“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
James addresses the crux of the issue in Christian living in verses 22-25: the difference between hearing and doing God’s Word.
All of us know examples of Christians who know the Bible a lot better than most of us know it, but who don’t do what it says and suffer so many negative consequences of guilt, depression, a broken marriage, financial setbacks, loss of a job, etc.
But James isn’t just referencing here those obvious cases. He is talking about you and me and the dozens of little choices and not-so-little choices we make every day. And James is not writing here about whether or not we are saved and secure in Christ, but how we should live in light of the fact we are saved and secure.
We Christians can be peculiar when it comes to talking one game and living another, especially in the western culture, where Christians so often know the truth but just don’t always do it. One of my favorite Bible passages is the one I sometimes need to read again and again as I struggle with the lure of this world: “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:15).
For that reason, as a pastor I don’t pretend to stand in a position of perfect holiness and sermonize self-righteously, because there are times I struggle just like every other Christian.
James points out that hearing God’s word without doing what it says leads to self-deception. It’s a reminder of his earlier admonition in verse 14: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” The term “enticed” is a fishing term that literally means “to lure with bait.” Bait is something the fish sees as good, but it is a deception. Buried in the bait or the fishing lure is the hook. In the same way, Satan entices us with something that looks good and appeals to our desires, but buried in the promised pleasure and fulfillment can be a disaster for us. Simply hearing the truth is not enough. For every Christian, from the one who has just professes his or her faith to the most mature, knowing the truth must be accompanied by living it.
Remember the context of the book of James. It is the earliest writing of the New Testament (about 45 A.D.) and thus gives us not complicated doctrinal teaching, but, rather, practical instruction for daily life. So he reminds his readers that merely hearing, but not doing, leads to self-deception.
Then he adds that the very act of looking into God’s Word will reveal our true condition, as a mirror shows our true physical appearance. It is as though he is asking the question, “When you look at the truth of God, do you see yourself living the life of righteousness it describes?”
Studying the principles of the word of God shows where things are right as well as where things are out of order, just like a mirror shows us messy hair, a 5 o’clock shadow, or a smudge on our nose. A mirror does not distort, but gives us an accurate reflection. It shows us what we look like for real, not what we might think we look like.
The literal translation of verse 24 is “he beheld himself and went his way, and immediately forgot what he was.” The Holy Spirit is telling us through the pen of James that if we study and know the word of God and then walk away, ignore what we see in ourselves, and do not take steps to conform our thoughts and actions to the revealed will of God, then we are self-deceived.
God wants us to know that His word, is not just about knowledge and revelation, but it is also about accountability. In James’ day, the Scriptures those early Christians had available to them was what we know as the Old Testament. It details the creation, the history of God’s chosen people, and, most important, the character of God as holy and righteousness and the will of God that His people be holy and righteous also. The New Testament, which was to be written over the 55 years following James’ letter, deals with different times and different issues, but is remarkable in that it sort of completes the thought of the Old Testament, confirming those character qualities of God through Jesus, who repeated again and again the Father’s desire that His people live pure and righteous lives of faith and dependence on Him.
After 20 centuries, however, various views of biblical truth still exist, as mankind—both Christians and unbelievers—struggle to reconcile biblical truth to the cultural pressures that lure them. People regard the truths of the Bible in a number of ways today. Some see the Bible as relative truth—“it may be true for you but it’s not true for me.” One youth pastor put it this way when interviewed about the Bible’s teaching about sexual sin: “Times have changed and that’s no longer applicable.”
Some people might be seen as superstitious about the Bible, believing there is something magical in having a Bible around, sort of a good luck charm on the coffee table that is good for an automatic blessing. It doesn’t need to be opened, just there.
James seems to address what we might call “theoretical hearers.” Those are people who may have a great religious education and lot of knowledge about the teachings of scripture but lack in personal godliness.
I know we could probably come up with some other categories. The Holy Spirit is making the point in this passage from James that people who read the word but who neglect doing what it says are self-deceived. The term “deceiving yourselves” in verse 22 is not the idea of being uninformed. It means choosing false or corrupt reasoning. When I read this passage, I always think of rationalizing, the thought process we use to try to convince ourselves that a wrong attitude or a wrong actions just may be righteous after all.
An appropriate example might be the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan. They were religious leaders (people who knew the word!),but they were comfortable in not showing mercy to the injured traveler. Samaritans were despised by the Israelites as unclean and impure. These Jewish religious leaders in the parable seem to rationalize that not stopping and helping this unbeliever was justified, the right thing to do, even though they knew God wants His people to show mercy.
In verse 25, James tells us that hearing and doing the truth God’s word reveals to us leads to blessedness (happiness). In making this point, James contrasts the doer with the hearer, describing the doer of the word in four important phrases:
The doer looks intently into the word. The term “looks into,” which James uses in verse 25, pictures a person who stoops down to examine something closely, with an intent to see and understand in detail. We can conclude from this term alone that God’s intent is for us to develop deep understanding of Him through His word. That doesn’t mean we have to learn Hebrew and Greek and all the history of the Bible. Whatever language the Bible has been translated into, it clearly conveys Who God is, what He has done for us, and how we should respond.
The doer is liberated by the word of God. It is the perfect law, and it gives the doer freedom. It is liberating. Paul explains this concept in great detail in his letters, showing Christians that they are no longer servants of their sinful nature, but free to choose not to sin. As God’s people, Christians are free to choose righteousness. Those who have not been reborn by the Spirit of God are not. They are servants of their sinful, self-centered nature.
The doer is a lifelong learner of the word. Notice in verse 25 that God does not want us to be content just read the word, but to continue to closely and intently examine and understand it. Knowing God and His will is a lifelong learning process. Understanding and doing His will is the sure sign of Christian maturity.
The doer does not forget what he or she learns. Unlike the person who looks into the mirror and promptly forgets what it revealed about the appearance of the person he or she saw, the doer does not forget what the word reveals about himself or herself. In other words, the doer lets the word of God change him or her by doing what the word says.
In closing, we should remember that James was writing to a very young church. Christians could read the Old Testament scriptures. They met as a church to hear teachings from an apostle or teachers sent by the apostles. The letter from James was meant to be copied and read in the various congregations of the growing church as it spread from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and further abroad. It was meant to be basic, focusing on the foundational aspects of our faith: persevering in suffering as persecution grew in intensity, resisting temptations to live like the self-centered people that made up the culture; loving one another and showing that love unselfishly; acquiring not just knowledge, but wisdom; avoiding worldly indulgence; and living a life of practical faith.
Most of the book of James can be directly related to specific teachings of Jesus. In many cases, James elaborates and gives specific applications. We might ask where James got the idea of emphasizing hearing and doing? Why is he so insistent on putting the word of God into practice? This passage in the book of James seems to be a direct reflection of the teaching of Jesus at the end of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore, whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house: and it fell. And great was its fall.”
The foundation of a godly and blessed life is not just hearing God’s word. It is doing God’s word, living according to His character and His will.
When we look into the mirror of God’s word, what do we see? We see that Jesus died for our sins, so it would be possible for us to be reconciled to God. We see that by believing in Jesus Christ, we can be His forever and walk in newness of life. And as we constantly dig deeper, we see our flaws. We see that we are sinners. We see how the world affects us. And we see where we can change.