Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
First off, welcome to the beginning of a hopefully regular occurrence on this blog. I hope to be posting something like this every week, commenting on the scripture given in whatever church I attend each Sunday. The purpose is not to critique a sermon that only I have heard (though I'll probably mention it), but to engage the text on which the sermon was based. That is the idea behind preaching the scriptures in church, after all - that people may be faced with the word of God regularly and be taught from it, and try to live their lives accordingly. I've never been much of a note-taker when it comes to sermons, but hopefully this will compel me (and you) to pay more attention in church (which at times can be a tricky proposition).
We had one of my favorite texts today. This whole first chapter of James is simply beautiful, and this passage still sticks out within it. It is the argument that precedes some of my favorite words in scripture ("Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." [Jas. 1:27]). If we are going to be sincere believers, we need to understand the mutual importance of hearing and doing the word of God. James' begins with important instructions to us: we need to shut up. That's harsher than what James is saying, but I want to catch your attention. James is placing himself in a long tradition of wisdom literature found in the bible which very often discusses how people tend to talk far too much. Consider two of the proverbs: "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent." (Prov. 10:19) Better yet (and a little more amusing) is Proverbs 11:12 - "Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent."
Words are things that tend to inflate human beings, and make them rather certain of their own wisdom. But often times, wisdom is precisely what is at shortage in such people. Talking too much, being too outspoken (even though outspokenness has its proper place), or simply being preachy may imply one of two things: First, it suggests that you have a very high opinion of what you've got to say and think others need to learn from you. Second (and this is less obvious) it often implies a kind of fear on the speaker's part, because he thinks what he knows is in danger of criticism, and so he must leap to the defensive to fill the conversation with words, words, words, drown out all dissent, and reassure himself that he couldn't possibly be wrong. When our positions are threatened, we very naturally leap to the defensive, which ultimately implies we are not confident enough in what we believe to hold our peace and listen. 'Keep quiet? But he's bashing CALVINISM!' (I might be prone to make such a comment).
But calm down... the integrity of your belief is not going to be threatened by the fact someone is crticizing it. It might, however, be threatened if you make a fool out of yourself trying to defend it with endless babble! This is a problem to which too many Christians fall prey in their lives of faith. We all want to be (and should be) apologists who know how to defend our beliefs. But we shouldn't be frantic about doing so, since being frantic implies we don't really have enough faith in them to begin with. Instead, listen to others, consider what they have to say, and think rationally about what it all means. Only then can we respond to criticism, and I think we'll find that when we do that, our words will be fewer.
Instead of being angered apologists, we must "receive with meekness the implanted word" which can save our souls (v.21). Meekness, in fact, was the prime topic at my church today. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," (Matt. 5:5) my pastor reminded us, linking it to this text in his sermon. Meekness is precisely the virtue James is talking about when he tells us to be reserved speakers and eager listeners. It means we do not assert ourselves, we do not force matters on others, but instead listen to them in order to receive something from them (knowledge, understanding, criticism, and so on). And here James further develops what meekness looks like in practice when he says that it is not only how we interact with others, but is also about how we receive the word of the gospel. That word is not about how we may push ourselves to the front and insist on our own way over and against the opinions of others, but hearing the gospel and living according to it is about allowing God to assert his own power over us. When we grow angry and become defensive under criticism, in a sense we are claiming ownership over the gospel. It is ours to protect, to fight for tooth and nail. But James is saying that our anger "does not produce the righteousness of God". It doesn't make us live more in accordance with God's standard. Why? Because it is placing ourselves at the front of the matter, as though the truth about God depends on how good we are at defending it. Luther pointed out at one point that we don't need to defend the gospel with that level of fear in our hearts - "It is like a lion... it fights for itself."
No. Instead, we calm ourselves and receive the implanted word. It is God who puts it there, not ourselves. But what does that involve? There is something of this notion of "implanting" in what Jeremiah says when he is describing the new covenant God will make with his people (the covenant which Jesus brings about in his death, resurrection, and ascension). God says something through the prophet that is quite stirring: "I will put my law within them, and I will write my law on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one of them teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD." (Jer. 31:33-34) Those of us who know God through Jesus Christ, biblically speaking, have the law of God implanted within our hearts. And we receive this with all meekness. Now you might have noticed, Jeremiah seems to be talking about law here, and not the word. What's the difference? If you look at what Moses and the apostle Paul say, you will see that Jeremiah and James are really talking about the same thing. The word will be implanted (or, in Jeremiah's terms, written) on our hearts.
Moses reminds the Israelites as he is preaching on the Law of God, "For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that we should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (Deut. 30:11-14) There is a similar principle operating here to the one in James and Jeremiah. The moral law of God has always been there for us to do, and it is not by any means undoable (though doing it perfectly is). It is implanted, written on our hearts through faith, so that we are able to do it. Paul picks this up in Romans and runs with it even further: "But the righteousness based on faith says, 'Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven"' (that is, to bring Christ down) or '"Who will descend into the abyss?"' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). but what does it say? 'The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.'" Then the critical point - Paul specifies what that word is exactly: "...(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom. 10:5-9)
Do not jump to the defensive. Be meek. Be willing to receive, willing to learn, and willing to be challenged, because that meekness is the same attitude in which the word of the gospel is written on our hearts. It is in that meekness that the truth of God is engraved on our souls. It is only when we are not bent on speaking, but on hearing, that we have the implanted word put in us. And what is that word? It is the word of the gospel, that "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom. 10:9). We are not capable of really doing that if we are not at all meek. May God grant us the kind of meekness James is talking about, to love God and to see in him alone all our sufficiency, not in ourselves.
But, James tells us, there is more. We not only hear the word, receiving it with meekness, but afterward we also do the word. When we know God's revealed truth, we must "do truth" in everything (Eph. 4:25, literally "truthing in love"). We live as people of that word of truth, and we pray that our lives would be changed by our knowledge of the gospel. James goes on after verse 22 to compare the word of God, the "perfect law, the law of liberty" to a mirror. We look into it and see ourselves as we really are. We are honest about what we see there, and we change our behavior in response. The word teaches me that my relationship to a friend is falling apart and that it is happening because of my arrogance, and so I immediately go to that friend and repair the breach. Not only that, but I keep an eye on myself, looking for signs of arrogance in my habits and my personal life that need to be changed. Do the word. Let it change you. Otherwise, as James puts it, you are deceiving yourself. You leave the mirror lying there, forgetting what it was you saw (v.24). But, finally, if you really are receiving the implanted word of God with meekness, you will have a willingness to be changed by it.
If you are reading this and have never known the Lord Jesus Christ, I invite you to consider what James is saying. He is saying that our comprehension of truth is totally misguided if we do not receive what God has revealed in meekness, to be taught by him. Ask yourself, what if it is true? What if Jesus Christ is Lord and God raised him from the dead? That's a quite a question, and one that changes life utterly. May God give you grace to come, and receive from him the joy that is in Jesus Christ. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Jesus said (Matt. 11:28). May you be given grace to do just that.