17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question we often ask kids. And we get a variety of answers. While some of us may think of the more traditional answers like teacher, doctor, lawyer, nurse, fireman or policeman; today there is a whole new variety of aspirations kids may have like: secret agent, break dancer, movie director, blogger, Elsa, Batman, or Lego Master.
A grade school kid after exploring careers told an author researching a book that: “I am SOOOO sick of grown-ups asking me ‘What are you going to be?’ How should I know, I’m just a kid. Help!”
A group of tourists visiting a picturesque village walked by an old man sitting beside a fence. In a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked him, “Were there any great men born in this village?” The old man replied, “Nope, only babies.”
Every person who is a born-again believer starts life as a baby in Christ. Whether the new believer is six or sixty, that person is still a new Christian and is called to grow up. A baby Christian who remains a baby Christian is a tragedy. God intends us to become more like Jesus. He intends for us to grow and mature so that we can be a positive influence in the lives of others. What do we want to be when we grow up as Christians? We want to become more like Jesus, and that is why that is in our vision lens.
Today we will focus on one way this transformation occurs as we are transformed by the Word of God. James talks about this in our Spiritual Life passage for today. He introduces this section in verse 17 by reminding us that: 17 We often forget that EVERY good and perfect gift is from God. It is easy to believe that we are somehow responsible for some of the good stuff, but this verse makes it clear with the word every that we can’t take credit for any of it. And one of these good and perfect gifts is the Word of God that he talks about in the next verse: 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. The word of truth refers to the Word of God as revealed both in the Bible and in the life of Jesus. Just as human birth requires two parents, so divine birth has two parents: the Word and the Holy Spirit. So we see the key role of the Word in producing this new life of salvation within us as believers, as the first wave of many believers yet to be converted, the first fruits of believers.
Down in v 21, he says that we are to receive with meekness the implanted word. The imagery here is of the Word as a seed planted into our souls. This reminds us of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 where he compares the Word of God to seed and the human heart to soil. In His parable, Jesus compared described four kinds of human hearts:
1. The hard heart that did not understand or receive the Word and so bore no fruit;
2. The shallow heart that was very emotional, but did not have the depth to bear fruit:
3. The crowded heart that lacked repentance and so sin crowded out fruit;
4. And, the fruitful heart that received the seed of the Word, allowed it to take root and produced a harvest.
The final test of our salvation is fruit. That means a changed life or becoming more like Christ. If the seed of the Word is to be planted in our hearts, then we must pay attention to the instructions that James gives us.
James provides us some very specific thoughts for how we as believers are to respond to instructions that will cause us to grow up to look like Jesus. He says first: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; We so often get this in the wrong order, don’t we? Instead, we are quick to speak, quick to anger, and slow to listen. We can learn much and improve our responses not only to God, but those around us if we cultivate the habit of listening carefully, before responding. Just as the servant is quick to hear the master’s voice, and the mother to hear her baby crying, we as believers should be quick to hear what God has to say.
We should also learn to be slow to speak. As the saying goes, we have two ears and only one mouth, which ought to remind us to listen more than we speak. Too many times we argue with God’s Word, if not audibly, at least within our hearts and minds. And we argue with other people about dumb stuff. As Steven Covey says in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If we will allow God to cultivate this habit within us, we will not only increase our understanding, but also our obedience to the understood word of God.
Finally, James says to be slow to anger. This is a challenge for most of us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter was slow to hear, swift to speak and swift to anger, so he cut off the guard’s ear. And Jesus had to do “damage control.” Anger is just the opposite of the patience God wants to produce in our lives as we grow up to be like Jesus. When anger is our first response instead of first listening and crafting a careful response based on facts, not emotion, we will greatly improve our relationships.
James sees the human heart as a kind of garden. If left to its own, it is just going to produce overgrown weeds. Just like my garden at home. I’ve been working out there to get the weeds out that sprang up during the winter and spring, and get the ground tilled up and ready for seeds and plants. It is a long, hard job, but unless I do it, by July I will not be able to find my tomatoes at all, and they will not grow very well to produce fruit. But James urges us to prepare the soil of our hearts in v 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. How? By pulling up the weeds of sin that he calls filthiness and wickedness. We are to “pull out” the sinful behaviors in our life so that the soil in our hearts is prepared for the planting of the Word of God. And our attitude is to be one of humility and meekness. It is hard for us to hear instruction when we think we already know the answer. When we receive the Word with meekness, we accept it, don’t argue with it, and honor it as God’s Word. We don’t try to twist it to conform to our own thinking or wishes.
But James goes on to tell us that it is not enough to just hear the Word; we also have to do it. Pastor Stuart Briscoe was teaching on the principles of Bible study. He showed how to pick out the promises and the commands in Scripture, and what to do with them. Finally, he reviewed and asked, “Now, what do you do with the commands?” A little old lady raised her hand and said, “I underline them in blue.” While underlining the Bible’s commands in blue might make for a colorful Bible, that is not the point. We are to obey commands. The saying goes: “Too many Christians mark their Bibles, but their Bibles never mark them!” Many of us have a lot of information and knowledge about the Bible, but we don’t actually obey the commands we have read and learned in the Bible. We are educated beyond our level of obedience. That may sound harsh, but surveys commonly show that there is little difference between evangelical Christians and the population at large on most moral and social beliefs and behavior. Pollster George Barna has found that 39% of born-again Christians believe it is morally acceptable for couples to live together before marriage. And he found that born-again Christians are actually more likely than non-Christians to experience divorce.
In verses 22-25, James compares God’s Word to a mirror: 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
What is the purpose of having a mirror? It is to be able to see ourselves. And as we look at ourselves in the mirror, we may try to make ourselves look neat and tidy. We might even wash our face, brush our teeth, or fix our hair. We see ourselves as we really are in the mirror, and then we fix ourselves to look better. In the same way, James says that God’s Word is a mirror. We look into it and see ourselves as we really are, and the correct response, if we want to grow up into Jesus, is to make changes to actually be better.
But James points out three errors that we make as we look into the mirror of God’s Word.
First, we can merely glance at ourselves. Just like we may do if we just pass by a mirror during the day. We may not really look at ourselves, or may be preoccupied with other things. The result is that we pay no attention to our appearance, or to doing anything about it. I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I do in the morning is to see myself in the bathroom mirror. It’s usually really early and I’m on my way to the kitchen to get something hot to drink and begin the day. I usually notice that a night’s sleep has not been kind to my hair. It usually is standing up in awkward and unflattering angles. Yet I do nothing then, figuring that I will come back to it later on. Frank is not up yet and no one else is going to see me. And sometimes I forget until much later in the morning, if I have some time off. Then I am surprised when I pass the mirror and see that my hair is still out of control! The same can be true as we study the Bible. We may make a quick read of it, to fulfil our daily Bible reading schedule, but that is only a religious exercise if we fail to study ourselves and apply it to our lives as we study it. Instead we read the Word carelessly with no thought to what it means in our lives.
The second mistake we can make is to forget what we see. We may take the time to study the Bible intently, even draw some personal application from it, but then we simply walk away and get absorbed in what is going on in our lives. We may have felt very moved by what we read in the Bible, yet it didn’t affect us deeply enough to have staying power in our lives. It’s like when we walk by the mirror and see that we should comb our hair, and then realize the dishes need doing, and forget to comb our hair. It we are looking deeply enough into our hearts as we read God’s Word, what we see should be unforgettable and impactful.
The third mistake we can make when we look into the mirror of God’s Word is to fail to obey what the Word tells us to do. It is like that little old lady in Stuart Briscoe’s class who underlined the commands in blue. We have to do more than underline them. We often substitute reading for doing, or even talking for doing. While there is nothing wrong with studying God’s Word and seeking the council of others, but when we do these things without action, it is sinful.
If we are to use the mirror of God’s Word profitably, then we must gaze into it carefully and with serious intent. No quick glances will do. We must examine our own hearts and lives in the light of God’s Word. This needs time, attention, and sincere devotion.
After seeing ourselves, we must remember what God’s Word revealed about us, what God says, and must do what He says. James says these sobering words: But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Deceive means to believe something that is not true. That means we are fooling ourselves or lying to ourselves about reality. We are actually deceiving ourselves if we look into the perfect mirror of God’s Word and then fail to make application to our lives and actually take action based on that revelation. We deceive ourselves in that we think that if we hear or understand what God is saying to us, we’ve done it. But that’s not true is it? Hearing or understanding is not doing. If you are wondering if you are getting caught in this trap of hearing and not doing, look for fruit in your life. Are you able to point to something in your life that has actually changed because of your study of the Word and prayer? Are you increasing in the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control? Are your relationships improving? Are you gaining victory over persistent problems in your life? Are you sensing God’s power at work in and through your life?
Our Christian lives are not meant to be static. We are designed to grow up into Christ. We are designed to look more like Christ every time we look into the mirror of God’s Word. We are designed to become like Jesus and to help others to become like Jesus. When people ask us what we want to be when we grow up, I want our answer to be “I want to be like Jesus!”