can show up in church services, but attendance is no guarantee of true spirituality (cf. v. 27).

Verse 27: “Religion clean and undefiled before the God and Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

Clean means pure, the positive description. Undefiled means to be free from all contamination, the negative description (Gideon 18). Before the God and Father is the only definition and assessment of religion which is valid. Regardless of what we think of ourselves, or others think of us, only his verdict stands.

Visit means to look upon and provide help for the needy, to inspect and see the need and then meet it. The syntax points to a repeated and habitual practice of such ministry. Orphans and widows were the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. Having no father or husband to provide for them, they were easily victimized and forced into sinful practices to survive. God is therefore “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5), and requires us to care for them as he does.

Affliction means stress or pressure, translating the Greek word for the weight which was used to grind grain into flour. Keep himself means to observe, to stay on guard. It requires continual, present-tense commitment and diligence. How we were yesterday is no guarantee (or condemnation) for today.

World does not refer to the physical world which God created, but to the world’s system and values. James is no Gnostic, devaluing the physical universe. Rather, he is warning us not to live as the fallen, sinful world lives, remembering that “friendship with the world is hatred toward God” (4:4).

Spiritual applications

James urges five commitments on his readers, if we would achieve spiritual health and significance. How do we attain them today?

How do we “do” the word of God?

Seek to hear from God every time you open his word–be “quick to listen” (v. 19); “welcome” the word into your life (v. 21). The Bible is “God preaching” (J. I. Packer), “love letters from home” (Augustine). Read and hear to learn from the Lord of the universe, in obedience to his word (Deuteronomy 17:19; Acts 17:11; Romans 15:4; Matthew 22:29).

Find an area for improvement which the Scriptures expose (v. 23). When you examine your life as it is reflected in God’s perfect word, you will always discover a way to be more like Christ. Pay special attention to the areas described in today’s study.

“Continue” in the word until you know how your life is to change. Make a practical plan for transformation, using a journal (and perhaps an accountability partner).

How do we control our anger?

See anger as a serious spiritual problem which gives the devil a foothold in your life (Ephesians 4:27). It harms your witness and keeps you from experiencing the fruit of the Spirit in your life (Galatians 5:22-23). God repeatedly warns us: “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret–it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:8); “A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated” (Proverbs 14:17); “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

Know that you can control your anger–God would not ask us to be “slow to anger” unless this choice was possible.

Refuse to speak while you are angry: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6); “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips” (Ecclesiastes 10:12). It is impossible to un-ring a bell.

Seek reconciliation as soon as possible: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26); “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Give the problem (and/or the person) to God, releasing the issue to his grace and justice. If you have been wronged, choose to pardon, refusing to punish. Instead, offer the grace God has given to you: “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).

If you have a consistent problem with anger, seek the help of God and his people (Philippians 4:13).

How do we control our tongues?

Value godly speech as God does: otherwise, our religion is “vain” or “worthless” (v. 26). If you sin with your tongue, you cannot be right with God in your worship or spiritual service. Why? Because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Our words reveal our true character.

Choose godly speech for your sake: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3); “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23).

Know that ungodly words will be judged by the Lord: “Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence” (Psalm 101:5); “men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). Before you speak, remember that God hears you, records your words, and will bring them into judgment one day.

Choose to “bridle” or control your words (v. 26): “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psalm 34:13). This is a choice God will help us make.

Confess sinful words immediately: “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). Make restitution with those you have harmed, unless doing so would harm them even further (Matthew 5:23-24).

How do we help those who are hurting?

Look for the “orphans and widows in their distress” in your life (v. 27). Peter and John saw the crippled man beside the Gate Beautiful, the beginning of their ministry to him (Acts 3:4).

Find a way to meet their need personally. Peter touched the crippled man (Acts 3:7), risking his own spiritual status to help this hurting soul.

Develop a plan for continued ministry to this person, enlisting others to help as appropriate.

Remember that your service to hurting people is the most revealing way you demonstrate your love for Jesus and service to his Kingdom: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40); “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45).

How do we keep ourselves “unspotted from the world”?

Expect to be tempted by the “evil that is so prevalent” (v. 21). Early in human history, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Now “there is no one who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46), for “Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 53:3); “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). You are a fallen person, living in a fallen world. Assume you will be tempted by sin today.

Adopt a zero tolerance policy: get rid of “all” moral filth (v. 21). Allow no exceptions. See sin as God does: the cause of death (Deuteronomy 24:16; Romans 6:23); “displeasing” to the Lord (2 Samuel 11:27); that which the Lord “hates” (Proverbs 6:16-19; Zechariah 8:17); “detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). There is no such thing as a “minor” sin, any more than there is a “minor” malignancy.

Repent immediately: “get rid of” all moral filth (v. 21). Strip off the filthy clothes of sin now. Sin metastasizes; it will never be easier to confess your sin to God than it is today (1 John 1:8-10). Repentance is the necessary precursor to forgiveness and healing: “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Claim the forgiveness God promises: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Count on God’s grace: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7); “if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die” (Ezekiel 18:21).

Refuse to become further “polluted” by the values of the fallen world (v. 27). Such a commitment requires daily discipline, and is the result of a life surrendered each day to the word and will of God (application #1).

Concluding applications

Commit daily to the Lordship of Christ over your anger, words, ministry, and life purity.

Grow spiritually by meeting God daily in his word, seeking that truth which will transform your life for that day.

Relate biblically by refusing anger and choosing pardon.

Serve effectively by using your gifts and opportunities to meet the needs of hurting people you know.

Assess your spiritual health in light of these five diagnostic questions:

  • When last did God’s word change your life?
  • Would those who know you best say that anger is a problem for you?
  • When last did you speak words which displeased God?
  • Which “orphan and widow” did you last serve?
  • If you knew you would stand before God today in judgment, would you make any changes in your moral tolerance and lifestyle?