Listening and Doing

Listening and Doing

James 1:19-27

In the 1937 Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the beautiful but wicked Queen utters
the famous line “Magic mirror, on the wall – who is the fairest one of all?” Each time, the mirror would
respond, “Thou, O Queen, art the fairest in the land.” But over the years, Snow White grew into
womanhood and her beauty transcended every other woman in the kingdom. Came the day when the
mirror said to the Queen, “Snow White, O Queen, is the fairest of them all.” From that time on,
according to the fairy tale, Snow White was the object of the Queen’s hatred.
This morning I want to look at a passage from James, part of the lectionary for today, and see what
he has to say about looking in a mirror.
Read James 1:19-27
While James didn’t specifically identify himself as to which ‘James’ he was, the author is widely
thought to be James the half-brother of Jesus. The letter was written to Jewish Christians, and
provides us with a series of self-tests that we can use to measure our spiritual growth and maturity.
They’re all helpful and important, but it may be that v.22 is the most essential: Do not merely listen to
the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
God has given us his word, contained in the Bible, to help us to grow. How we respond to it is one of
the most telling signs of our condition before God. For James, a faith that doesn’t produce real life
change is a faith that’s worthless or ‘dead.’ (James 2:17)

The word of God is like a mirror
Before the mirror was invented, people had glimpsed their own reflections in water, or in polished
metals, but had never really seen themselves. It wasn’t until the development of the high-quality
mirror-image found in silvered glass, which had started to become available to rich merchants and
royalty in the 15th century, that people could really see what they looked like.
A mirror shows you things about your appearance that would otherwise be unnoticeable to you.
Imagine for a few moments what you might look like if you didn’t take time to stop and see what the
mirror sees. Supposing you got ready this morning without looking in the mirror? A mirror can only
reveal what already exists. It doesn’t have the ability to correct or change what it sees. Only the
observer can change and/or correct what they see.

Listeners to the word
The word of God, the Bible, is like a mirror – it exposes the true person who looks in to it. It reveals to
us the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts. In our passage this morning, James identifies two
types of people – those who only listen to the word, and those that listen to it and do what it says.
To illustrate his point about people who merely listen to the word, he uses the illustration of a man
who looks at his face in the mirror, then goes out of the door, and forgets what he saw. I don’t think
James is describing a man with a poor memory, but rather a man with poor priorities. He doesn’t
remember what he saw in the mirror because he doesn’t regard it as very important, he’s not really all
that concerned about his appearance. Perhaps he slept funnily on his hair, and it stuck up in an
unruly manner, so he looks like he’s just got out of bed. The mirror showed him the problems, but he
didn’t do anything to fix them.
It is a very good illustration because looking in a mirror and doing nothing about your appearance
defeats the whole purpose of a mirror! If you are not going to do anything with the information that the
mirror provides, then why look in the mirror to begin with?! James is trying to develop a ridiculous and
foolish person who would see the flaws but not fix the flaws. Who would look in the mirror and see
food caught in your teeth, then walking away from the mirror, not getting the food out and forgetting
there was food in the teeth?
If you are, or have been a parent you’ll have experienced this scenario with your children. You ask
them to tidy up their room. You come back in an hour, and they’re playing, but their room hasn’t been
touched. You say, “I told you to tidy up your room,” and they reply, “I forgot!” Right! It’s not that they
have a memory problem. It just isn’t very high on their priority list, until you impose a stiff enough
penalty to push it up to the top!
The word of God, the Bible, is like a mirror – it exposes the true person who looks in to it. It reveals to
us the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts. It reflects our wrong attitudes. It exposes our selfcentredness,
our pride. It confronts our contempt for others and our lack of compassion. It uncovers
our deception, greed, and lust. But, if we just take a quick glance at the Bible and rush out without
doing anything to address the problems that it reveals, it won’t do us any good.
Today, many people have careers to build, money to make, shopping and hobbies and toys that are
their passions on their days off. They forget what God’s word says about their sins because, really, it
just isn’t all that important compared to these other priorities in their lives.
In v.22 James says that, if we listen to the word often, but don’t put it into practice, we deceive
ourselves. We treat God’s word as though it were useless. We don’t allow it to direct our lives. We
treat the word as background noise that doesn’t inform our decisions. The solution isn’t to avoid
listening to the word, but rather to apply it to the problems in our lives that it uncovers.

Doers of the Word
When we read literature, or science, or history, they place no demands on us in respect of a
response. Merely acquiring knowledge doesn’t demand that we act. However, God’s word, whether
delivered as a sermon or whether read, demands action. The Gospel anticipates a response, it
demands belief, and belief anticipates transformation as the believer is changed into the likeness of
Applying the Bible is the duty of all Christians. If we don’t apply it, the Bible becomes nothing more to
us than a normal book, a collection of old manuscripts. That’s why Paul says, Whatever you have
learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will
be with you. (Philippians 4:9) When we apply the Bible, God himself will be with us.
Rather than a quick glance, the ‘doer’ of the word looks intently at it. The Greek word means to stoop
and look carefully at something. It was used to describe John and Mary stooping to look carefully into
the empty tomb after the resurrection (John 20:5, 11). This wasn’t a casual, quick look! They peered
in there carefully, trying to see if the body of Jesus was inside. This isn’t the quick glance of the
person who rushes out the door, but rather the careful look of one who notices a blemish or spot of
dirt on his face and takes the time to correct the problem. As God’s people we must decide to act
once we see that something isn’t right in our lives. The action we take should be based on nothing
less than the word of God.
As we look intently at the word, we should ask God to help us understand what it meant to the
original readers. We can’t apply a text that we don’t properly understand. Then we should ask God
how it applies to our life, not just outwardly, but on the heart level. The blessed ‘hearer and doer’
looks intently at the word. They apply it, not just to their outward behaviour, but also to their heart.
They continue applying it over a lifetime.
Jesus said, ‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a
wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds
blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But
everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man
who built his house on sand.’ (Matthew7:24-26)
Here’s an important truth: ‘doers’ of the word are blessed in the doing! There’s an echo here of the
Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. James uses the same word – ‘Blessed.’ When we choose
to obey God, he will bless us. This is because obedience always leads to blessing. He will reward us
with a sense of peace and joy that compares to nothing this world has to offer. So let’s set a goal to
obey God and watch him work in our lives.
It’s good to know that we’re not alone in trying to understand and apply God’s word to our lives. God
has filled us with his Spirit (John 14:16-17) who will faithfully guide us into the will of God, always
causing us to do what’s right (Ezekiel 36:26-28; Philippians 2:13). Who better to teach us how to live
according to all that is written in the Bible than the one who inspired the Bible to begin with – the Holy
Spirit himself? So, let’s do our part by hiding the word in our hearts and obeying the Holy Spirit as he
draws that word out of us. How do we hide God’s word in our hearts? By studying, memorising and
meditating on what we have read.

This word of James is just as applicable and urgent for us as it was for the first readers of the letter in
James’ time. We too must not only listen to God’s Word, not just read our Bibles, not just talk about
the teaching of the church – no, we must put our faith into practise. Just like the Lord Jesus practised
what he preached, we must live out our faith. Just like our Father in heaven extends his love to us in
actions, not just in words, we too must look for opportunities to put our faith to work.
How we live reveals our faith; all else is mere talk. If we possess the life God promises, it will be
revealed through the way we live. As Jesus drew the Sermon on the Mount to an end, he warned,
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who
does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 7:21)
Let me finish with this question for each of us: “How well do my actions mirror the faith I proclaim?”
We need to remember that the only Bible many people will ever read is our lives. Let’s allow James
1:22 to encourage us to do good, according to the faith we proclaim. Let’s be ‘DOERS’ of God’s word
and not just ‘LISTENERS’ to it