Charles Spurgeon once commented, “When I went to school, we drew such things as houses, horses and trees, and we used to write the word house under the picture of the house, and the word horse under the picture of the horse. Otherwise, some persons might have mistaken the house for a horse.” Then he suggested that some Christians need to wear a label around their neck or we might never guess they are Christians.
When people look at me—at the way I live and the way I treat others—can they tell that I am a Christian? Or would I need a label to let people know?
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked, “Only he who believes is obedient; only he who is obedient believes.” In other words, only those who genuinely trust Christ do what he calls us to do, and only those who do what Christ calls us to do truly trust him.
James 1:22 challenges us, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Actually, the inference of the Greek verb here (in the present middle imperative voice) does not assume that it is an accomplished act—that we always do what God calls us to do—but that we are consistently growing in that direction. The verse literally implies, “But keep on becoming doers of the word….”
A true Christian is not the person who has succeeded in obeying God at all times but one who is growing in obedience and faithfulness. The question to ask ourselves is: Am I growing in becoming a doer of the word or do I come to God merely for the blessings I can get from him?
James draws a contrast between those who merely hear the word of God and those who do the word of God. He compares those who only hear the word to the kind of person who looks in a mirror then forgets what he or she looks like. What strikes me in this comparison is not merely the short attention span of the one who looks in the mirror but, most significantly, the direction of the person’s attention. One who only hears the word and doesn’t do the word is focused on oneself. The person who does what Christ calls us to do is focused on God’s will and on the good of one’s neighbor.
I love Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s perspective on this: “Obedience is to look outside ourselves for our purpose, values and decisions. This essential stance of life admits that God knows better than we do how to guide our steps. And it is the only way to truly live, for he is life itself.” (How People Grow, p. 283)
The one who only hears the word and doesn’t do the word of God continues to live by their own purposes, values and directions, never admitting that God knows better. Only the one who believes obeys; only the one who obeys truly believes.
True Christians—those who do not need labels hung around their necks—find their focus directed upward and outward.
Mark Labberton stresses, “The heart of God’s call is this: that we receive and live the love of God for us and for the world. This is the meaning of the two great commandments, that we are made to love the Lord our God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves. The Bible as a whole, and Jesus in particular, reveals what such a life looks like. Our call is loving communion with God and God’s world….
“Who are we? We are God’s chosen people, members of a community set apart for God’s purposes….
“Why are we here? We are here to love God and to love our neighbor.” (Called, p. 14-16)
No wonder James concludes his call to us to keep on becoming doers of the word, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself undefiled by the world.”
When the Senate reconvened on January 6, following the militant takeover of the U.S. Capitol, the Chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, opened the session by praying, “Lord of our lives and sovereign of our beloved nation, we deplore the desecration of the United States Capitol building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life, and the quagmire of dysfunction that threaten our democracy. These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue….”
Indeed, there is power toward life or toward death in the human tongue—in politics and in all realms of human relations. What happened on January 6 reveals to us again that we, as human beings have the tendency to be quick to anger, to be hasty to speak, and to be begrudging about listening to one another.
James 1:19, however, tells us to turn that around. The verse tells us, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Be quick to listen: Sue Westfall remarks, “Listening communicates powerfully that you take the other seriously, that they are valued, that you appreciate them, and that you care.”
Rachel Naomi Remen stresses, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”
William Stringfellow comments, “Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or with impressing the other, or are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or are debating about whether what is being said is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening is a primitive act of love in which a person gives himself or herself to another’s word, making himself or herself accessible and vulnerable to that word.”
Be slow to speak: Sue Westfall writes, “‘Toxic’ was the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’ for 2018. Toxic: Imbued with poison. Given the climate of our national discourse, this is no surprise. Meanwhile, on the other hand, The Christian Science Monitor reported recently that words like ‘love,’ ‘kindness,’ and ‘patience,’ are being used less frequently in American life. The juxtaposition is stark. Words matter…. Words wound and they heal. They obfuscate and enlighten. They degrade and they uplift.”
Audrey Marlene observes, “Words that are badly chosen can slaughter your passion, lower your sense of worth, and sabotage your level of enthusiasm. This can retard your progress and produce anemic results.”
Robert Fulghum adds, “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”
Since our words have such power to encourage or to cripple the soul of another, we do well to approach our speaking to another slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully.
Be slow to anger: It is important to recognize that we are not told to avoid anger entirely, but to be “slow to anger.” There is a vital place for anger in our lives. We should get angry at injustice, at the mistreatment of others, at hypocrisy, and at tragedies and evils in the world. The Hebrew Scriptures describe God’s anger 375 times. Like God, we should get angry at sin, but we should also be slow and careful to anger, for anger that is out of control is dangerous to others and to us. Dr. Redford B. Williams of Duke University Medical Center states, “Individuals who harbor hostility and anger toward others are five times more likely to die from heart disease.”
The story is told of Sinbad and his sailors. When they landed on a tropical island, they saw coconuts in the trees that would quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger. The problem was that the coconuts were too high in the trees for the sailors to reach. It so happened that along with the coconuts in the trees were a bunch of chattering monkeys. Sinbad’s men picked up sticks and stones from the beach and began to throw them at the monkeys. The monkeys became so enraged that they began to seize the coconuts and hurl them down on the sailors. This was just what Sinbad and his men wanted. They had gotten the monkeys so angry that the monkeys gathered and delivered their food for them. The moral of the story is that when we are quick to anger, we usually play right into the hands of our enemy (the devil).
I confess that I have had a lifelong struggle with temptation. By this point in my life, I recognize that I will never get over it. I will never reach a point at which I will be free of every temptation. The best I can hope for is to endure temptation without giving in—which is actually what Scripture calls us to do. James 1:12 states, “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
One of the major problems with temptation is that it leads us astray from where we should be.
In Huelvo, on the southern coast of Spain, is buried the body of Major William Martin, a British officer who played an important role in the Allied success in World War II—without his knowledge. After the Allies invaded North Africa, the next logical step was to invade Sicily. The problem was that the German army was planning for such an attack. The Allies needed to outfox the Germans. This is where Major William Martin comes in. Major Martin actually died of pneumonia in the foggy dampness of England without ever engaging in battle. But the Germans didn’t know that. One dark night, an Allied submarine surfaced off the coast of Spain just long enough to put Martin’s body out to sea in a rubber raft with an oar. In his pocket were placed “secret documents” indicating that the Allied forces would strike next in Greece and Sardinia. When Martin’s body washed ashore, German intelligence operatives assumed he had crashed at sea. They passed the secret documents through Axis hands all the way to Hitler’s headquarters. While Allied forces moved toward Sicily, thousands and thousands of German troops moved to Greece and Sardinia where the battle was not.
That’s what temptation does to us. But instead of needing a dead British officer, temptation simply plays on the desires that are already in us. Temptation intensifies those desires and distorts them until we become obsessed with them. Then we end up being led astray. James 1:14-15 offers this explanation: “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”
The Greek word deleazomenos, translated here as “enticed,” is an old fishing term. It had to do with baiting a hook so as to catch a fish. In the same way one would attach a juicy worm to a hook or tie a colorful fly to a hook, Satan holds out to us something that looks appealing. But like a fishing hook hidden in a piece of chocolate cake, when we bite into that chocolate cake we get hooked. Satan’s desire is to ensnare us in what will keep up away from God, and will keep us away from spiritual growth, and will keep us away from doing anything meaningful with our lives, and will keep us away from the peace God intends for our souls.
No wonder James stresses, “Blessed in anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
The 13th century Persian poet Rumi observed, “Greed makes man blind and foolish, and makes him an easy prey for death.” Erich Fromm adds, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” No wonder the God who knows us intimately and who loves us deeply repeatedly calls us away from greed and calls us to generosity.
In the opening chapter of his Biblical letter, James shares two significant reasons why we should practice generosity rather than greed.
In verses 9-11, James writes, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.”
What I hear James telling me here is that wealth is merely an illusion of stability. It’s what we imagine will provide us with a foundation we can stand on. But in reality, it is better to be lifted up by the God who is lasting than by wealth which is fleeting. What wealth fills our souls with evaporates, but what God fills our souls with brings lasting hope and contentment.
Henrik Ibsen remarks, “Money may be the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not loyalty; days of joy, but not peace or happiness.” We are foolish to try to find in money what can only be provided by God.
Morrie Schwartz shared with Mitch Albom, “Wherever I went in my life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new. Gobble up a new car. Gobble up a new piece of property. Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. ‘Guess what I got?’ You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship. Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness. I can tell you, as I’m sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you’re looking for, no matter how much of them you have.” (Tuesdays with Morrie, p. 125)
Money provides no lasting value to our souls. Therefore, we do well when we take steps to free ourselves from the misleading illusion of money as our stability. The practice of generosity is the appropriate step for us to take.
In verses 17-18, James writes, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
What I hear James telling me here is that generosity comes from above and keeps us in step with how God wants to grow his own likeness in us.
In his book Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson tells of his experience watching an adult swallow teach its young to fly: “One adult swallow got alongside the chicks and started shoving them out toward the end of the branch—pushing, pushing, pushing. The end one fell off. Somewhere between the branch and the water four feet below, the wings started working, and the fledgling was off on his own. Then the second one. The third was not to be bullied. At the last possible moment his grip on the branch loosened just enough so that he swung downward, then tightened again, bulldog tenacious. The parent was without sentiment. He pecked at the desperately clinging talons until it was more painful for the poor chick to hang on than risk the insecurities of flying. The grip was released, and the inexperienced wings began pumping. The mature swallow knew what the chick did not—that it would fly—that there was no danger in making it do what it was perfectly designed to do.”
Then Peterson makes this application: “Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk; they can cling. But flying is their characteristic action, and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully. Giving is what we do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth…. Some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves. We look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of a bank account for dear life, afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving. We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start, the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait, the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”
Generosity comes from God. We do best when we keep in step with how God is growing his likeness in us.