What it means to hear

Kids have occasionally been known not to listen to their parents, causing quite a few Moms and Dads over the years to say something like, “Did you even hear what I told you? Are you listening to me?”

We know they heard what we said, but they didn’t really hear. Curiously, for some reason it applies mostly just to unpleasant tasks like picking up their stuff or taking out the garbage.

Hearing is different from hearing and doing.

I wish I could say we grow out of it, but we don’t.

That’s what James is talking about here:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (James 1:22-25).

I’m guessing James had preached a few sermons in his time, and he’d probably noticed that some of his hearers enthusiastically complimented him on his message.

“Great job, preacher!” “That really touched my heart.” “I needed that.”

Then they even more enthusiastically forgot it within half an hour.

Have you ever done that?

Of course you have, and James wants us to see that following Christ is more than just hearing the word.

It’s more than being a daily Bible reader.

It’s more than memorizing a dozen verses, or having a daily quiet time, or even teaching a Bible class.

It’s about doing.

It’s about obeying.

It’s about living.

It’s about hearing the word and then trying our best to do exactly what the Lord told us.

It’s about being a doer who acts and not a hearer who forgets.

The danger of complacency

It’s easy to become spiritually complacent, to get comfortable where we are, to forget what’s at stake.

Suppose you’re fighting a battle in the middle of a great war, completely surrounded by the advancing enemy.

What would you do?

Kick off your boots and enjoy a latté while you read the morning newspaper?

It’s a ludicrous picture, but it’s something many of us do.

We’re tempted to live our lives as if there’s not this huge cosmic struggle going on. Just do our jobs, manage our to-do lists, pay our bills, and act like there’s no Satan, no “spiritual forces of evil,” as Paul puts it.

That’s a deadly approach.

C.S. Lewis said that we make two mistakes when we think about Satan and his demons.

Some of us respond with superstition . . . we might overstate Satan’s power. Superstitious folks see Satan everywhere they look.

Others respond with what Lewis calls substition, which understates Satan’s role in today’s world.

I think most of the folks I know (including myself) fall into this camp. Blinded by our modern understanding of reason, we’re more likely to believe that everything has a rational, physical explanation.

People do bad things because they make bad choices, had a rough upbringing, inherited bad genes, or have a mental illness.

Is it also possible that they fell under the sway of Satan and let him take over their lives?

I think so.

Peter’s warning still applies:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).

I think we need to be more aware of what Satan is doing in the world, and particularly what he’s doing in our lives.

If you’re a Mom or Dad, he’s after your kids, and he’ll do anything to win their hearts.

If you’re married, he’s after your marriage, and he’s trying to drive a wedge between you and your spouse.

If you’re single, he’s trying to undermine your relationships so that they pull you away from God.

Regardless of where you are, he’s after you, and he’ll pull every trick in the book to convince you that your relationship to Jesus really isn’t that important.

Don’t let him intimidate you—he can’t overpower God, of course—but don’t underestimate him either.

We’re in a fight to the death, and eternity hangs in the balance.

The war we fight

Most of us have never fought in a real war, at least not the kind with guns and bombs and missiles.

But you better believe we’re in a fight.

Ours isn’t over a piece of ground, a political ideology, or a way of life.

But it’s no less real.

In fact, in some ways it’s more real than anything.

All wars bring unbelievable heartache and tragedy, and our fight is no different.

We’re fighting for good over evil, for right over wrong, for righteousness over wickedness, and something invaluable is at stake.

Paul describes it here:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Ephesians 6:10-13).

Most of our soldiers fought valiantly during World War II, but there were a few exceptions.

During the night before the beginning of the Allied invasion of western Europe, thousands of paratroopers were dropped into France to secure bridges and attack key points in the German defense. What they did was crucial to the success of the troops who would storm the Normandy beaches the next morning.

A handful of these soldiers ran across a wine cellar beneath a French farmhouse. Instead of fulfilling their mission, they enjoyed the bottles of wine and within an hour became oblivious to the war raging around them.*

We might be guilty of the same thing.

Sometimes we forget we’re in a fight, don’t we?

We get busy with work and school and bills and to-do lists, and we ignore the vicious battle that rages around us.

Maybe it’s because we can’t see Satan and his minions, so we forget they’re here.

They’re wreaking havoc all around us.

Your friends’ marriage that broke up a couple of weeks ago?

Satan was in the middle of it.

The kid who rebelled against his parents when he went to college?

The church leader who succumbed to temptation and lost his ministry?

The long-time church member who slipped away from faith?

It’s often subtle, but Satan was working in their lives.

And understand that he’s working in your life right now, and he wants the people you love as well.

He’ll be working today and tomorrow and the day after that.

He’ll slander and lie and discourage and tempt and thwart.

He’ll do everything he can to take your eyes off of Jesus.

In your devotional time today, ask God to help you obey Paul’s words. Ask him to help you “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.”

Every war has casualties, so pray that God will work in you to bring you and the people you love through the fight safely.

There’s no question about who’s going to win this war, but until God comes to declare his final victory, we’ve got to keep fighting.

There’s too much at stake.

*From Wild at Heart by John Eldredge

What makes Bible study (almost) worthless

Earlier this week I read an all-too-familiar news byline: another preacher got caught.

He was looking at pornography on his computer, then switching to his Bible software program to work on a sermon, then back to porn . . . all in the span of a few hours.

Are you shocked?

Unfortunately, you’ve probably seen too many headlines to be too surprised.

I don’t know this preacher, and I don’t know any of his circumstances, but I think I can guarantee one thing about his ministry: his Bible study was falling flat.

He may have been parsing Hebrew and Greek verbs, but he wasn’t connecting with the Author of the Scriptures.

I know that because of what James writes here:

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (James 1:21).

Notice the way James connects removing sin from our lives with our reception of the word. The word doesn’t penetrate our hearts when our hearts are mired in sin.

I don’t want to cast too many stones at this preacher, because I know of too many times that my own Bible study has been hindered by some sin I’ve hung on to.

Maybe we can all relate to this in some way.

Have you been struggling in your devotional time?

Has the Bible seemed distant?

Has the word not really been touching your heart?

According to James, it might be because you’re ignoring some particular sin in your life.

In the verses just before this one, James was writing about anger—are you mad at someone right now? Are you bitter?

If so, your Bible study won’t do you much good.

It could be that we’re too interested in money and things; greed blinds us to the truths of Scripture.

Or it could be sexual sin, gossip, selfishness, or pride.

But here’s the point: the truths of Scripture won’t open up to us when we’re ignoring our sin.

I don’t think James is talking about the sin struggles that every Christian has; he’s talking about sins that we’re stubborn about . . . sins that we don’t confess.

So in our devotional time today, let’s ask God to use his Spirit and his word to reveal anything in us that might be putting a veil over Scripture.

It might be we’ll feel a wonderful sense of relief—and renewed vigor in our Bible study—simply by getting rid of something we’ve been ignoring.

Learning to bite your tongue

I’ve rarely regretted keeping my mouth shut, but fairly often I kick myself for saying something I shouldn’t have (and wouldn’t have if I’d stopped to think).

I suspect you’re the same way.

Your child irritates you, and you spit out something that bites.

You get in an argument with your spouse, and before you know it you’ve thrown a dart that hurts. (In marriage, we know quite well where the tender spots are . . .)

Or maybe it happened at work or school or church.

James is speaking to most of us when he writes:

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 (James 1:19-20).

I can’t think of a single time when the Bible says something good about big talkers, but it says quite a bit about biting your tongue.

Those of us who are parents have often advised our kids, “When you get mad count to ten before you speak.”

Turns out, counting to ten works for grown-ups too, and that seems to be what James is telling us.

Most of us need this reminder.

Let’s ask God today to help us keep our mouths shut.

Ask him to help you get your anger under control before you spout off.

Truth is, anger and talking don’t go well together at all, and it’s scary to think how many relationships have been hurt because we ignored James’ advice.

It’s a good rule of thumb to listen a lot more than we talk, and to refuse to talk at all while we’re angry.

It’d almost certainly result in many fewer regrets.

God is good all the time

My, how things change.

Have you looked at any old high school pictures lately? One of the unfortunate consequences of our Facebook world is the ease with which others can post constant reminders of how we used to look.

Time changes things, and mostly not for the good. We get older, grayer, and often, well, bigger.

There’s often a corresponding decrease in efficiency as well. In other words, some things just don’t work as well as they used to.

Remember how quickly you could get from one end of the gym to the other?

Probably be better not to try that now.

It applies to most things we know. An old car typically isn’t as reliable as a new car, and an old house has more things to fix than one that’s newly built.

Everything changes. It’s just the way it is, and we come to expect it of everything.

But we ought to remember there’s one huge exception.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (James 1:16-18).

God is one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Other possibilities for this difficult phrase are:

He’s the “Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (NIV).

He’s the one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (NRSV), or he “does not change like [the] shifting shadows” of the stars he created (NCV).

We get the picture.

I like to hear people say, “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.”

That’s not true of us, not all the time.

God isn’t fickle like you and me. He doesn’t get tired and irritable, or stressed and testy.

He doesn’t try to push our buttons; he’s not unpredictable.

He’s good today, and he’ll be good tomorrow.

Maybe you need that reminder. Maybe you need to focus on it again today.

We serve a good and consistent and reliable God, one who does what’s best for us and gives us the good things we need.

We live in an unpredictable world filled with people whose primary trait is their (our) inconsistency.

But God is everything we’re not.

He’s good all the time, and all the time he’s good.

How to do better at not sinning

Many of my sins aren’t really my fault, it seems to me. Most of them happen because of the people around me, or the situations I face. If any normal person lived my life, he’d probably fare worse than I do.

If Satan gets us thinking like that, he’s already won half the battle.

It helps to see how it happens, I think, and James helps us with this.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13-15).

We might point the finger of accusation at God, thinking that he’s putting temptations in front of us.

While he might bring us difficulties to strengthen our faith (see Abraham and Isaac—Genesis 22), he’ll never tempt us to sin.

He hates it, and he wants more than anything for us not to give in.

Sometimes it’s easier to blame the people around us.

Have you ever blamed your spouse for some shortcoming in your life?

If you’re married, you probably have, and it all started with Adam (“It was this woman you gave me . . .”).

Hasn’t slowed down yet.

Ever lost your temper and blamed it on your kids?

Or maybe we blame our siblings, boss, or coworkers.

“I would do better, Lord, if it weren’t for _______” (put his name in the blank).

The main problem with that is that it doesn’t help. In fact, it hurts us because it keeps us from facing the real problem.

Which is where we come in.

The truth is, Satan takes advantage of things within us to lead us astray. He may use other people, or outside situations, but I don’t sin without my consent.

So if you’re struggling, ask yourself which desire Satan is using.

Think about how you can satisfy that desire within God’s will.

Pray about what barriers you might build to thwart Satan’s plan.

The last place he wants you to look is within yourself, because he knows one of our best defenses is recognizing that we’re at fault.

It just stinks.

The more I read the Bible, the more I’m struck by how often it talks about endurance.

The longer I live, the more I realize how badly we need it.

Life is hard. If it isn’t right now, it will be soon enough.

I think that’s not overly pessimistic; it’s confirmed almost every day as I hear about things people are facing.

A friend finds out he has cancer.

A Christian discovers her husband is cheating.

Another faces debilitating depression, a difficult child, or a strained marriage.

Sometimes we struggle because of our bad choices; sometimes it’s because of decisions others have made.

Sometimes it’s impossible to see any kind of cause-and-effect relationship. It just happens, with no apparent explanation.

On his blog, a fellow believer wrote yesterday about the way-too-early death of a young wife and mother: “This just stinks. Stinks bad.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I believe the Bible reflects a keen awareness of that.

James wrote, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

It’s interesting to me that the Bible typically shies away from offering an easier life if we follow Jesus. In fact, it often warns of the opposite.

But it also promises something incredible for those who stick it out.

Some of you are facing excruciating trials, and you might even be tempted occasionally to quit.

It’s okay to be tempted—it’s part of our humanness—but don’t give in.

The message from James and Paul and Job and especially Jesus is clear.

God’s got a special crown for all of his children who, though they might not have accomplished anything the world calls extraordinary, remained steadfast when life got hard.

It’ll stink sometimes, but the crown of life God has promised will be worth it all.

Just stick it out.

On level ground

Things aren’t always fair down here, but they ought to be.

The poor don’t get the same treatment as the rich, and the voices of many on the margins of our culture are ignored.

We love a good David-and-Goliath story. We like to see Cinderella make it to the big dance. We love the Rudys of the world, the underdogs, the outmanned, outmatched, and overpowered.

We like to see the little guy on top and the big guy on his knees.

We like to see the tables turn, as the saying goes.

In a sense, that’s what heaven will be like. It’ll be a place where God obliterates differences. No big guys and little guys.

No rich and poor, black and white, no upper class, middle class, and lower class.

And James suggests that we get a taste of that on earth as well . . . in the church, the fellowship of believers.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits (James 1:9-11).

James is speaking of a reversal of status that believers experience in fellowship with Jesus.

The poor are exalted, the rich are humbled, and all stand on equal ground in the body of Christ.

There’s a pretty good lesson there for us in the church.

We’re not as class conscious as James’ world was, perhaps, or at least the classes aren’t as clearly—and openly—defined.

But we sometimes still let the world lead us to make differences where there shouldn’t be any.

Sometimes the church can become clique-ish, with small bands of believers huddling up to the exclusion of others who are different in some way.

James specifically mentions money, but his point applies to anything that leads us to elevate some and exclude others.

He reminds us that because we’re Christians we should ignore the superficial distinctions the sinful world creates.

Out there—in the fallen world—it shouldn’t surprise us to see all kinds of egotistical and exclusive groups based on arbitrary markers of “belonging.”

But in Christ, we’re made one by his blood.

One.

To paraphrase Paul, we’re not black, white, or Latino. We’re not the in-crowd and the socially awkward. We’re not the haves and the have-nots or the white-collar and the blue-collar.

We’re Christians.

We’re one in the blood of our Lord and Savior.

The ground is level at the foot of the cross, which means it ought to be level in the body of Christ as well.

Are you tempted to make distinctions that the blood wiped away?

My prayers and God’s power

Ever prayed a prayer you didn’t really think God would answer?

Why do we do that?

Maybe it’s because we’ve focused so much on what God doesn’t do that we forget about what he does.

“Well,” we think, “I know he created the world and parted the Red Sea and raised Jesus from the grave, but now . . .”

I’m not suggesting God is still resurrecting people, but I wonder if perhaps we ought to focus more on his might and power and less on all the reasons why he won’t do something.

When we’re struggling, James tells us to ask God for wisdom to see his hand at work.

Then he adds this:

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:6-8).

Another translation says, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt” (NIV).

Or, “But he must ask in faith without any doubting” (NASB).

Maybe that passage convicts you as it does me.

It reminds me that I ought to pray with confidence in the power of my God.

It helps me remember that God really listens to me, that he cares about my needs, my wants, my struggles.

And he can answer.

He can work in incredible ways to bring about what’s best for his children, and we ought to believe that he still does that.

Today, let’s focus on believing in the God to whom we pray.

Let’s ask him to convict us of his power and strength.

Let’s talk to him, fully believing that he will answer and accomplish his will in us.

Remember: the God we call Father is the same God who spoke the world into existence. Surely he can find a way to do whatever it is we need him to do.