Faith at Work

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Are you listening to God?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 1:19-27

I grew up defining Christians as people who go to church. A Rotarian is someone who goes to Rotary Club meetings; a Buddhist is a person who worships at a Buddhist temple; a Christian is someone who attends services at a Christian church. Ours is not the first generation to make that mistake.

Six centuries before Christ, the Orphic cult taught that our souls existed in a preincarnate, spiritual state, only to be placed in physical bodies for punitive purposes. The “spiritual” is good, the “secular” bad. The point of philosophy–and life–was to return the soul to its first state. This wedge between body and soul has persisted in Western and Christian thinking for most of our history.

We define the spiritual as that which is done inside the church, and the secular as that which is outside it. And we measure spirituality by time spent in church activities. A “good Christian” is someone who goes to worship and Bible study regularly and participates in the life of the church.

James begs to differ. He knows that listening to sermons and Sunday school lessons and attending church activities is no guarantee of spiritual health. I can spend all day in a health spa, but if my lifestyle does not reflect the values of my surroundings, I’m deceiving myself. Sitting in a garage doesn’t make me a car.

What commitments do lead to spiritual health, joy, and purpose? What kind of “religion” does God value and bless? When he examines your spiritual life, is he pleased?

Verse 19: Know you, my beloved brothers. But let every man be swift for to hear, slow for to speak, slow to wrath;

Know you is a transitional phrase which ties this section to the previous narrative: we are the “firstfruits” of his new creation, and now must act out our identity. It is best understood as an imperative, something we must know and believe (Gideon 16); “take note of this” (NIV).

Every man is another example of James’ use of anthropos (man) for mankind or humanity; no exceptions are permitted. Be is part of the present infinitive construction, a command for now and for all time.

Swift to hear (infinitive with preposition) can be translated, “swift for the purpose of hearing”; or it can mean, “swift with reference to hearing” (Rienecker 379). The meaning is essentially the same: always choose to listen before you speak, being ready to hear from all people at all times. James probably refers to the word of God–be eager to learn from the spoken Scriptures (v. 21; Adamson 78). The order is clear: we are to “hear” (v. 19), “receive (v. 21), and “do” (vs. 22-25). This is an attitude of the heart–every time we hear or read the word, we are to be quick to seek its life-transforming message for our lives.

Slow to speak means that we are to put listening before speaking. Proverbs warns us repeatedly that many words lead to sin: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (10:19); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (13:3); “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (17:28); “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (29:20; Barclay 55). The Stoic philosopher Zeno observed, “We have two ears but only one mouth, that we may hear more and speak less” (quoted in Barclay 55). One of the rabbis said, “Speech for a shekel, silence for two; it is like a precious stone” (Qoheleth Rabba v. 5, quoted in Oesterley 431).

With relation to the word of God, we are to learn from the Bible before we seek to teach its truths to others. James does not mean that we are never to speak, but that our speaking should follow our learning.

Wrath is the word for the flashes of frustration we all experience, not the Greek term for murderous rage. We are to be “slow to wrath,” demonstrating that such anger is inevitable in life. But to be “slow” is to control such anger: “in your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, quoting Psalm 4:4). The rabbis warned that to lose one’s temper was to lose the Shekinah glory of God (Adamson 78). If we will listen and learn from the word of God, our attitudes towards others will be affected and our anger released. Likewise, if we will be “slow to speak” when we are angry, we will sin less and release our anger more quickly (cf. Robertson 21; Moo 84).

Verse 20: for wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.

Does not is another present tense, admitting no exceptions–there is never a time when our anger expresses the righteous will and work of God. Work is present tense, “practice” or “bring to pass.”

Righteousness of God speaks not of his character but his expectations for us (Rienecker 379)–wrath keeps us from living out the will of God for our lives. In addition, James may mean that our anger does not bring about the justice or judgment of God, that we should leave vengeance to him: “Do not leave room for revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19; Adamson 79).

Verse 21: Wherefore putting away all filthiness and prevalence of evil in meekness receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls.

Putting away is another present tense, a requirement for this moment. The word is a metaphor for stripping off dirty clothes (Romans 13:12; Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 4:22, 25; 1 Peter 2:1; Rienecker 379; Robertson 22), and carries the sense of getting rid of that which hinders and entangles us spiritually (Hebrews 12:1). All allows no exceptions.