Introduction: there are steps to take to finish any big task and growing spiritually has steps as well.
These are hot, lazy days for most people. It is so hot you can be in a pool or ice cream parlor at 10:00 PM. Many people try to take time off, get to the beach relax a little. Of course if you are a contractor the summer days are filled with work. It is time to build because you might not be able to do so in February. Contractors are amazing because they can look at a roll of blueprints and see the house that will be built. Most of us need at least an architectural rendering to see what the house will be. Sometime people will take a picture from a magazine like Country Living and give it to a builder saying “I want this.” The builder knows that there will be a lot of steps and a lot of other pictures before this house is done. That is the way building and most other complex tasks happen. There are a lot of little steps before you get to the end product.
It is the same in our spiritual lives. We want a new life, but we don’t know the steps that lead to one. James can help.
Transition: contractors can look at a blueprint and know what it will look like. They also know what happens first and what happens next. Most of us don’t think of our spiritual lives like that, but James gives us a clue.
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
It is hard to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
This proverb-like statement is like the picture of the house you want built.
Most of us want this kind of spiritual maturity. We want to be slow to speak, quick and gracious in our listening and certainly slow to anger. We want to speak with wisdom. But most of us fail. We don’t guard our tongues, we don’t listen and we get angry a lot. Sometimes we put them altogether in a verbal triple crown, speaking rashly in anger, hurting people and not listening to a thing. So we feel guilty and try harder, or give up in despair. Notice that James does not say we should do this because it is nice, but because our anger does not accomplish the righteousness that God desires. What he means by this is not that we get to heaven by controlling our anger, but that your anger, generally, won’t accomplish what God is trying to do in you and through you. Our anger is usually a sign that our spiritual life is off, that God is not able to do what he wants in you.
Most want to deny they get angry, mask it, blame someone else, but that’s not helpful. There are some steps that you need to take and denying you have a problem is not one of them. It is as if your excavator digs down and hits water. If the water table is higher than you thought you have to take some time to attend to it or the house you want will have a pool in the basement.
Transition: so what are the steps to take with your anger or hurtful words? How do we address that? Well, it is the same step if you struggle with anger or jealousy or malice or lust. Your emotions are an indication that something is going on in you, something that God needs to deal with.
Both “taking off” and an “accepting in” are steps to spiritual growth
James says this: get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word. So there is a taking off and a accepting in. Get rid of the moral wrongs and the evil that have stuck to you from this culture and accept the word God has put in you at conversion.
A term like moral filth or evil is pretty broad. I could mean a lot of things. This term is often connected in scripture with greed, malice or violence. James probably means the evil that is causing his people to speak unwisely and get angry. But for our purposes the significant thing to see is that if you are going to grow spiritually, if you want to be a stable person who is a blessing to people around you, be ready to take some things out of your life. Will to look at the evil in your life, the moral weaknesses you have adopted? Are you willing to look at the things that make you angry, or greedy or jealous?
For instance, does looking on Facebook or Instagram remind you of people you love or does it make you jealous and discontented? Is that why you were so angry and reacted so strongly to something unrelated? Get rid of it. As in most areas of life you have to remove unhealthy or sinful habits and replace them with something new. Get rid of stuff that has hung on you from the culture because there is often a connection between our sin and something, some habit or routine, or influence.
What should you take off? That’s for the Holy Spirit to say but I would say, pay attention to your fears and your compulsions. Both of them get us into trouble and into sin. Address these and label them and repent of them; it is part of the process of taking off and putting on.
Transition: how do we receive or accept the word?
Be doers of the word by remembering and reflecting and putting into practice
James tells us what it means to accept the word with both a negative and then a positive comment. The negative is to not just listen but to do what the word says. This was a common concern for the rabbis in the first century regarding attendance at the synagogue. Would people only listen to the torah being read or would they do the law? James is picking up this language but he is also altering it in an important way.
James gives us a simple image. Those who only listen to the word are like a person who looks into a mirror and then forgets what he sees, going away unchanged. It is easy to imagine. If we were to be honest about what keeps us from the word we would have to say that either we don’t look into it at all or that we are too distracted to really hear what it is saying to our hearts. This is our challenge. In James’ day few had the written scriptures or could read them. But in our day we all have a Bible, probably on our phones. Our problem is we have all sorts of other things that pull us away – a phone filled with aps, shelves filled with books, unlimited TV.
He calls us to look into the word and let it read us. He calls us to make the time to read scripture and even more to consider what it is saying to us. There is no spiritual growth without interacting with scripture. It is not that scripture is magic, but it is God’s tool for speaking to us.
Transition: but how can it be a law that gives freedom if it is something we have to do and continue doing to receive the blessing?
Conclusion: The perfect law, the word planted in you, is Christ, who is alive and working through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
This could be a message about listening to a sermon or reading the Bible everyday, but it is more than that. These words for scripture are unique and beyond simply the Bible. We are to humbly accept the word planted in us that can save us. It is the word but also the perfect law that gives freedom, something that we can look deeply into. What word can save us? What word is planted in us?
The word is Jesus and he is in us through the Holy Spirit.
The printed scriptures are a vital part of this, but the Bible becomes perfect when understood through Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. You are not just reading an ancient book – though it is an ancient book – you are interacting with God.
So what is God calling you to remove? What habit or behavior is leading you into sin? What evil is keeping you from a deeper relationship with God?