You Hear but you Don’t Listen!

In a 2005 article in Fast Company, the author cited some statistics on heart health that staggered me. They estimated that an average of 600,000 people has bypass surgery every year, which might be even more today. After these surgeries, doctors routinely warn patients to change their lifestyles, eat healthier, stop smoking, and start exercising. Of those 600,000, doctors found that 90% did not change their lifestyle at all. It seems that we can hear what needs to be done, but the action that is required to put what we hear into practice is where there is a disconnect. You hear, but you don’t listen. James has a lot to say about that in our text today.

If you remember from last week, I said that James in v. 19 is giving us three imperatives, three areas where, when neglected, send our communities into disarray. In v. 19 he says:

James 1:19 —

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;”

He then begins in v. 20-21 to address the issue of anger, which we looked at last time. Now in v. 22-25, he turns to address the first imperative, calling the saints to be quick to hear. As we read the text today, I want you to think about the disconnect we sometimes have between hearing and listening. We often deceive ourselves when we hear the word, but we don’t obey it, But James again warns not to be deceived. James teaches us in our text today that: We must obey God’s word because God blesses obedience. But how do we obey God’s word?

We must Obey:

1. By Remembering the Word

2. By Doing the Word.

James 1:22–25 (ESV) — 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

By remembering the Word

James, in v. 22 says that we deceive ourselves when we hear the word, but don’t put it into practice. The same self-deception that leads the person who has just had bypass surgery to never make any changes to their lifestyle is also the same self-deception that leads someone to justify abusing someone else or to justify committing adultery, or cutting corners on the job to increase the bottom line. James is saying that we deceive ourselves when we don’t practice what we hear from God’s word. We deceive ourselves when we hear but don’t listen.

James then shows what this looks like with the illustration of a man who looks at himself in the mirror, and then he forgets what he looks like when he walks away. The word for looks is not a quick glance, but an intentional looking, a studied look. The word is often translated as considered. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, this word is used of Eve when she considered that the tree was desirable to make one wise. So this looking is not a glance, and anyway there mirrors being just a shiny piece of metal, there is no way that you could do anything else but intentionally look.

So what’s the problem? The problem is the man who looks forgets. Scripture has so much warning about forgetting. A lot of it is warning us not to forget God and his commandments, but also there is a lot that speaks of God, not forgetting us, and his covenant with us. Deuteronomy is especially full of warnings both not to forget God, but also to keep his covenant. To be a hearer that remembers and a doer that obeys—both are needed. Listen as Moses brings these two concepts together in Duet. 8. He warns them that when they come into the good land that God is giving them, they will be tempted to think that they were the ones who had gotten the land for themselves and forget God. Moses says in 8:11:

Deuteronomy 8:11–14 (ESV) — 11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,

Moses warns them that they will forget the LORD when in their prosperity, they stop keeping God’s word when they stop practicing when they stop being doers of the Word. They do that when they forget.

It is absurd to think that someone could look at themselves in the mirror and then walk away and immediately forget what they look like. Brothers and sisters—that is precisely what we do when we hear the word and forget it. When we don’t remember the Word that we have read or heard preached, or memorized, we are that fool that looks at himself and forgets.

Forgetting who you are sounds absurd to us, but people who have struggled with amnesia it is instead a tragedy. Consider the story of Benjamin Kyle, a man found outside of a burger king in 2004 who had no memory of who he was and where he had come from. In fact, he had virtually no memory of the past twenty years. The story of Benjamin Kyle captured widespread attention as news agencies, DNA detectives, the FBI, and other government agencies all tried everything to help this man discover his identity. Our hearts go out to someone in this situation because we can’t imagine life without our memories, without knowing who we are. It’s tragic. That is why James is telling us this story. How tragic is it when someone sits under the preaching of the word, week in and week out, and whose life is entirely unchanged. How tragic is it when by forgetting God, we turn and suppress the truth and worship and serve idols, just let the tragedy of that sink in. How can people, how can nations, how can civilizations turn their back on what they know is true, that there is a God and he is the LORD, and turn and forget him. How many of our covenant children have looked at the mirror and then walked away, forgetting—that’s tragic. How can a husband forget the vows he made to be faithful to his wife, but stop his ears and turn and commit adultery—That’s tragic. And a tragedy should provoke deep feelings of pity and sadness. That someone could forget God, forget his word, that’s absurd that’s the real tragedy. And when they do, they leave in their wake a wreckage of humanity. Because guess what we weren’t made to live without God.

What about you? Do you remember God and his word? This begs the question, How do I remember? The answer is close to the church’s mission, and here at Hope Church and that is to provide you with as much exposure as possible to the word of God—Christ is the Word of God preeminent. And all we do here is meant for you to know Christ and to make Him known. We do that primarily through our preaching and teaching ministries. We gather in worship each Lord’s day in many ways to be reminded of the great God with whom we have to do. We are reminded of the gospel, our need for forgiveness, and the steadfast love of the Lord. We are like leaky vessels, prone to forget God’s promises, who gather each week to remember. The sacraments are also visible words, given to remind us of our ingrafting into Christ, and of our participation in his life and death. They remind us of our union and communion with the Father through the Son by his Spirit.

But the ministry of the Word also extends to our reading of the word, and especially our meditation and prayer upon the word. Sometimes I think that we forget God and his word because we come hastily into his word and leave just as hastily. But do we prepare our hearts to receive a word from God? Or do our eyes skim across the page, and on to the next thing. In our hyper-connected, age of information overload—reading, that is reflective, what I would call meditative-reading is becoming increasingly difficult. Meditating in the biblical sense is not emptying your mind through some sort of mysticism. It is instead filling your mind. The best illustration I know of for mediation is a cow chewing the cud. How many here have been around a cow. You know that a cow is not in any hurry when it eats. It chews, and chews, and then pardon-me if this is too much, but it swallows it down into one of its stomachs, only to bring it back up and continue chewing it. That is what the word meditate means. You take the word and chew on it, turning it over and over in your mind, looking at every facet of it as if holding an object in your hand and turning over to view a different angle. Then as you move on with the day or week, you bring that thought back into your mind. That’s meditating on the Word. The Puritans were masters of this spiritual discipline, but sadly in our work-a-day lifestyle, we rarely take the time to soak in the word this way. Charles Spurgeon, in his Autobiography, said this about reading the word:

“Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord;—not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts. It is idle merely to let the eye glance over the words, or to recollect the poetical expressions, or the historic facts; but it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavoured with the words of the Lord. I would quote John Bunyan as an instance of what I mean. Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself…he had read it till his whole being was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems,—without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God”

Spurgeon, C. H. C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife and His Private Secretary, 1878–1892. Vol. 4. Chicago; New York; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1900, 268

That is the kind of reading of the word that we so desperately need, not only as individuals but as the church. James tells us that We must obey God’s word because God blesses obedience. But how do we obey God? We obey God by remembering his Word. But we also obey God by doing his Word.

By Doing His Word

Look with me at v. 25…But, that but is important because it sets up a contrast with the image that came before. In comparison with the man who looked intently at himself in a mirror and then immediately upon leaving forgets what he looks like, in contrast with that man, there is another type of person. We’ll call him the blessed person from the end of v. 25. The blessed person also looks into the mirror of the word, which James now elaborates is the perfect law, the law of liberty. This is what Paul in Romans 3:27 calls the law of faith—what we call the gospel. The gospel is that liberating message that proclaims life where death is deserved, the proclamation that God in Christ was not counting our sins against us, but in Christ, we are reconciled back to God. The enmity that exists because of sin has been removed in the blood of Jesus, our sacrificial lamb. The person who is blessed looks in and sees that.

Some commentators, I think, have tried to find significance in the grammatical differences between how the forgetful man looks, and how this blessed man looks. But I think we will not find it there. Both words signify intentional looking. However, the words are different. The way the blessed man looks involves turning aside or stooping down to see. The idea is your walking along, and something arrests your gaze. You stop and stoop down to examine what it is. The word is used of Mary and the other disciples as they looked to see the empty tomb.

But there are two even more fundamental characteristics of the blessed man that the forgetter doesn’t exhibit: perseverance and action. This perseverance is less a steady-course of action through adversity and more continuance, or how the NASB puts it, the blessed man looks at the perfect law of liberty and abides by it. At stake here is the continued looking which leads to action. When Solomon was instructing his sons, in Proverbs he said:

Proverbs 6:20–23 (ESV) — 20 My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. 21 Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. 22 When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. 23 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life,

Because your life is so steeped in scripture, it shapes your response to whatever you encounter in life. The forgetful hearer does not continually look; it does not regularly make it their discipline to feed on the word. Forgetting make sense then because everything within us and in the world around us is conspiring to snatch the word from us—What Jesus calls the cares of this world in his parable of the sower. But it’s not just the continual hearing that makes the blessed man different; it’s also action. The blessed man or woman continues because he or she is a doer who acts and not a hearer who forgets.

So what is a doer who acts, and how do we ensure that we are that kind of person? The answer lies outside of James, but for which I believe James has in mind the whole time. The answer comes at the end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. He tells a parable to describe the response he intends. Listen to Matt. 7:24-27:

Matthew 7:24–27 (ESV) — 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

You see, James is zoomed way out asking those macro-level questions of who are you—but the whole time he has Jesus’ sermon on the mount in his head—why? Because that’s the Christian ethic, that’s the solid bedrock that you build your house on.

What are you building your house on? If I’m honest, I find myself at times with one mooring sunk deep in bedrock, but my back porch is in the sand. I’ve got one foot on the gospel, but the other is playing on the edge. In our secular age, the highest good is your own desires, uninhibited by anyone. They call that freedom, and sometimes if we’re honest, it actually does look like freedom. It might seem like they are having their cake and eating too. But behind the façade is bondage, is slavery to sin. Peter says that “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pe. 2:19). In our secular age, we are slaves to our lusts, our desires. Why can’t I get every new toy, and build bigger and better houses, and buy whatever I want? “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” Why can’t I divorce my wife? We’re not in love anymore. Wouldn’t it be more genuine and honest if we just divorced? “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” Thomas Manton said, 

“Duty is the greatest liberty, and sin the greatest bondage. You cannot have a worse restraint than to be left to ‘walk in the ways of your own hearts'” (Works 4, 164).

Manton, Thomas. The Complete Works of Thomas Manton. Vol. 04. London: James Nisbet & Co., 1871, 164.

The radical Christian ethic that Jesus calls us to in the sermon on the mount is the bedrock that we are to build our houses. Don’t just hear it, build on it. Set your foundations on it. Shape your family’s practices by it, do business with it, live beside each other through it. What do you do, you listen to the word, and you put in practice. Paul says in Romans 6 that if you are in Christ, then you are no longer slaves to sin, and you are to consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. The blessed life is the life lived in the continual contact with the word, and the constant action of putting it to practice.

It’s continual because we are constantly going back to the mirror of the word to see where we are and be reminded of shortcomings and failures—our inability to measure up. Along with the laws loud thunder, we see the resplendent beauty of our savior, whose matchless gift of life has secured our place in the kingdom of God as joint-heirs with Christ. We see the lion of Judah, who is also a slain lamb. It is out of that law of liberty that we respond with lives that adorn the gospel.

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