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Synopsis: Doing, Not Just Hearing

In James 1:22-27, our focus for this week’s discussion, James prepares the way for much of the content yet to come in his book. When he admonishes his listeners to be “doers of the word, not merely hearers” (1:22), he is looking forward to his pointed discussion of faith and works (2:14-26). His comments on this theme might be less confusing if it were called “faith and deeds,” and deeds is what he stresses in 1:22.

Then, almost out of the blue, he talks about bridling the tongue (1:26), a theme which he develops with great passion in 3:1-12. If doing is more important than mere hearing, there is one form of “doing” which he vociferously opposes: the unbridled “doings” of the tongue (1:26).

Questions for Discussion:

1. An Echo of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus contrasts two kinds of listeners, those who hear and do over against those who hear but do nothing. The former are like those who build their house on a rock, the latter like those who build on mere sand. Is this teaching identical with that of James 1:22-25? Is James simply reminding his listeners of a self- evident truth?

2. Good from an evil heart? A more subtle question, not raised by James, is whether or not an evil heart can still do good. Matthew 7:11 affirms that good can come from an evil heart: “If you who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children….” (NRSV). Could there be good reasons why James never raises this possibility of good coming from evil? Paul Tournier comments meaningfully on that perspective:

The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil we do. I have been struck, for example, by the numbers of people who have been brought back to God under the influence of a person to whom they had some imperfect attachment…. Our vocation is, I believe, to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of raw materials. – Paul Tournier (Person Reborn, 80-81), via Philip Yancey (Reaching for an Invisible God, 264),

3. Law and liberty. James 1:25 links two words together that don’t seem to belong together. James states that those who “look into the law of liberty and persevere” will be blessed. Two questions emerge from this statement: a) How is law linked with liberty? And b) how does a focus on this law result in making doers not mere hearers?

Perhaps one could understand the linkage between law and liberty by suggesting that those who have internalized the law – perhaps in the new covenant sense of Jeremiah 31:31-34 – find themselves freed to obey spontaneously. Thus they are truly free.

How a focus on law results in making doers not mere hearers is more of a puzzle. From a motivational point of view, grace is generally more powerful when it precedes law. In Scripture, Romans 5:6-11 illustrates the idea of grace before law: “while we were still weak” (5:6), “while we were still sinners” (5:8), “while we were yet enemies” (5:10) – Christ died for us. In the Old Testament, the deliverance from Egypt came before Sinai, a deliverance scarcely deserved by Israel. But touched by that gracious act of God they were prepared to move on to Sinai where they would also experience law as a gracious gift of God.

4. The tongue, widows, and the world. Following the discussion of doing and hearing, James lists three activities that mark the “doer”: a) bridling the tongue; b) caring for orphans and widows; c) keeping oneself unstained from the world. What is the common ground between these three? How would James rank these three items in a hierarchy of values? Would we agree – readily, reluctantly, or not at all?

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