“Doers and Not Just Hearers”

James 1:17-27

By Dr. Allen P. Ross

One of the readings for today’s lessons comes from this very powerful portion of the epistle of James.  It concerns the constant tendency of people to be listeners only and not doers of the word.  People who attend church with any frequency will hear lesson after lesson, and sermon after sermon, and Scripture reading after Scripture reading throughout the year.  And what impact does it make in their lives–what do they do differently after having heard the Word of God so frequently? It is a question that each individual must ask.

This is an age-old problem in religious communities.  People think that if they attend meetings they are doing all that is required of them.  And they probably enjoy the meetings and find them enlightening and interesting.  Knowing more about the Bible has for many become an end in itself, especially in the evangelical churches where Bible study is prominent.  But compare what God said to the prophet:

The Word of the LORD came to Ezekiel, saying,

“As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.’  My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice.  With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain.  Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.  When all this comes true, and surely it will, then they will know that a prophet has been among them” (33:30-33).

The messages of Ezekiel, as well as those of other prophets, were beautifully and powerfully written.  The people were eager to come and hear the eloquent words that cascaded from the lips of Ezekiel, the beautiful language, the powerful rhetoric.  It was like attending a concert–they enjoyed it immensely and talked about it, but they felt no compulsion to change their way of living because of it.

Is this not the same today?  Many people love their church, and enjoy their pastor’s sermons.  Often they will invite others–“Come and hear our pastor.”  They enjoy the most the messages that confirm what they believe and how they live; and often the ministers play to that desire so that the sermon is little more than a lovely song, or a rousing speech that may even draw applause.  It is not that there is no place for such things in sermons; but rather, it is that too often the other is left untouched, namely, the need for personal change to live in conformity with the will of God.

And so James addresses the issue.  The church assembly should not be made up of passive auditors, people who want to hear what the preacher will say about this or that, hoping that the word will have an impact on those other people so that they will change their ways.  No–every time people hear the Word of God read, taught, or preached should bring about some change in their thinking and their living first.  If the Word does not get through to them, why should they think it will get through to other people?  People in church should listen to the Word as if God is speaking directly to them–because he is.  Then they must decide how to respond.

In this passage James specifies part of what that response should be–what he calls pure and faultless religion that is acceptable to God.  It is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”–meeting the needs of others as well as maintaining personal sanctification.  But personal sanctification is not simply remaining pure in a corrupt world–it also includes acts of positive righteousness.  And here when James singles out the widow and the orphan, those positive acts of righteousness are specified.  They take the shape of works that will probably take time and effort and money.  If, as Ezekiel said, people are greedy for their own gain, then this instruction will be listened to but not done. But all the way through the Bible we find this same practical instruction to meet the needs of other people.  When worship breaks down, when personal spirituality fails, when immoral activities increase, you will always find the failure of the professing believers to meet the needs of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner at the heart of the problem (see for one example Isaiah 1).  For some reason we just don’t get it.  If we were obeying the Word in this very basic duty, we would be focused on righteousness, and all our activities would make our worship more meaningful because there would be genuine praise offered to God for the way the body of Christ functions.

We live in a very affluent country.  But there are millions of people in it who are poor, hungry and homeless–many living within five or ten miles of us.  And around the world people are in tremendous need for the basics of life.  It is overwhelming; and so our natural thought is that it is so huge a problem we really cannot make that much of a difference.  And that becomes our excuse to do nothing, except build our own little nest egg, as it were.  In a country like ours, with the number of Christians we have, especially those who have sufficient income to have a good life, we could make a tremendous difference.  Each church could focus on its area first, and then reach beyond it to other places in the world.  Is this an idle dream?  God did not think so, because he commanded in both testaments that his people get on with it.  But the reason so little is being done is that we are, in fact, hearers only, and not doers of the word.  Many pew-warmers have never in their lives given any kind of help to a poor family, a widow, a stranger.  Many have bought the lie that they would not be poor if they were more industrious, and to give them any kind of help would be to encourage their laziness.  There are cases where that may be true; but there are millions of cases where people are trying very hard, but just cannot make ends meet.  And the list of the unemployed increases every month.  It is time for the churches to wake up and realize that God has blessed them for a purpose–to enable them to meet the needs of others.  If we fail to comprehend that, we have failed to understand pure religion.