Doers of the Word
But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
“Mirror, mirror in my hand, who’s the fairest in the land?” Most of you will recognize this question (or slight variations) as from the lips of the evil Queen in the story of Snow White. Most of us look in the mirror in the morning glad that our mirrors don’t come equipped with such information. We do tend to have love-hate relationships with our mirrors. We want them to tell the truth but sometimes the lighting presents way too stark a reality.
The Apostle James likened believers who were hearers only of the word of God instead of “hearers and doers” to be like a person who looks at himself in the mirror and goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. Typically, the reason we look at ourselves in the mirror is because we want to do something about what we see. Yes? (Some accuse the Apostle James as being somewhat severe sounding; I think his mirror analogy may have drawn a smile or two in the first century as it may even today. But I won’t press it any further than James does—showing his wisdom about human sensitivities with respect to appearance.)
1. Who was James who wrote this letter? In first century Israel it was a common enough name. Two of Jesus’ twelve disciples were named James—“James the son of Alphaeus” and “James the lesser”—but neither of these two could have been the author. Some scholars argue therefore that we simply don’t know. Others identify the author of this letter with the James who was the brother of Jesus and I find the reasons given for this identification persuasive.
Mark tells us that our Lord’s family thought him deranged at one point of his earthly ministry. (Mark 3:21) In other words, Jesus was a public embarrassment to his family. James would have been with his family the day they came to restrain Jesus. I wonder what he thought of his big brother. It wasn’t until later, after the resurrection, when James had a resurrection-appearance that turned him around and he came to believe that his brother Jesus, a Jew of course like James himself, was indeed the Saviour of the world and the Lord of the whole creation.
Given the propensity we have that “prophets are not honoured in their own country and among their kin” I find James’ witness about his brother Jesus compelling. Twice in this first chapter James expresses his concern for believers not to be deceived. The first was in relationship to temptation. He assures us that God is generous and the giver of perfect gifts—he would never send temptation to derail his people.
The second time he speaks of not deceiving ourselves into thinking that faith is an internal private keep-it-to-yourself matter. The church has been alive for thirty years and now false teachers are creeping in who distort the gospel and mislead people. Persecution has intensified as well. When James writes his letter, Paul, widely known in Christian congregations, is a prisoner in Rome awaiting trial (and execution.) Within eighteen months James himself will be murdered.
In a word, the world has proven to be more hostile than expected. In the face of the world’s resistance to the gospel and the world’s nastiness towards Christians, James is afraid that Christians will simply retreat into themselves; worried that Christians might take refuge in a psycho-religious inner “trip” as they pretend they believe the gospel with their heads — and yet no longer do the truth of the gospel with their lives.
Here from James we hear the echo of our Lord’s sermon on the mount. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” And you know which of these two houses our Lord said would collapse amidst the storms of life. (Matthew 7:24-27)
What does James mean when he speaks of being both hearers and doers of the word? As we explore a few of the things he remarks on in this context I note with you that James understands faith to be a very practical thing. It is for the here and now in the actualities of our life; not merely an ethereal experience for private inner consumption. Faith is to be lived. The reason is because God came in the flesh in his brother Jesus of Nazareth. If the human body is appropriate for habitation by God then human life is blessed by God and ought to be loved by his people. Many people think being human to be the source of human ills. People express this when they say, “I’m only human.” The gospel teaches that being human is a good thing; the problem is human sin that has corrupted humanity.
As we probe some of James’ challenges we will see the pattern of what James means by being doers of the word.
2. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak,” writes James. There is always great need for listening, real listening. Real listening isn’t done with our ears; real listening is done with our heart. This kind of listening, says James, is one way in which we are doers of the Word.
Psychotherapist Dr Bernard Zelberstam says that what helps people isn’t the psychotherapist’s training in any one school or method of psychotherapy; what helps them is the psychotherapist’s human warmth, her sensitivity, her empathy, her insight, her emotional intuition. This is what helps. And this, says Zelberstam, you can find in a good friend, a caring neighbour, perchance a high school guidance counsellor. Many people look to a bartender.
James says we are to be quick to listen, slow to speak. If we listen only with our ears we’ll always be quick to speak; entirely too quick. If we listen with our hearts, on the other hand, we’ll find ourselves slow to speak. You see, when we listen only with our ears we don’t really hear the person in front of us; we are listening with only half our mind because the other half of our mind is working on what we are going to say as soon as we get the chance.
We must never excuse our failure to listen on the grounds that “we can’t do anything about Mrs. X’s problem in any case, since her problem is insoluble.” To be sure, her problem likely is unfixable. Many of life’s burdens have to be carried along in life. The people to whom we’re to listen: they already know this. They aren’t looking for us to unravel their complication. They don’t expect us to wave the magic wand over them and dispel their perplexity. They simply crave being heard, for they know that the difficulty they can’t remedy for now are worsened to the extent that they themselves are isolated in their pain.
None of us knows what life will bring us and so this ministry of listening we are offering today we could very well stand in need of tomorrow. As much as we might be able to map out in our heads what we will do if we face this or that event in our future we can anticipate nothing with our hearts. What surprises many of us is that when “it” does happen we react in a way we didn’t anticipate at all. And this for one reason: what we can anticipate with our head we can never anticipate with our heart.
Doers of the word are quick to listen, slow to speak.
3. James urges more upon us: “Be slow to anger, for your anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” “Be slow to anger.” James doesn’t tell us we should never become angry. We should. The person who doesn’t become angry when he should be angry is psychologically deficient and morally blind. Jesus, after all, was livid on many occasions.
Yet we are to be slow to anger. We aren’t to be a pop-off. We aren’t to fly into tantrums like the four year old who overheats on a matter that’s ultimately insignificant.
James knows there’s no little difference between Christ’s anger and ours. Jesus becomes angry when he sees defenceless people abused, but he doesn’t become angry when he’s abused himself. Jesus becomes angry when he sees vulnerable people manipulated, but he pleads forgiveness for assassins who are nailing him to the wood.
You and I are prone to the opposite. Too often huge injustices find us unmoved, yet if we are pricked ever so slightly we explode in vindictive fury. “Slow to anger”? James is correct. For in our fallen condition our anger is hugely disproportionate to the slight we’ve received. We use a cannon to kill a mosquito.
James insists that quick anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. “Righteousness” has a two-fold meaning in scripture. Foundationally it means “right-relatedness.” The righteousness of God is God’s act of grace wherein he absorbs our guilt and rights us with himself. Thereafter our relationship with him is no longer capsized but righted. This is the primary meaning of “righteousness.”
The secondary meaning refers to the right conduct of those who’ve been righted with God. If we are righteous in the sense of rightly related to God, we are thereafter to live righteously by doing what’s right.
James maintains that as we are slow to anger; that is, as we don’t become irascible, angry inappropriately, our discipleship furthers the righteousness of God. In which sense of righteousness: primary or secondary? In both senses. As we are slow to anger we mirror the patience and kindness and guilt-absorbing mercy of God. Therein we lend credibility to that gospel by which men and women come to be reconciled to God, rightly related to him, righteous.
As we are slow to anger we also further the righteousness of God in the secondary sense; we do what’s right. Not exploding at people childishly; not discouraging them through temperamental touchiness: to act toward others in this way is to be a doer of the Word. As we are slow to anger we produce God’s righteousness, says James. We produce God’s righteousness in both senses: we magnify the gospel of reconciliation (right-relationship with him) and we obey the command to live righteously.
3. Reflect with me on one more of James’ challenges; “to keep oneself unstained by the world.” When James says “the world” he means humanity in its opposition and turning away from God. The false teaching that was creeping into the church and distorting the gospel was one of the reasons James had written his letter. There are all kinds of ideologies and philosophies in our world that are counter to the gospel and therefore dehumanizing.
Anthony Kennedy is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. In one of this court’s rulings he wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Is that true—it’s your universe so have at it? Canada’s Supreme Court stated in a recent ruling “the state’s duty of religious neutrality results from an evolving interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion.” In other words, we get to define what freedom of conscience and religion mean as we go along. A very similar ideology underlies the reasoning in both of these rulings.
As such an ideology works its way out into ethical life, each person is left to themselves to determine who they might be; each defines the meaning they will attach to things, ideas like right and wrong, good and bad, or just indifference. You get to say who you feel you are and this is somehow thought to be determinative for life. About 2500 years ago the prophesy of Isaiah stated, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
For the believer it is our Lord who gets to name who we are and define the categories of our humanity. The ethic that guides the believer’s is one defined by obedience; obedience to our Lord. To obey our Lord’s commands is to abide in his love. (John 15:10) What often happens is we hear the word “love” and take that as some sort or guiding ethical principle. This is to act as if love were some sort of thing separate from Jesus by which we judge an action. This is a mistake. Jesus is the Lord of love; love does not exist as some entity outside of him.
It is obedience to our Lord that is primary as we live life. Often we try to show how our Lord’s pronouncement makes the best sense on a particular issue. The problem is that we are judging our Lord by a measure we call “best sense.” Sometimes we simply need to obey and trust that our Lord will reveal how such obedience serves his purposes in time. We hear what our Lord has said and pray that he will make plain the course of action we are to take. I think that this is an angle of vision into what James has in mind in keeping oneself unstained by the world.
4. One final note. It is to observe another parallel between James’ teaching with that of his brother Jesus. James wrote, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”
Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”
“… they will be blessed in their doing”—“but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” Amen