(Previously Titled “Listening and Doing”)
This is a sermon that was originally preached on September 8, 1991 at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama. The content has been edited for clarity. At the bottom of this post in the Comment section I will share additional thoughts I would add to the message today.
19 Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20 for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of 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 any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.
26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
~ James 1:19-27 (Revised Standard Version)
I’m sure it has happened to you before. You’re with friends or family talking about something, and someone interrupts you in mid-sentence, totally changing the subject, and you never even get to finish what you were saying. Or someone asks you a question that requires more than a yes or no answer, but then interrupts you after you’ve only gotten a few words out, never really letting you answer their question at all. It’s as if they didn’t really care about your answer anyway.
Maybe I’m more boring than the average person, or maybe the people I spend time with are just more rude than most people (present company excepted 😉 ), but this kind of thing happens to me a fair amount, and I suspect I‘m not alone. Usually when something like this happens we don’t get too upset about it; it’s a fairly common occurrence of everyday life. We get used to it and just let it roll off our backs. It really doesn’t bother us that much when the subject is trivial, as when we’re just sharing a funny story.
But when we’re talking about something important and the other person fails to listen, that can hurt. It can make us feel devalued, like they doesn’t really care about us or what we have to say, as though we don’t really matter to them all that much. This can be even more devastating when the listener—or, in this case, non-listener—is someone we’re close to, like a parent, a good friend, or even a spouse.
There are times we really do need someone to listen, times we truly need to talk, to “get something off our chests,” or share a concern or a fear, or a painful experience. And there are certain people we especially hope to be able to share those things with. Sometimes, though, it seems almost impossible to find anyone to talk to.
Yet isn’t it just as true that from time to time we ourselves are the ones guilty of not really listening? I have to admit there are times my own mind starts to wander or I get distracted. I’m sure we’re all guilty on occasion of not letting someone finish a thought, so that something important that needed to be said remains unspoken.
In our society listening often doesn’t seem nearly as important as talking. I’ve come to believe that when it comes to listening, our culture is pretty impoverished. As someone in a helping profession I find that everyone is looking for someone who will simply just take the time to listen to them.
You’ve heard the old saying: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I’ve made up my own version of this saying: “Be a better listener, and the world will beat a path to your door.” (Of course, you have to decide whether you want the world to beat a path to your door. 😉 ) The fact is, though, those who are truly good listeners will have people lining up to see them. One sure way to make friends is to listen to people.
It would seem from this morning’s New Testament scripture reading that in Bible times there was just as much need for good listeners as there is today. This passage from the epistle to James that was written so long ago has some very timely advice about listening.
To fully understand this passage it may be helpful to start with a little background on the book of James as a whole. The “James” this letter claims as its author is thought to be James, the brother of Jesus (not the James who was one of the 12 disciples). This brother of Jesus became the leader of the church in Jerusalem in the years after Jesus ascended into heaven.
James opens his book with the words, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting.” The book is believed to be a general letter that was circulated among many of the churches of his day. It is almost entirely practical in tone, rather than theological. Most of its content is geared toward showing us how to live rather than what we should believe.
In the closing verses of the first chapter, which make up today’s Scripture reading, James gives us some very practical words of wisdom about our conduct toward others. Beginning at verse 19 he says, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”
When we hear those words our tendency may be to immediately focus on what James says about not getting angry. But the real message he’s trying to get across is in the first part of the sentence, when he says, “Let everyone he quick to hear. “ Other translations read “Let everyone be quick to listen,” which is, I think, the essence of what James is trying to say.
“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak,” he says. These two thoughts go together, for everyone knows it’s difficult to listen if we’re trying to talk at the same time. Yet how often do we do this very thing? We get involved in a “discussion” with someone and we only hear part of what they say before we begin to respond, thinking we know what they mean, or what they’re going to say; when in reality if we heard them out we might find that they’re actually saying something entirely different from what we thought.
This kind of thing is especially common when we get into a disagreement. We speak quickly to defend our position, without fully hearing the other person’s point of view. Then we get mad or defensive because of what we thought they said.
James advises us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for human anger does not work the righteousness of God.” Anger gets in the way of God’s work, but it can be minimized if we’ll take the time to listen.
James even connects our ability to listen with our spirituality. He says some strong words in verse 26: “If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is in vain. “ Our ability to use restraint in our speech is an indicator of our spirituality. According to James, those who think of themselves as religious but who speak hastily, without listening, are not really religious at all; their religion is mere self-deception. The implication is that those who are filled with the love of Christ will display the restraint needed to listen carefully before speaking.
We don’t normally think of listening as a form of service, but in reality, listening to others is actually a very concrete way we can serve others. Allowing them to confide in us, to get worries off their chest, to say important things, can actually be a form of ministry. It’s definitely something that needs to happen in our families and friendships. At the very least it’s important for us to be attentive to our loved ones when they need to talk about something. For example, when a family member tells us we’ve hurt them in some way or asks us to be more considerate, these are times when James’ words really need to be put into practice. We need to learn to listen to each other.
But there’s another kind of listening that’s also necessary. We need to listen to God. This may be a concept some don’t think about very much, but it’s something we need to do.
Now this may seem hard for some because God doesn’t normally speak audibly. At least not nowadays, anyway, or at least not to most of us. I suspect most of us wish God would speak to us that way, for we’d all have an easier time knowing him and what he wants us to do and how we should live.
But instead, God normally speaks with a spiritual voice. In the Bible it’s described as a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). It’s a voice that requires what you might call “spiritual ears” if it is to be heard. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said over and over again in his teaching, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
An ability to hear the still, small voice of the living God is given when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. At that time we’re baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, who quickens our spirit and opens the ears of our understanding, enabling us to hear the voice of God.
His voice comes to us in a variety of ways. First and foremost, God speaks through scripture, which is the written Word of God. The Holy Spirit takes the words of scripture and brings them alive, using them as a vehicle through which he speaks God’s word for us today. Ever been reading a passage of Scripture and it seemed like the words just jumped off the page at you? Chances are that was the Holy Spirit calling those words to your attention. They must have had some applicability to your life.
This can happen when we read a passage for ourselves, or hear a sermon, or study a chapter in a Bible study, and the words grab us and won’t let us go. Sometimes it’s a word of comfort, other times a word of admonition, or conviction of sin. Other times it’s a call to action. But in each case we hear the word and are affected by it—sometimes even offended by it, when we’re confronted with our sin or told something we didn’t want to hear. In all these instances, it’s the Spirit of God speaking through the words of scripture, revealing the heart and mind of God for us today.
Obviously the word of God can come to us in other ways, too. God can speak through other believers, as the Spirit of God who dwells in them speaks through them to us. This happens all the time when we receive sound, wise advice from a friend or family member. And for that matter, since we who trust in Christ have been given the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit of God can speak to us directly by planting thoughts in our minds and impressions in our hearts—thoughts and impressions that can help or guide us in living our lives as God would have us live.
Now obviously, not every thought that comes into our head is from God, and not every word spoken by another person is from God either. This is where we must return to scripture, which is again the primary source of God’s revelation. Every word, every thought which claims to be from God must ultimately pass the test of scripture. Does what is being said agree with the overall teaching of the Bible? If it doesn’t, then it’s not from God, for God doesn’t contradict himself. Hebrews 13:8-9 says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” Likewise, in Malachi 3:6 God says “I the Lord do not change.” God may give new revelation for a new situation, or may bring new understanding to his Word. But he’s not going to contradict what he has said in the past.
Now there are obviously other issues at stake here, for it’s not always easy in every case to determine what the Bible teaches on certain subjects. But that’s a topic for another sermon, if not a series of sermons. The point is that the word of God does come to us in a variety of ways, and we are usually able to grasp at least some sense of what God is saying to us.
It’s at this point that James has something else to say, too: When the word of God does come to us, when we hear it, we need to act on it. He says, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing” (James 1:22-25).
Here we see the emphasis on practicality and action that’s so characteristic of the book of James. James is saying it’s not enough just to hear God’s word and go no further. We must follow through and obey it.
That hits close to home, doesn’t it? For isn’t it so easy to fall into the habit of hearing but not doing? It’s one thing to hear the sermon every Sunday, and even be moved by it from time to time, but it’s something else again to put it into practice. It’s one thing to talk about caring for the poor in a Bible study, but it’s quite another to actually reach out and help one of those people who stands by the side of the road on the Parkway holding a sign asking to work for food. It’s one thing to read in the book of Matthew that we’re to love our enemies, and it’s something else to genuinely care for a neighbor or co—worker who’s always unkind.
Yet this is what James is calling us to do. We may know a lot about the Bible and about God, but James is calling us to move one step further, to put our knowledge into practice. Otherwise, he says, we’re like someone who looks in a mirror and then forgets what he looks like as soon as he walks away. When we hear God’s word we need to act upon it or it will escape us, leaving us unchanged. But when we act upon God’s word, both we and the world are changed.
A colleague of mine spoke of a proverb that says, “To know and not to do is not yet to know.“ This is not all that different from some other words in the book of James. In chapter 4 verse 17 James says, “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
Even James’ definition of spirituality in chapter 1 verse 27 is action oriented: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James doesn’t mean to say this is all there is to being a Christian, but he’s trying once again to emphasize the importance of action in religion. This calls to mind the words of the apostle John in 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.”
What this all boils down to is that what we do here in church is not an end in itself. Sermons aren’t meant to merely entertain or inspire (which is good, because sometimes they don’t!). We don’t just study the Bible for the sake of studying the Bible. The purpose of a quiet time is not just to learn more about the Bible either. Certainly we need to know the Word. But all these things are ultimately a means to an end, that we might know how to live, both as individuals and as a church. We listen in order that we may do.
Today we’ve covered a lot of territory! Let’s review.
James says be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.“ Listening is such an important service we can offer to others. In fact, it’s essential if we’re to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and conflicts.
We also need to listen to God. And when we hear Him, we need to obey.
May God help us to do these things. Amen.
If you found this message helpful, please share it using the Share buttons below. If you have questions or thoughts, please leave a comment.