You won’t be surprised to hear me say that time spent studying the Bible is never wasted. However, when we leave without heeding the following advice from the book of James, we are fooling ourselves into thinking we did something noble to grow our faith.
Walk Through Scripture
Come with me as I walk through a passage of Scripture phrase by phrase, reviewing its context, interpreting, and offering an application. Some of us - including me - learn best by watching somebody else. That’s what I am inviting you to do today as I study through James 1:22-25:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 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.”
Let’s dive in and explore the context: James is writing this letter to a number of believers scattered across regions. They likely scattered when they ran away from persecution in Jerusalem after Stephen was stoned to death for preaching about Jesus (Acts 7).
James begins by exhorting them to consider their current trial joy in light of how it can grow their faith. They fear for their lives because of the threat of persecution, but James is urging them to trust without wavering just like God does not waver. (James 1:2-18)
Having already warned them not to be prideful about their earthly wealth, James now addresses their attitude of anger and calls on these believers to get rid of all moral filth and evil by humbly accepting the Christian teachings and warnings to follow.
This is where we step into today’s passage with verse 22:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
James doesn’t play around. He tells these believers plain and simple what he wants from them: Obey God’s Word! Don’t just listen to it read and feel great about yourself. Actually do what it says.
Even though this is simple, let’s take a look at each phrase because that’s when we learn more than we expected. “Do not merely listen to the word…” Why is he talking about “listening”? Don’t most people read God’s Word? It’s not like they had the Bible on tape. Exactly, and neither did most Christians have a copy of the Old Testament or letters by the apostles in their home. The church leadership likely had possession of a copy - as letters such as this epistle usually traveled from church to church - and they were read when the community gathered. Most believers listened to these teachings being read to them.
“… and so deceive yourselves.” Who are we hurting when we walk away from the Bible unchanged? We hurt ourselves. We are deceiving ourselves into thinking we are “good Christians” for having read the Bible today when, in fact, we are not living out our faith. The clear command is this; “Do what it [God’s teaching] says.”
As James likes to do, he brings in an analogy in verses 23 and 24:
“Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”
How is reading the Bible like looking into a mirror? When I do a quick once-over before I leave the house, I make sure all the zippers are zipped, my shoes match my pants, and my hair isn’t still pulled back with my daughter’s purple plastic hair clip. Let’s say I am on my way to a business meeting or a formal event and I spot a giant stain on my shirt. I see the stain - it’s loud and clear - but I leave for my function without changing. What’s the point of looking in the mirror in the first place? I make it to my gathering with my giant stain, and somebody asks me a little sarcastically, “Don’t you own a mirror?” and my response is, “Of course I do. I took a long look at myself in said mirror before I left, too. What could possibly be the problem here?”
This scene is so ridiculous, yet this is how we sometimes act with the Bible. In full disclosure, I’ll share with you a personal example. Let’s take the set of verses we just glanced over, James 1:19-20: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” I will confess that anger and impatience is a weakness of mine and has been as long as I can remember. There have been years of taking this sin seriously but there have also been periods of giving up and basically saying, “I am an impatient person. I see this verse telling me to listen patiently and to keep my sarcasm and anger in check, but I am walking away without a change.”
Here are some reasons why, I think, some of us walk away from God’s Word unchanged:
- We have tried to solve this problem in our own strength, have failed and given up. Clearly, this is just how we are, and there is no hope. Not true! Jesus told us He was sending the Holy Spirit to be our Helper to remind us of everything He has taught us (John 14:16-17, 26).
- We have forgotten why we study the Bible. It’s easy for our quiet time to become routine. Remember to start with prayer for focus and a heart open to being convicted and changed.
- We are scared to admit our sin. We think we will lose face - even if just in front of ourselves. We run from the shame we’d feel at the thought of our sin. Guess what?! Forgiveness is right on the other side of confession. Jesus already paid the price, so our heavenly Father is waiting with open arms for us to confess and grow closer to Him.
I can’t move on before mentioning that last phrase: When we walk away, we forget what we look like. When we close our Bible unfazed and move on with our day, we are not likely to revisit the issue. On the other hand, if we read the passage with an open heart and feel convicted, the Holy Spirit has our attention to begin working in our hearts towards change and righteousness.
Verse 25 has another promise for us:
“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.”
There is so much to explore in this verse.
How is this person looking into God’s Word? Intently! It’s not an obligatory glance but intentional, focused reading.
What do we learn about His Word, “the perfect law”? It gives freedom. The world tries to tell you that God’s rules are restricting, but obeying God rather than being a slave to sin is actually freeing. Have you ever experienced that? When we turn from sin towards Christ, we have a joy and peace beyond description.
Is it about intentionally reading God’s Word then? No, that’s just the first step. The key is to continue in His will - that means to not forget His word but rather implement it. Of course, we do so imperfectly on earth and grow over time with the help of the Holy Spirit. But thankfully, God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). He knows we are “only human” (Psalm 103:14), and never gives up on us but grows our faith until the day He will perfect it (Hebrews 12:2).
And when we do God’s will… well, then God will bless us in it! What a promise.
James continues his letter to the scattered believers with lots of exhortations to love one another regardless of status or wealth, live out our faith in our actions and speech, and walk humbly with God instead of boasting in ourselves. The book of James is full of these life lessons. Do you want to learn how to study them well?
Share below: In your experience, what’s the hardest part about reading God’s Word intently? What distracts you from taking a look at yourself in light of what you see in Scripture? And, while you comment below, see if you can encourage a fellow believer who has also shared to keep on keeping on in our faith in Christ Jesus.