Actions Speak louder
December 7, 2014
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER!
December 7, 2014
If you were here two weeks ago, you may remember that I spoke on temptation.
I mentioned that all humans, whether religious or not, find themselves doing the things that they really don’t want to do, and not doing the things they really are convicted that they should be doing.
I mentioned that we are tempted primarily through our desires, our emotional, psychological and physical desires. When we give into temptation it is because our desire has trumped our conscience, our reason and our will – that is how powerful it is.
I also pointed out that ultimately the change from our old self to our new self, the process of becoming the person we really want to be, comes when we are focused daily on fostering a genuine relationship with God, when we are purposefully in daily communication with him.
The times that we will be most successful at being the person we really want to be, is when we are in prayer, that is, just speaking to God, throughout our day.
Why is that? Generally speaking, we are more concerned about ourselves than we are about others or God. But when we are talking with God, then our attitude changes, our minds are renewed, or conscience is recharged.
And so, our conscience, our reason and our will have a fighting chance against our desires. Now some people misunderstand this reality to mean that “living by faith” means that no effort on our part is necessary. It’s God’s responsibility to make us do the right thing. If we get to that conviction then not only will we be disappointed, but ultimately disillusioned with God.
In the passage we are looking at today, James is reiterating the fact that we have to face up to our own responsibility when it comes to standing up to temptation and making the right choices.
In other words, we are not “defeated” by this temptation or that temptation. We are simply disobedient. If I say that I are defeated by some temptation, I place the blame for my misconduct and my bad choices on something outside of myself. In essence I am slipping out from under my responsibility. The reality is that no matter how strong the temptation - as helpless I seem to be against it - when I give in, it was still my choice, something I decided to do or to keep from doing.
I’ll be reading the first paragraph of our passage today.
19 Keep in mind, my dear brothers: Every person should be eager to listen but slow to speak. (He should also) be slow to get angry 20 because what is done in anger is not what is right in God’s eyes. 21 Therefore, lay aside all that is filthy and wicked. With humility take to heart the word that was placed inside you, which has the power to save your souls.
Before I go on, let me stop at this point. We should be clear on what “word” is that James is speaking about. In a Jewish context, the term “word” at times can be translated as “message,” which is the case here. For example, the 10 commandments in the OT are literally called the 10 words.
In v.18, James calls “the word of truth” the message that was received by his readers and which allowed them to receive “birth,” that is the “new birth” associated with eternal life. By receiving or accepting or believing the message, it is implanted, that is, it is internalized – it becomes part and parcel of their thinking, their mindset, their world view.
So the “word” is really referring to the message about what 1. Jesus’ taught and lived out in terms of loving others,
2. as well as what his sacrifice accomplished on our behalf, both in terms of
a. providing forgiveness and cleansing from all that we do wrong or from the good that we have not done, but should have, … as well as the fact that
b. God’s Spirit comes to indwell us, which also reinvigorates our dulled conscience.
Notice that for this to happen, the message is only received and internalized by those who are humble, since pride and complete self-reliance, make that internalization impossible. There is a sense in which a genuine believer has to submit himself or herself to God’s will.
As a result of this submission, a believer will consciously have to do certain things:
a. The action of speaking little and listening a lot
By the way, also the way to make friends and keep friends … put the focus on them, ask them questions, let them share. And when they speak, don’t interject with a story that trumps theirs. Don’t start talking while the other person is sharing. Don’t get louder to drown out someone else who is speaking.
Illustration: I recently was at a memorial service where the person who was to give the message spoke about all the wonderful things he was doing when he met the deceased. In other words, the person who had died almost became a footnote as the speaker was blowing his own horn.
In 1 Peter 3 (1-2) we read that our greatest witness to others about the truth of what we believe, is not what we say to them, as important as that may be, but how we live our lives in integrity and obedience to God’s will … particularly when it comes to our moral behaviour.
b. The action of being slow to get angry (based on empathy and gratitude)
Anger is an emotion that everyone feels. Jesus got angry. Paul got angry. But there is a difference between righteous and controlled anger and unrighteous or uncontrolled anger. Paul writes that when we shouldn’t allow anger to make us do or say things that are wrong.
Now those of you with a short fuse may have difficulty changing yourselves. In fact, there are all kinds of reason why we may be quick to blow our stack. The insecurity that comes with others not doing what we want them to do. The fear that comes with not being in charge. The emotional scars or bitterness we carry with what happened to us as children.
And so we can get into the habit of easily getting upset, and emotion trumps rational thinking almost all the time. The only way to change is to have our thinking reformed. Something else has to come into our minds in order to make us more patient and relaxed.
Most of what I read regarding a short fuse, anger, and rage, points out that we are at our most patient and relaxed when we are thankful and when we empathize with others. And I have found that to be true in my own life. When I am constantly thanking God for everything and everyone in my life, and when I try to see things from the other person’s point of view, I find myself at my best , my most patient, most content, most relaxed, most able to roll with the punches.
c. The action of moral excellence
Lay aside all that is filthy and wicked. In other words, stop doing whatever would compromise your conscience and God’s will for you.
For example, the message of Jesus, of God’s love spilling out in our hearts toward others, may convict us that we should give a portion of our income to God, that is, to the benefit of others, as well as saving a portion instead of spending it all on ourselves.
In a society that believes in instant gratification, with personal desires that call out for instant gratification, the idea of self-denial may not be popular, but ultimately we know that it will lead to financial freedom.
If you are one of those who has no savings, if you spend everything you get on yourself as fast as possible, doesn’t that actually result in bondage?
Or maybe the message of Jesus and God’s love, and treating others as we would have them treat us, convicts us that sex is to be reserved for the kind of commitment that is found within a marriage. Again, this goes so much against the overt sexuality that is part and parcel of our culture as well as our own physical desires.
For those of you who were sexually active through high school and college, were there any negative consequences as a result? Did your actions result in a sexually transmitted disease? Did it make you a predator or did it make you feel taken advantage of? Did it hurt your self-image or the self-image of others? Or presently, does it negatively affect your marriage … for example, does it make you prone to wander from your spouse? This too is a type of bondage.
What if the message of having God as our heavenly father who yearns for us to love him and others convicts us that we need to forgive those who have harmed us, who have hurt us, who have caused us great emotional or physical pain? Isn’t it natural to simply live in hate and bitterness, the kind of emotional bondage that hurts us much more than the person who we refuse forgive.
What if that message tells us that we are to keep ourselves from illegal drugs and show great restraint in legal drugs, including alcohol? But our society tells us to party it up, get high, get blasted … and if we follow this instead of our new image, will that not also lead to bondage.
James seems to think that we have an actual choice even in these areas of our lives.
22 But don’t just listen to the word. Act on what it says, otherwise you are deceiving yourselves. 23 Whoever listens to the word and does not act on what it says is like a person who sees his own face in a mirror. 24 He looks at himself, walks away, an immediately forgets what he looks like (or: forgets what kind of a person he is). 25 But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and holds on to it (lit. and remains [in it]), who is not a forgetful listener but acts according to what he hears, will be blessed in what he does.
The law of freedom is not the Mosaic Law, or the 10 commandments. It isn’t even the NT, or even the Gospels that tell us about Jesus’ teaching – because none of these existed when James wrote this letter.
In the NT, the law of freedom is also called the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2) or the law of the Spirit (Rom 8:2) [cf. the royal law (Jam 2:8)].
Paul writes in his letters that a law that is external to ourselves, whether the Mosaic Law of the OT, the 10 commandments, or any other written set of rules and regulations, can actually engender and empower temptation in our lives, whereas the law of Christ is the law of freedom since it can be internalized an thus make it possible for us to do the right thing.
So the law of freedom is not a list of rules, of does and don’ts, but the freedom to love others as our hearts are moved, to treat them like we would want to be treated, as if we were in their shoes. It is the law that allows us to look at others and do something about their need when (if) we can. It is the law that says we ought to love those outside of our circle of family and friends, as we would love ourselves, much like the story of the good Samaritan illustrates.
It may seem like the next paragraph in James’ letter moves on to a new topic, but really he is only describing what some of the manifestations of acting according to the law of freedom, the internalized message about God’s love and forgiveness, looks like. Let’s continue on
26 Whoever thinks that he serves God* but does not bridle his tongue is deceiving himself and his service to God* is worthless. 27 God considers service to himself* pure and undefiled when it consist of taking care of orphans and widows who are in need, and (it consists) of keeping oneself unstained from (the corruption that is in) the world.
*Threskos, often translated as “religion,” literally means “fearing” or “worshipping God”, but in this context it relates to living out God’s will in our lives, which is why I translated it as “service to God”.
James is pointing to two examples of what doing the word of freedom looks like. For one, he returns to the point about the way we speak. In v.19 he mentions the importance of listening to others rather than speaking at them.
Here in v.26, James speaks of bridling the tongue, that is, just like a bit can be used to “reign in” and direct a horse, so we are able to reign in and direct what we say.
Receiving and internalizing the message will result in service to God that includes how we speak.
It ALSO includes taking care of those in real need.
Thirdly, it includes staying away from the garbage that is part and parcel of human society, back in the first century, as it is today.
So if you look at the outline of this passage, you will notice that the section that deals with receiving the word finds its parallels in the section that deals with acting on the word.
1. Receiving the implanted word with humility (vs. 19-21)
a. The action of speaking little and listening a lot
b. The action of being slow to get angry (based on empathy and gratitude)
c. The action of moral excellence
2. Acting on the (implanted) word, not just hearing what it says (vs. 22-27)
a. The action of speaking under control
The action of compassion
The action of keeping oneself unstained by the world
So simply listening to the word, or agreeing with it, or even feeling convicted by it, is different from receiving it because the latter will always lead to action. If we internalize the word, we will act on it.
At the end of the day it’s what we do that matters, that makes a difference - all the difference. Let me just focus a little bit more on James 1:22-25.
But don’t just listen to the word. Act on what it says, otherwise you are deceiving yourselves. James 1:22
James is telling us of a potential tension within people who say that they are believers, are followers of Jesus, but who only listen to the word, the message of life, the good news of what Jesus did and accomplished on our behalf, but who ONLY listen and don’t apply this word to their lives. James tells us those believers are deceiving themselves. So what are they deceived about?
Well, some church goers think that they are OK with God as long as they make it to church. It’s like saying, “I’m getting credit, I’m getting brownie points, for being in the building. God I’m here so I expect a better parking spot at the mall, a better grade on my exam. Look God, I even paid attention during the service, at least the 10% I’m not texting or playing a game on my smart phone. Look God, I listened.”
Others may go a step further and say, “Look, God, I had a spiritual experience in church. I actually felt a little bit convicted about something in my own life. I felt like a complete loser when it came to my marriage or my parenting skills. And somehow being at church and being convicted made me feel good. I felt good about feeling so bad about myself.”
We may walk out of the church and felt better about ourselves, our convictions, but still have no inclination to change our behavior. And James warns his readers against this.
James would say, “believing is great,” but application is BETTER because acting on our believes actually proves that our belief is for real. It is something we have internalized. Words without action puts into question whether or not we have actually become followers of Jesus.
James points out that inaction with regard to Jesus’ teaching, his example, and the implications of his death and resurrection, simply doesn’t make sense for someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus. He paints us a picture of just how ludicrous that idea is.
Whoever listens to the word and does not act on what it says is like a person who sees his own face in a mirror. 24 He looks at himself, walks away, an immediately forgets what he looks like (or: what kind of a person he is).
Let’s say that a young woman is getting ready to go out on a date and is horrified when she looks into the bathroom mirror and sees this big fat bright red zit with a white center, sitting right in the middle of her forehead.
She sees the pimple, but then walks away from the mirror and immediately forgets about it. She leaves the bathroom and goes out to meet her date without a care in the world. Ladies, how forgetful exactly would you have to be for that to happen?
For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re looking into this mirror that James is talking about and the image that’s reflected back at you is a person who is patient and kind, who welcomes new neighbours, who gives toward the needy, who visits with the sick, who feeds the hungry, and so on.
What if you walk away from the mirror and immediately forget who you are and you just picture yourself in your mind in the old terms, in who you were a some time ago:
… the person who doesn’t care about the needy or the hungry or the sick? When we forget about our true identity as God’s children, what will happen?
Or let’s say the mirror tells you that you are a person who no longer cheats or lies or swears or steals or takes advantage of other, who loves and cares and listens to others and is patient with them.
So you see yourself, you nod your head in agreement, but as soon as you walk away from the mirror you only see the person you once were. What will happen?
Imagine a guy who gets up in the morning and says to himself, “Wow, I really need to shave.” But he doesn’t do anything about it.
So he gets to work and his coworker says to him, “Hey John, you look terrible. Did you not shave this morning?”
And he answers, “You know, I didn’t. I know I really need to. I know the boss will be disappointed when he sees me. In fact I’m convicted about shaving but I just seem to lack the motivation when I’m not looking into the mirror. Would you pray for me because I really need to shave? Just pray that I will shave, OK?”
So the work college replies, “Well why don’t you just shave? I know you’ve got a spare razor in your desk.”
And John replies, “Well I feel bad about not shaving, but I really don’t feel like shaving right now. It’s a bad time being at work and all. I just want others to pray for me.”
Some of us have been carrying around the same old stupid habits, overindulgences, lack of discipline, and lack of compassion, for years, and every time we’re convicted about it we say something like, “Yes, I really need to work on this, I really need to do something about it, but not just right now.”
Think about the same scenario with a woman with unshaved legs. Personally I think it only looks good on a female wookie. But I digress.
James makes the point that those who truly serve God make a positive difference in the lives of others, first with how they speak with others, and second by helping to provide for the most needy … in his society these were the orphans and widows who were destitute because they had no possible income other than begging.
James continues on, …
But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and holds on to it (lit. and remains [in it]), who is not a forgetful listener but acts according to what he hears, will be blessed in what he does. James 1:25
People back in James’ day had it a lot harder when it comes to “looking intently.” Back then mirrors considered of polished metal surfaces. And none of them could magnify the way our make-up mirrors can today – especially those with lights around the outside. We have the ability to look intently at every stray hair, every pore, every black head, every blemish in order to do something about it. We can almost see up our noses all the way into our brains with the kind of mirrors and scopes we have.
Let’s get back to the example of the woman with the zit. When she looks at this pimple with great intent, as she studies it and notices everything about it, what is she trying to figure out? Isn’t she thinking through the best way to deal with it? Should I try to pop it? Put makeup on it? Maybe even a small skin-coloured Band-Aid would be most appropriate for a day or two. She remains in front of the mirror for as long as it takes until she does what she hopes will be the best solution.
The reality is that we usually stop looking into the mirror when we think we’re looking about as good as possible, given the circumstances. And just think of all the things that we have to make that happen. On our counters or in our bathroom vanities we can find razors, toothbrushes, teeth whitener, mouthwash, clippers, scissors, eye liner, blush, hair dryers, hair curlers, hair straighteners, hair spray, hair colouring, brushes, combs, gels, … and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of other things. Think of all the things that can be found in your bathroom.
When we look intently at the word of truth, the law of freedom, if we are constantly in contact with the God who loves us, then this will keep us from forgetting, from simply getting so busy, distracted, tired, preoccupied, or stressed that we fall back into the negative habits we’ve been holding on to, that we simply continue going on as always.
I think that James was reflecting in these words to his readers something he heard Jesus say himself. While it is unlikely that James was actually with Jesus those three years of ministry, he could not but have heard Jesus teaching and seen his actions when they both lived in Capernaum.
At the very end of his sermon on the mount, Jesus spoke about hearing and actually doing. I’ll just be showing you a few verses out of that whole section:
Not everyone who calls me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21
Which he goes on to illustrate in the parable of the two types of foundations to a house.
Everyone who hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house on a foundation of rock. … But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand. Matthew 7:24,26
Jesus also said these words at another time:
Blessed are those who hear the word of God and follow (obey) it. Luke 11:28
Those who built on the right foundation, received the blessing of their house, that is their eternal souls, standing firm when the world seems to end, when suffering comes, when difficulties come, even when death comes.
They have the blessing of living a life of integrity.
The blessing of knowing that they are better people than they once were.
The blessing of having the assurance of spending eternity with God.
Every time this week when you and I are standing in front of a mirror, making an effort to look the best we can before walking out the door, maybe we need to ask ourselves the question:
AM I MAKING AN EFFORT TO ADJUST MY LIFE ACCORDING TO THE MESSAGE OF TRUTH AND THE LAW OF FREEDOM?
IF NOT, WHY NOT?
James, the brother of Jesus, makes this promise: you will be blessed in what you do. Because at the end of the day, doing is everything—application is what makes all the difference.