Doers of the Word
Scripture - James 1:17-27
Human wisdom usually produces proverbs. “A stitch in time saves nine.” “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” And so. One of the proverbs I learned early on in life goes like this: “Sticks & stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The boys at school used to say it to one another as a response to a silly playground insult.
But of course, that proverb is not really true. You can recover from a broken arm or leg. But if someone smears your good name – if someone tells lies about you, & other people believe them – it may be much, much harder to recover. You may never get the job you want. People may never quite trust you fully. Friends, & even family may turn away from you. In truth, words can be terrible things. They can leave lasting wounds.
Examples: 1. Kiera Knightley (British Academy Award nominated actress) After the Daily Mail printed accusations that Kiera Knightley had an eating disorder and she was partly responsible for the death of a young girl with anorexia, the actress went on to win a high court damages libel against the story. The £3,000 damages that she received from the case were donated to an eating disorder charity.
2. Cameron Diaz (retired actress, author & model) Actress Cameron Diaz was subject to a libel and slander case after The Sun newspaper suggested that she had had an affair with a close friend Shane Nickerson. At the time of the article being published, her and Shane had partners. The blurry and barely recognizable image printed with the article caused damage to both her and her friend’s relationships and she went on to sue the paper for her defamation.
3. Robin Williams (deceased actor & comedian) A more unusual example of contacting the libel and slander solicitors is Robin Williams. He sued his celebrity look-alike who, with the help of his agent, was pretending to be the actual Robin Williams. Whilst under false pretenses, the look-alike was cheating charities under Robin William’s name and causing serious damage to his reputation.
4. Sharon Stone (actress & former model) Plastic surgeon Renato Calabria told two major US magazines that Sharon Stone had received a facelift. She claimed that the accusations had defamed her and that the suggested surgery had made it difficult for her to find work. She sued the surgeon for damage to her reputation and any lost work opportunities.
5. David Beckham (retired British soccer player) Footballer David Beckham was unsuccessful with his libel and slander case when he tried to sue a US magazine for claiming he had slept with a prostitute. Without any proof that the magazine was acting maliciously, David was unable to win the court ruling and his $25 million claim was dismissed.
In our Scripture, James introduces one of his key themes: the dangerous power of the human tongue. This is all in line with what he has just said about God’s Word. It is not just conveying information; it actually does things, changes things, & brings about a new & lasting state of affairs. So, in this passage we see God’s word going to work at the same time as we hear a warning about our human words going to work in a rather different direction. As is so often in James, when you hold different ideas side by side, a much bigger picture emerges.
So, we begin with a theme which many early Christian writers emphasized: the danger of human anger. James has been emphasizing the need for patience; anger is, of course, one of the things which happens when patience reaches its limit. In v. 19-21, he applies his teaching about patience in a particular direction: my dear brothers & sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, & slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth & the growth of wickedness, & welcome the word planted deep inside you. We always imagine that when the world is out of joint, a little bit of our own anger will put things right.
Paul, in Ephesians 4:26, allows that there may be a type of anger which is appropriate, but insists that it must be kept severely in its place. James hints at a similar concession when he says we should be slow to anger - as we are slow to speak. But the point is this: If what we want is God’s justice, coming to sort things out, we will do better to get entirely out of the way & let God do his own work, rather than supposing our burst of anger – which will very likely have all sorts of nasty parts to it, such as wounded pride, malice & envy – will somehow help God do what needs to be done.
The way God works in us & through us is not by taking our nasty or malicious anger & somehow making it all right. The way God works is, again, through his word. Earlier James spoke of that word in terms of God giving birth to us as new creatures, as the beginning of his whole new creation. Here, with help from a passage in Isaiah (55:10-11), he sees God’s word in terms of something being sown or planted, producing a beautiful shrub or a fruitful harvest.
But how does this happen? Every generation in the church worries, & rightly so, about people who just glide along, seeming to enjoy what they hear in church but without it making any real difference in their lives. ‘Nominal Christians,’ they are often called. It is comforting, in a way, to know that James faced exactly the same problem in the very first century: people who were happy to listen to the word – this presumably means both the teaching of the Old Testament & the message about Jesus – but who went away without it having affected them very much.
Here he uses an interesting illustration. In his day there were, of course, no photographs. Hardly anyone had their portrait painted. Not many people possessed mirrors, either. So, if you did happen to catch sight of yourself, you might well forget at once what you looked like. That is what it is like, James says, for some when they hear God’s word. A quick glance – “Oh, yes,” they think, “that is interesting” - & then they forget it & carry on as before.
James’ remedy for this is to remind us of what the word of Scripture, & the message about Jesus, really is: it is the perfect law of freedom. To us that sounds like a contradiction in terms. How can a law be part of freedom? A law is something that restricts your freedom, right? Which stops you from doing what you want?
Well, yes & no. Suppose we did not have a law about which side of the road we were supposed to drive on. Everyone would set off & do their own thing. And chaos would ensue: accidents, near-misses, & nobody able to go at any speed for fear of disaster. The law that says you drive on the right (here in America & elsewhere) or on the left (in Britain & elsewhere) sets you free. That is what God’s law is like: by restricting your ‘freedom’ in some ways, it opens up far greater, genuine freedoms in all other ways.
And the point is this: when you look into this law, the word of God, it is supposed to change you. The word must go to work. When that happens, God’s blessing – that is, God’s enrichment of your life in all kinds of ways – will surely follow.
This blessing, as in Jesus’ beatitudes in Matthew 5, promises joy in unexpected & counterintuitive places. It does not mean that acting in accordance with the law of freedom will be easy. Rather, it affirms that God will bless the action & the one who does it. Alternately, James wants believers to realize that there is a personal cost to not following God’s law. We become those who deceive not just others but ourselves, characterized by a contaminated soul. Our priorities not only illustrate the way we have been formed in our faith, but they also become part of the formation of faith itself. To become the people God has called us to be, this faith, this hearing of the law, must be lived out.
It is hard to miss how important the lack of an embodied faith, or the distance between what Christians say & what we do, has been in recent years, especially for younger generations. When asked about the church, the first word college students think of is ‘hypocrite.’ The Gospel of Matthew’s condemnation of hypocrites shares a lot with James’ condemnation of those who know or say the right thing but do not do them. This is why understanding James’ motivations for believers is so important. Yet, understanding these motivations is not enough. From the perspective of skeptical church members, or the “nones” who have left Christianity, a church that does not practice what it preaches is, functionally, not a church.
However, we often find it easy to see where others have failed in this, be it other congregations, other denominations, or other organizations. It is much harder to see where we have failed to live out the faith to which God has called us. James’ solution to this is studying, or meditating on, the law of freedom. James tells his hearers to be prepared to be so changed that not only their thoughts but also their actions will be transformed by the grace of God through the gift of wisdom, or the law of freedom. In this way, as the people of God we are asked to consider how we look deeply into this law, embodied by the life & death of Jesus, to be proclaimed by the church in both word & deed.
James is nothing if not practical. After this flash of glorious theological theory, he comes back down to earth with a bump. A pious person with a foul mouth is a contradiction in terms: those who claim devotion to God but do not control what they say, mislead themselves. Such a person is deceiving themself – but nobody else! James does not immediately say what the remedy is, but he says, in effect, “All right: Do you want to follow in God’s way? Here is how!
“There are people out there who need your help; & there is a messy world out there that will try to mess up your life as well. Make sure you focus on the first & avoid the second.” That, my friends, is good, practical teaching. It is almost like a set of proverbs!
Let us be doers of the word & not hearers only. For as we persevere in godly living, we bear the fruit of the Spirit & build up - & expand - the whole household of God.