Most of us are guilty of hearing far more than doing. We know what we ought to do but fail to execute on the knowledge we possess. As one man said, “We’re educated far beyond our own obedience.”
The book of James offers some great insight on how to move from “hearing” to “doing”.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)
The idea of listening refers to someone who sits in an audience passively listening. If you have kids, you understand exactly what James means by “passive listening.” It’s the equivalent of listening “cafeteria style”…taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that while conveniently ignoring the main course of what you’re trying to say.
Passive listening goes something like this: “If you’ll make all As and Bs on your next report card like you did 10 years ago when you were in kindergarten, I’ll give you $50 next month.” But your kids hear: “Since you made all As and Bs on your report card when you were in kindergarten, I’m going to give you $50 a month for the next 10 years.” Passive listening at its best.
James continues with “Do what it says.” Doing is more than a one-time act of obedience; it implies being a “continual doer.” It’s not mindless action but rather obeying with all of your being…spirit, soul, mind, and emotions. James isn’t saying to just “do” but to “BE a doer.”
John MacArthur compares listening without doing to auditing a class in college. As an auditor, you enroll in, pay the tuition and fees for, and attend classes. However, you do not take tests, turn in papers, or complete any assignments. In other words, you “listen” to the course but you don’t “do” anything with what you hear. There’s no accountability, and therefore, no credit for the course. James’ warning is to avoid becoming a “spiritual auditor”where we hear what God’s Word says but we don’t act.
When we do become spiritual auditors, we “deceive ourselves.” James expounds on the idea of self-deception by using the illustration of a mirror. He writes:
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. (James 1:23-24)
When James wrote his letter, mirrors were typically nothing more than highly polished brass or bronze…or silver or gold if you were wealthy. Obviously a mirror like this provided only a dim or distorted reflection. What’s interesting is that the word James uses to describe “look” means more than a quick glance in the mirror. It actually implies “looking carefully” which is the only way you can look in a mirror made of brass or bronze.
James’ point is clear: When you’re a “hearer not a doer” of God’s Word, you may actually be listening carefully to what God’s Word says. But your careful listening is not translating into intentional doing. James continues:
But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:25)
MacArthur observes that when James says “Looks intently” it literally means to bend over and carefully examine something from the clearest possible vantage point.” (MacArthur, p. 85). To “look intently” into God’s Word is like mining for gold.
Now, why would a person spend that much energy, and exert that much focus, on a book? You may love to read, so you might think “Well if it’s a really good book I could see spending a bit more time with it. I might even read it twice if that’s good.” But if you’re like the 55% of Americans over the age of 13 who didn’t read a book in the last 12 months, then it might take a bit more convincing for you.
So whether you’re an avid reader or not, what on earth would cause somebody to look so intently into a book as if they’re life depended on it? Because it does. This isn’t just a book. James described it as, ‘the perfect law that gives freedom.” Those are pretty big shoes to fill. A book that’s perfect, contains God’s commands, and has the power to bring freedom in our lives has to be more than just a book. It’s more than just ink on paper. It has authority and it has transformational power.
You might say, “Come on Stephen. How can the Bible which consists of 66 books written over 1,500 years ago by 40 people in three different languages even be reliable?” Consider this:
- In their book, The Faith: Given Once, For All, Charles Colson and Harold Fickett defend the textual integrity of the Bible noting that there are 24,947 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament alone, the oldest dating back to AD 150.
- Scholars have more ancient manuscripts to work from than with any other writing—14,000 of the Old Testament alone.
- Homer’s Iliad—a poem set during the Trojan War—is the next closest with only 600 manuscripts.
- The accuracy of the ancient manuscripts comprising the Scriptures is remarkable. Why? “Jewish tradition provides one answer. According to Hebrew practice, only eyewitness testimony was accepted; and when copying documents, the Jews would copy one letter at a time—not word by word, not phrase by phrase, not sentence by sentence.”[i]
- The evidence supporting the authority of the Bible is extraordinary.
- Colson and Fickett write: “Before the end of the 1950s, no less than 25,000 biblical sites had been substantiated by archaeological discoveries; there has been no discovery proving the Bible false. No other religious document now or in history has ever been found that accurate.”[ii]
Nevertheless, the Bible has been fought relentlessly. For example:
- John Wycliffe was an Oxford professor, theologian, and creator of the first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts. Forty-four years after his death on December 31, 1384, Pope Martin V, infuriated by Wycliffe’s teachings, ordered his bones to be dug up, crushed, and scattered in the river Swift.
- In 1415, one of Wycliffe’s devout followers, John Hus, was burned at the stake using Wycliffe’s manuscript Bibles as kindling for the fire.[iii]
Despite these and countless other attempts to destroy the Scriptures, today the publication and distribution of the Bible is available in over 2,000 languages. So the fact that the Bible consists of 66 books written over 1,500 years by 40 people in three different languages, is a miracle in itself because the story of Scripture provides amazing harmony. God’s Word is the ultimate authoritative trump card for erroneous beliefs and false assumptions.
So what’s the result of being a “doer” of God’s Word. James says we will be “blessed” in what we do. Joshua 1:8 makes a similar observation:
Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
James wraps up this section of his letter by giving us three examples of what being a “doer” looks like:
- Speech – He says, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)
- Serving – Verse 27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
- Separation – Verse 27 concludes, “…and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Those are just three examples James gives for being a doer of God’s Word. I’m sure there are dozens more.
Question: What should be your response to James’ challenge to be a “doer” of God’s Word?
[i] Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: Given Once, For All (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 53.
[ii] Colson and Fickett, p. 51
[iii] English Bible History, retrieved December 29, 2008, from http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/