I don’t know where you find yourself this week, but our study in James has been landing some spiritual haymakers on me as we work through this first chapter. The half-brother of Jesus is never more direct than when he is discussing the way the Christian’s life should look. As we continue in James chapter 1, we find inspired words on a topic that is of vital importance in the church.
James 1:19-20 states, “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” (ESV). It’s easy at first glance to simply conclude this is simply a verse about a certain basic morality, and of course, it is good advice. After all, don’t most people want individuals to listen to them, to be patient, to not lose their temper at the first provocation?
However, let’s go on to James 1:21, and see the deeper principle at work here: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (ESV).
Verse 21, along with the bracketing verses of 18 and 22, are important because they link these practices, particularly listening, to receiving the “implanted word”—that is, the Gospel. Thinking about this in my life, I have to own to many times sitting in the pew at church, catching myself thinking about something else entirely or assuming because they’re reading out of a certain book of the Bible that I know what’s going to be said. Even in church, it is immensely easy to let worldly distractions leak in and take away our focus on hearing the Word of God. When we’re talking about the divine Word of God, James tell us it should be received with “meekness”. This word implies a respectful humility and focus in the hearing of God’s Word, and affording it the full weightiness and consideration it deserves. In a world where every year seems to offer more distractions, this type of focus doubtless seems harder than ever before.
I remember as a teenager (in the days where cell phones still were essentially a two-man lift) sitting in church, doodling what were in all likelihood rather unsuitable doodles for that particular time and place. My Mom would elbow me and tell me to put it away, the same as she would if I brought something not church-related to read or mess with during the service. In the same way, we need to put away outside distractions and thoughts aside when we’re hearing the Word of God. Thinking back to my early 20s, when I seemed so far from following the Lord, this was one of the ways I shut out anything outside the self as much as possible. Not content with limiting God’s Word in my life to the occasional Sunday I did go to church, I further limited it to the odd syllable that might slip in between my daydreaming, messing with electronics, or whatever way in which I was determined to show my complete indifference to what was being preached.
Of course, that’s a (hopefully) extreme example. For many of us, focusing in on the hearing of God’s Word is something we intend to do, but our lives just have so much else, don’t they? Much of it can even be church-related. After all, besides finding a babysitter for Tuesday, there’s the Discipleship Group meeting after the service, then we have to drop off the neighbor kids before picking them up for their Sunday night small group, then make lasagna for Mom’s Group, find someone to help with our youth sports team, and then, of course, someone is going to have to share that picture on Facebook that urges everyone to pass it on to 10 “Angels” in their lives. And before long, distraction has taken out that important core of knowing God through His Scripture, and changed it into a social melee that is missing something vital.
The rest of the Bible does not mince words on the importance of listening to God’s Word any more than James does. In fact, it’s a veritable broadside of verses, each citing the absolute necessity of this hearing. Romans 10:17 states “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”. The old favorite, Psalm 119:105, proclaims “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”. Matthew 4:4 speaks of living “by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Hebrews 2:1 warns “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it”. The references continue. It is clear regularly hearing and receiving God’s Word is a necessity in the church.
Perhaps the most urgent verse again on listening to the Word of God preached comes from Romans 10:14, which states, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” The Scripture simply does not leave any room for a vision of a church where the hearing of the Word is not of central importance.
We are indeed called to do life together, which includes a full dose of service and community, but not at the cost of focusing on God’s Word. What a sad thing it would be, to attend church and yet somehow miss out on the very thing we are to hide in each of our hearts! (Psalm 119:11). As busy as we are, we need that respite, that renewing of our minds and hearts by taking time to listen to God’s wonderful plans and promises. As brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s also something we need to ensure others in our church family have the opportunity to do, too. This isn’t just about ensuring we personally have the opportunity to listen and engage God’s Word, but in acting as a church family to ensure everyone among us has that opportunity. Galatians 5:13 reminds us that we are to “through love serve one another” (ESV). 1 Peter 4:10 speaks of using our gifts for the same reason. The Bible’s picture of the church is one in which the Word is heard and our brothers and sisters are served. Maybe it means staying for the later service and serving with the youth ministry, or volunteering to help with the actual service itself. The more helping hands that apply themselves to service, the more likely it is that someone will get to sit down, open themselves fully to God’s Word, and have that important, peaceful, convicting time hearing that message.
Whether it’s examining our own listening habits, or helping another have the time to hear expository preaching, James’ principle has a particular application for listening to the preaching from Scripture in our churches. In a humble, receptive, and thankful spirit, we are to receive God’s Word. The Bible is also clear we should be doing what we can do to serve and lift up others in our church, and one of the best ways to do that is to volunteer to give them that respite, that precious time to hear of God’s incredible promises. As a church family, each of us has an awesome responsibility and opportunity to hear and let be heard the word of God, and to let it “cut” (Hebrews 4:12) so very beautifully through all the distractions life throws in in our path.