The Sacred Art of Listening: A Study in James 1:17-25

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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James' virtue of plain speaking is reflected in his epistle, which is a wellspring of practical, pastoral advice. In the first chapter of this letter James writes, ". . . let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger . . ." (1:19). Anyone who has tried to teach something the least bit complicated to human beings knows what a tall order James gives here! Human beings have a tendency to be just the opposite of what James has encouraged - quick to speak, quick to jump to conclusions, and loathe to listen.

Nevertheless, the context of James' remarks indicates how serious James is and how important his instruction is. Just prior to this, James focuses upon a central truth about God: the flawless perfection of God's nature. James uses "light" to describe God's exalted and holy character. There is no shadow of darkness in God whatsoever, and no change or weakness in His flawless nature at any time (cf. I John 1:5, Hebrews 13:8). If we receive anything good, anything perfect, no matter whether it appears to come directly from God or not, the original Giver of this gift is this perfect God; Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.

One of these perfect gifts is the "word of truth" that, when received, gives us birth to eternal life (v. 18, cf. John 1:12-13). We are to receive the "word of truth" as if it were a seed or a young plant to be implanted in our soul (Matthew 13:1ff.). Ultimately, whether we do so depends wholly upon our attitude towards the God who provides this word of truth (Hebrews 11:6). This requires the listener to display an attitude of meekness before God (1:21).

Most people seem to equate "meekness" with an insipid weakness and to envision the "meek" person as a servile "door-mat" who is not only too timid to oppose being walked all over, he or she is happy to have other people do so. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding of Scriptural teaching. Biblical meekness is in no sense weakness. Quit the contrary, it is a strength because Biblical "meekness" involves self-control. Gentleness and humility are part of this meekness, but again, not in the sense of weakness - in the sense of recognizing God's place over Creation and being comfortable with His sovereignty and plan, and of being aware of one's proper place within creation and accepting that place. The meek are often quiet amidst the taunts and indignities heaped upon them not because they are too weak to respond, but because they are deeply aware of their safe and exalted position in God's Kingdom (cf. Romans 8:31-39) and they recognize how empty and fleeting the taunts of their enemies are (Psalm 37, 73). In Psalm 32, God challenges His listeners to control themselves so that He doesn't have to bring "bit and bridle" to keep them on the correct path as if they were beasts of burden. This is an appeal for meekness towards God, an appropriate attitude of faith first towards God the Creator, and then towards the rest of Creation because of one's relationship to the Creator. Solomon exhorts his readers to exhibit this kind of meekness by listening carefully and saying little when coming to the house of the Lord (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).

James describes at least three aspects of meekness in accepting the truth of God. First, we are to put aside anger in recognition that "the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God." Only God is flawless. We must not act as if we can be righteous on our own (1:19-20, 23-25). Moses is a living example of this truth - his anger brought exile, his trust the exodus. Second, we are to put aside all filthiness and wickedness (1:21). This is reminiscent of the call of John the Baptist to prepare for Christ by putting aside all that is not worthy of God. It involves putting aside not just what we feel is inappropriate but what God defines as sinful. Third, we must listen with the desire to act upon what we hear (1:22-25, cf. I John 2:3-6). It is important to recognize that all of this is preparation for receiving the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. We do not save ourselves with these actions, we prepare to receive God's gift of salvation.

The first psalm, the "entrance" to all the others, illustrates the kind of response James exhorts us to give to God's word of truth. So closely, in fact, that it seems reasonable to speculate that James may have had this very psalm in mind when writing this part of his epistle. The person described in Psalm 1 eschews evil and evil companions, delighting and meditating upon the Law of the Lord. We can say that this person "receives the implanted word," and, as a result, "he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in its season" (Psalm 1:3).

On the other hand, those whom Isaiah encountered ". . . refuse to listen to the instruction of the Lord" (Isaiah 30:9, "Law" rather than the NASB "instruction" may be the better translation here). They tell God's prophets what to say rather than listening to them, and what they tell them to say is falsehood; that which turns them aside from the path God has chosen for them. Their antagonism against the true God is revealed in that they do not want to hear any more about "the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 30:8-11). As a result of their persistent refusal to listen to God and receive His grace, God allows them to continue on their evil path and eventually withdraws from them the ability to understand His Word (see Isaiah 29). Yet, before He does, God waits. God would still have them return to Him and find His grace. "In repentance and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength" (Isaiah 30:15, cf. 30:18-26).

The apostle Paul told Timothy that there was coming a time when people would accumulate to themselves teachers who told them only what they wanted to hear (II Timothy 4:3-4, cf. 3:1-13). Certainly this kind of behavior is reminiscent of the behavior Isaiah encountered, the kind of attitude that later caused Jesus to weep over Jerusalem. Paul's admonition to Timothy was to cling to the sound teaching based upon Scripture that Timothy had become accustomed to, and to teach the same (II Timothy 2:14-15, 3:14-4:2). In our own time far too many Christians want to listen to modern "prophets" than to the Holy Scriptures, or if they listen to Scripture to twist it to what they want it to say rather than to study and learn. God gives us the choice of whether to truly listen to Him. If we choose to do so, He will reward us with His fellowship and His grace.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VII, Part 1, January 1999.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.