One of the more frustrating situations to deal with is people who are full of ideas but never lift a finger to do anything. They can tell you what to do, but they are unwilling to help by doing something themselves. I found this to very frustrating when I worked secular jobs. People telling you to do something so that they can sit on a chair in the office and smoke a cigarette. We want doers. We respect people who lead by doing. They do not pawn work off on other people so that they can sit and do nothing. This issue is also true in the Christian life. There are many in the Lord’s body who want to tell others what to do or always have a great idea. But who are the people who are listening? Who are the people that are doing? James is going to note this problem to help us construct a godly life.
Slow Down! (1:19-20)
"Know this!" is how James begins. James is calling us to attention about how to have a godly life. James commands that Christians slow down. It is so easy to be the reverse of James’ command. It is easy to be quick to speak and quick to anger. We need to slow down and listen to what others have to say. But more importantly and more relevant to the context, we need to listen to the word of truth (1:18). Listen to what God has to say. We are often moving so fast and are so busy we will not stop and listen to the word of the Lord. Even now we may not be focusing on the word of the Lord, but on what we are going to do after services, what we are going to eat for lunch, or when these services will finally end. We simply need to slow down. We will not be able to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger until we slow our lives down and focus our lives on God. God’s word cannot have its proper work and effect in our lives if we will not slow down and listen to God.
I believe this is also true concerning the problem of anger. We are doing so much and have so much to do that we are wound tight and every little thing sets us off. We cannot let someone merge in front of us because we have places to be and we are running behind. We cannot wait long in line because there is so much going on. One of the practical ways that we can be slow to anger is to slow down for the Lord. Stop squeezing God out by doing so much, by being too busy, and by having no time. Slow down and pray. Slow down and read the word of God. Slow down and come to worship. Slow down and come to Bible classes.
James tells us the reason we must slow down is because what we are doing is not bringing about the righteousness that God demands. Our quickness to anger is not producing the holy life of purity that God is looking for in us. The Proverbs give some explanation about the importance of being slow to anger.
A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back. (Proverbs 29:11 ESV)
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:32 ESV)
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. (Proverbs 17:27)
An angry spirit is never a listening, teachable spirit. Anger stops us from having the life God demands of us. Anger stops us from listening and learning. Anger prevents us from transforming our lives into godliness and holiness.
Put It Away! (1:21)
Moral defilement and every form of morally bad behavior must be put away. James calls for spiritual house cleaning. It is a picture similar to take off filthy clothes after a long day working outside. This is the proper response to the word of the Lord and being quick to listen. Learn from the Lord and put away all filthiness. The true Christian does not allow immoral, filthy behavior to remain in his or her life. For the word of God to work, it must be planted in a heart that is not full of weeds. There is not going be successful Christian living if our heart has not been stripped away of the weeds and filth so that the word can be planted into our hearts. Jesus taught a parable about the condition of the hearts of people who hear the word. The weeds will choke out the word so that it will not have its proper, glorious effect.
Cleanse the heart and with humility receive the word. Take the word to your heart so that it will replace the evil desires James wrote about earlier. Remember that James taught we are lured and enticed by temptations because of our own desires and weaknesses (1:14). We must let the word become implanted into our hearts by receiving it with meekness and humility. Let the word sink into your heart so that it will influence every part of your life. The word has the power to save you if it is implanted into a weed-free heart. We must be teachable. We must be submissive to the scriptures. We must be ready to receive the word of God with humility, not pride or arrogance. God’s word has something to teach you and change you.
Listen To Obey (1:22-25)
Hearing the word must be followed by obedience. With the word of God implanted in our hearts, it must sprout, grow, and bear fruit. Putting the seed in the ground is not the goal. Bearing fruit from the planted seed is the goal. In the same way, listening to the word is not the goal. Obeying what we have heard is the goal. We are deceiving ourselves if we think listening is enough for righteousness.
James illustrates what a person is like who listening to the word of God but does not do what the word says. It is a foolish as a person who looks intently in a mirror but goes away forgetting what he was like. James pictures a person who looks in the mirror and sees the flaws, but rather than make the corrections, simply walks away forgetting what he looked like. James is trying to develop a ridiculous and foolish person who would see the flaws but not fix the flaws. Who would look in the mirror and see food caught in your teeth, then walking away from the mirror, not getting the food out and forgetting there was food in the teeth? Who would look in the mirror, notice hair out of place standing up, but choose to walk away from the mirror not fixing the hair and forgetting the hair is standing up? This is the person who is the hearer of the word of God, but not a doer. The person hears what God says about their life and identifies the problems, but then walks out the door making no changes and forgetting the flaws. I think this is problem for Christians. We come to worship and we hear what we need to do. The word of God exposes our lives and we are made aware of the flaws and mistakes that we have in our lives. We sing the last song and have the last prayer. But rather than fixing our flaws, we walk out the door forgetting that God convicted our hearts with a message that was supposed to spur us to change our lives. What good is it to hear the word of God and not do it? Do not be deceived, hearing the word of God is not salvation. James has illustrated that only a fool hears the word of God but does nothing about it. Jesus taught the same thing while he was on the earth.
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:27–28 ESV)
By contrast, the Christian keeps looking and doing. The Christian looks in the mirror, sees the flaw, and goes off to fix the problem. The Christian returns to the mirror, sees another flaw, and goes off to fix the problem. James is picturing the person who keeps looking over and over again into God’s perfect law. The Christian perseveres in God’s word. The Christian is always studying, always examining, and always fixing. This is the one who James says is blessed. This is the one who is found acceptable to God. Do not listen to the Bible and rush away forgetting what it taught us. Do not be forgetful hearers, leaving worship and not making the necessary changes to your life. James has already pointed out two very important changes: (1) Slow down. Listen to God and do not be quick to speak and do not quick to anger. Slow life down and obey God. (2) Put away all filthiness. Get the heart clean of the weeds. James is going to give us one more practical teaching on how to be acceptable to God. This is another picture of what it means to be doers of God’s word and not simply hearers.
Pure Religion (1:26-27)
1. A controlled tongue. A person who cannot control the tongue reveals that their religion is worthless. You are lying to yourself thinking that you are a Christian who loves Jesus when you cannot keep your tongue under control. James will go into more detail about controlling the tongue in chapter 3. James uses the picture of the bridle on the tongue. The tongue is supposed to be reined in. It is sad today that Christians think that they are just supposed to "tell it like it is." James condemns the unbridled tongue and says your life before God is worthless. Where does God say that we are just supposed "to keep it real" and "say what is on our minds?" Christians cannot have galloping tongues. God does not want us to "speak our minds." Return to verse 19 where we are told to be "slow to speak." We must watch what we say and think about what we say.
2. Care for the unfortunate. What is acceptable to God is caring for the unfortunate. Orphans and widows were the most helpless people in Jewish society. They had no one to provide food or clothing for them. The scriptures are filled with this teaching from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16–17 ESV)
If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need but closes his eyes to his need—how can God’s love reside in him? Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action. (1 John 3:17–18 HCSB)
Please notice that James’ point is to be a doer. Do something. Help those who need help.
3. Keep unstained. Finally, the Christian must remain unstained from the world. Perversion and sinfulness is rampant. Just because the world breaks God’s laws does not mean that we can do the same. We must hear God’s words and do them. These are the things God is looking for from his people. Be a doer, not a hearer.