I’ll often say “we” when I’m talking about the University of Michigan football team, but the fact of the matter is there is really no sense in which I should consider myself “we.” I’m a poser. An imposter. Sure I watch the games…but that’s really the extent of it. I didn’t graduate from U of M. I certainly was never part of the football program. I’ve even lived closer to East Lansing (Michigan State University) than to Ann Arbor for my entire life. The shameful fact of the matter is I’m a poser Michigan fan, riding the coattails of the greatest college football program in history. 🙂
You know, there are a lot of poser Christians too. Poser Christians say they’re Christians, go to church, attend Bible studies, know a lot about the Bible, but fail to live like Jesus. I don’t want to be a poser Christian. I don’t want you to be a poser Christian. I don’t want Muskegon and the world to encounter poser Christians. I want us to be the true people of God, being transformed by Jesus to be like Jesus, living cross-shaped lives for the glory of God and the good of others.
That’s why we’re studying the New Testament book of James, likely the same James who grew up as Jesus’ little brother in Mary and Joseph’s home. Just think of the shadow that would have been cast over James and Jesus’ family growing up! Imagine the neighborhood gossip, the family tension, the sibling rivalry, the messy, everyday stuff all families, especially blended families, have to work through.
But there was Jesus–growing up right in the middle of it–full of grace and truth. And there was James too, with a front row view of his big brother, God-in-the-flesh working through the mess of real, everyday life. James, while initially skeptical of Jesus, later became a follower and worshipper of his big brother. Wow. What an impact Jesus must have had on his little brother.
And what an impact James’ letter had on the churches he wrote to–enough of an impact for them to pass on the letter for 2,000 years! In his letter, James emphasizes how real faith in a good God has a big impact in real life.
If you’re going to church but aren’t being changed, something’s off. If you’re going to church but aren’t helping others be changed, something’s off. This is abundantly clear in James’ letter, where the inescapably relational nature of following Jesus jumps off the pages. James calls fellow church members “the brothers (and sisters)” fourteen times and writes the entire letter in the second-person plural…“y’all.” James gives life-changing wisdom to a life-changing family. This is community spiritual formation.
Community spiritual formation is one of our core vehicles as a church. Core vehicles are those things we do that are key to accomplishing the vision to become a church for the community. Core vehicles are the most important things we do as a church: worship gatherings, hospitality initiatives, missional partnerships, and community spiritual formation
Community spiritual formation is richly described in a paragraph from our member covenant: “I will be devoted to love for the Body, partnering with other members to be discipled and to disciple one another. I will regularly pray for and with others. I will pursue peace and unity with others by speaking encouraging, uplifting words and shunning gossip and divisive speech.”
Community spiritual formation is when we gather in smaller groups in order to help each other become more like Jesus in real life. We do this at every age–kids ministry, youth ministry, adult LIFEgroups. I am praying that, through James’ letter to the churches in our series “Real Faith for Real People,” that these relationships would be so honest, so loving, and so life-changing that a guest would be like, “Whoa, God is up to something here!” Because following Jesus together should change our life.
This is James’ point in the second half of chapter 1:
James 1:19-27 NIV
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.
I think what James is wanting people to listen to is when Christians are sharing God’s Word with one another. In verse 18, James references the word of truth that gives us new birth. In verse 21, he challenges us to humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. In verse 22, he calls us to not just listen to the word but to obey it! I think James has in mind here biblically-informed, Spirit-filled words Christians say to another. Could be a sermon. Could be a LIFEgroup discussion. Could be a one-on-one conversation. It’s community spiritual formation!
I’ve often caught myself skipping over things I don’t agree. I’ve fast forwarded through my podcast when they interview someone I don’t really agree with. I’ve skipped over books and unsubscribed from blogs I don’t agree with. Instead of being quick to listen, I’ve angrily made a judgment and asserted my own opinion. What’s worse is when I do this in actual relationships. Someone rebukes me and I immediately defend myself, my opinion, my actions, my intentions.
I need to learn the lesson Jesus’ little brother is teaching here: The holy pause. Keep my words and anger in check and listen to the word so that God might produce His righteousness in me. I wonder how often James saw his big brother Jesus do the holy pause, listening before reacting. Food for thought.
What do you do with Bible teaching and discussion you don’t like? Do you only listen to sermons and teachers and Christians you easily agree with? Do you only read authors and books who say what you want to hear? If you don’t like Bible teaching, it could be that it’s wrong. Perhaps you have studied and really are convicted that the teaching is false and to be rejected. But…do you really believe you’re right 100% of the time? Do you really believe that you’re so well-studied and so spiritually sanctified that you’ll agree with every sermon you hear?
Or could it be that “the moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” is prevalent not just in the world but in us? What if there are Scriptures and books and sermons and spiritual conversations that God wants to use to confront us? What if I need to hear the teaching I don’t want to hear so that God can keep saving me from my sin?
Real faith listens to the God who saves.
James is talking to people who are already Christians so the salvation James refers to is not salvation from the penalty of sin–death–but salvation from the power of sin in your daily life. The more I study the Bible the more convinced I am that God is not only interested in saving people from hell. Obviously, that’s a big deal, but the God of the Bible is not fixated on that alone. God’s purpose is not only to save His people from death…but to save them from sin itself! God saves us from death by forgiving us of our sin through Jesus’ death on the cross (the theological word for this is “justification”). God saves us from sin by transforming us from the inside-out through the work of the Spirit and the Word in everyday life (the theological word for this is “progressive sanctification”). God has purposed to purify and grow people who reflect His character in the here and now. This second kind of salvation is NOT optional, though many “Christians” seem to think it is. The second kind of faith is, as we will see throughout James, the fruit of REAL FAITH. God is doing this work now through His word and through Christians speaking His word to one another…if we would only do what it says…
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.
James uses this fantastic comparison between looking into a mirror and forgetting what you look like and looking into God’s Word and doing what it says. A real mirror can show you how to fix wayward hair, that something in your nose, or food in your teeth. How silly would it be to look into a mirror, see something in your nose, but walk away and not take care of it! God’s Word is like a mirror–it reflects where we’ve gone wrong but it also reflects how we can be made right. It reflects a broken image but also a renewed image.
Merely listening to the word is dangerous, it’s self-deception. How so? Because…
Real faith obeys the God who blesses.
I’ve heard it said that many Christians are about 4,000 Bible verses overweight. So much knowledge about God and the Bible and living the Christian life but it has not translated into righteous living. People say they are Christians but live like atheists. They’re practical atheists. Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist, but practical atheists live like God doesn’t exist. They don’t trust God’s promises that, if we lose our life, we’ll find it. So we try to save our lives. But God is good and ready to bless those who do what He says.
James gives us three practical examples of what he’s talking about…
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
First, James highlights controlling our tongues. Words are a big deal. I know they seem fleeting, like you can just say whatever you want, and they’ll drift off on the wind, and no one will care. But every bit of gossip, every twisted “truth,” every hurtful insult, every careless promise, every thoughtless social media post impacts the hearts of those who hear it. The key isn’t to be silent but to use words for good. We can’t help but use words. We’re human beings! So we must take control of them and use them to help not hurt. James envisions the tongue as a bucking bronco; you’ve got to wrestle that thing into submission. Use it to bless and not curse…James will go deeper into this topic in chapter 3, so we’ll save it for then.
Jesus, of course, was the master of bridling His tongue. Every word that came out of Jesus’ mouth spread God’s love and truth. Jesus never gossiped, never insulted, never over-promised, never twisted the truth. Jesus always told the whole truth, always encouraged those who needed encouragement, always rebuked those who needed rebuking, always came through on his promises. I bet that made quite the impression on James.
Second, James highlights caring for the most needy. Widows and orphans were some of the most needy persons in the churches James was writing to. I mean, imagine being a widow. I was talking to a church member the other day whose grandpa recently died. His grandma is just lost now. They had been together for 66 years–since they were teenagers! The loneliness is unbearable. But frankly, in James’ day, the loneliness was only one piece of it. Poverty is what made widows so vulnerable. Today, many if not most widows are provided for through insurance, savings, and welfare programs. But in the ancient world, these safety nets were unheard of. A widow’s only hope for survival was her adult children…or her church family. Similarly, an orphan’s only hope was usually to beg or to sell yourself into slavery.
Jesus’ whole ministry was aimed at the needy. He intentionally lived among the poor and generously spent Himself on meeting needs He could meet. Always. I bet that made quite the impression on James.
Caring for the needy can be particularly overwhelming. There is so much brokenness in the world. It’s plastered all over the news and the internet. Thankfully, Jesus’ global church is really, really big. Together, we CAN serve in virtually every corner of the world; we each just have to start somewhere. Start in your community. What needs do we see next door or in class or at work? Begin here. Then, think about what we can do together as a church. As a church, the elder team has identified what we see as some of the key needs in Muskegon and the world as well as missional partners who can help us make an impact. In other words, we are trying to help narrow things down for us. For example, Phil and Alana Carmichael, for example, serve at the Pines–a care center for children, whose families have been affected by AIDS and by poverty in South Africa.
The third Christian practice James talks about is avoiding worldliness like the plague. The churches James wrote to were constantly tempted and pressured to adopt Greco-Roman ways of thinking and living. The pursuit of wealth and honor were among the highest pursuits and sex and nationalism were also in the mix. Jesus wasn’t out for wealth or honor or sex or the Jewish nation or the Roman empire. He was out to love God and love others. I bet that made quite the impression on James.
Consider all the ways we can be polluted by the world:
- Materialism calls us to prioritize temporary comforts over eternal joy.
- Consumerism calls us to spend ourselves, no matter the cost to us or others, on those temporary comforts.
- Humanism is the idea that human beings have what it takes to make the world a better place without the love and truth of God.
- Ethnocentrism is the belief that my ethnicity is somehow more important than others.
- Nationalism is the belief that my country is better and more deserving than others.
- Hypersexualization is the movement that makes every about sex, sexual identity, sexual “freedom” as defined by creatures and not the Creator.
- Modernism is the idea that science and reason are the best sources of authority–not the Creator.
- Postmodernism is the idea that each individual is the best source of authority–not the Creator.
Think about James’ three hallmarks of true religion–controlling our tongues, caring for the most needy, and avoiding worldliness like the plague. These three practices along amount to a really compelling life. Imagine the blessing this kind of person is to their family, work, school, church, and neighborhood. Imagine the testimony that a whole church full of these kind of people would have! Let us LISTEN AND DO!
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Based on the September 15, 2019 message “Real Faith Listens and Obeys (James 1:19-27).” If you missed it, you can watch, listen, or read it at calvarymuskegon.com/learn-from-jesus.
Big Idea: Real faith listens to and obeys God.
- Read James 1:19-21. Can you think of a time when you didn’t want to listen to biblical truth? How did you respond? What could it have looked like if you had responded more according to these verses? If James is writing to a bunch of Christians who already “saved” in one sense, what kind of salvation might accepting the word bring?
- Read James 1:22-25. Why does James consider “hearing without doing” self-deception? Where does the tendency to “hear without doing” come from?? Why must we make “doing” a priority?
- Read James 1:26-27. What three practices, according to James, are hallmark examples of true religion? In what ways are the three practices relevant for us today? Which one is most important for you to embrace right now and how can you better live it out in daily life?