Receiving God's Word
James is writing to Christians who value spirituality and consider themselves spiritual—but who are self-deceived, So he writes a blunt and practical description of what genuine Christian spirituality looks like in real life, and how to move in this direction.
In 1:1-18, he described what this looks like in response to the sufferings we encounter in real life (trials and temptations).
In this passage, he describes another key feature of this life—let’s read 1:19-25 and see what it emphasizes (read). Four times, James speaks of God’s Word , and the rest of the letter makes it clear that he is referring to the Bible. The central point is 1:21b—humbly receive God’s Word. The rest of the passage (before and after) answers two questions:
What does it look like to humbly receive God’s Word?
How will God’s Word bless you as you humbly receive it?
What does it look like to humbly receive it?
James gives us four practical answers to this question. Let’s look at each of these answers and understand why they are important.
First, he says we should respect and submit to it in principle. This is what James is saying in 1:19-21a (read). The idea here is that we should come to the Bible with respect for it as God’s authoritative Word. We don’t come quick to tell God what we think—we come quick to learn what God thinks. We don’t come ready to angrily dismiss it when it disagrees with our desires—we come ready to let it retrain our desires. We don’t come selecting what we agree with and rejecting what we disagree with (EXAMPLE)—we come ready to be instructed. We come “humbly” rather than pridefully.
This prideful attitude is the “filth” and “evil” described in 1:21a. James doesn’t mean that you have to stop sinning before you can receive God’s Word—that’s impossible. Rather, he means that we have to remember that this prideful attitude is prevalent in us (it comes naturally to us, we have all lived this way so long), and we have to choose to lay it aside and say “God, I come to learn from you.”
Even if you don’t yet believe in Jesus, this is an important point if you want to learn more about God’s Word (which is why I assume you’re here). You don’t have to throw your mind out and accept everything by blind faith. You can ask questions, and you can ask for evidence why the Bible is God’s Word. But you have to be willing in principle to follow what it says if it turns out to be the truth (explain Jn.7:17). If you adopt this attitude, you will be amazed how quickly you get evidence (of all kinds) that this is God’s Word!
Second, look intently into it (1:25). James uses the word parakupto, which means literally “to stoop to see.” This is the word used to describe what John did when he got to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. He had been told that Jesus’ body was no longer there. So he outran Peter ran to the tomb, and when he got there he “stooped and looked into” the tomb. His mind was fully alert and receptive—he saw the grave-wrappings still in the shape of a body, but empty. He saw the face cloth neatly rolled up. He studied the data and sought for an explanation of its meaning. And as a result, he began to believe what Jesus had told him—that he was actually resurrected from physical death.
James tells us to receive God’s Word this same way. Give your full attention to it, concentrate on what it says, look for how this passage connects with other passages (EXAMPLE). How different this is from reading the Bible or attending a Bible study with a casual, check-off-the-religious-duty-box mindset!
We live in the most distracted culture ever, and we have very noisy minds/souls. But we have to battle with this to “look intently,” rather than submit to skimming superfically. PRACTICAL TIPS: pray for God’s help to see (Ps.119:18); pick a time and place of least external distraction; read aloud or write out the passage; bring your Bible to studies and write in it.
As you look intently, be sure that you look especially for what the Bible says about what God has provided for you through his Son Jesus. The Bible is not primarily a history book or rule-book of commandments (though it contains these elements); it is above all else the story of God’s unrelenting love for messed up people and his gracious provision through his Son Jesus. Look for this everywhere, and when you see this, pay special attention to it (Col.3:1,3; 2Cor.3:18; 4:18; Rom.8:5,6; ME WITH ROM. 5,8). This will feed your soul with God’s love, and it will help you to do the third way James says to receive God’s Word...
Third, look honestly at what it reveals about you. The Bible not only reveals to us what God is like—it is also a “mirror” that reveals to us what we “look” like (1:23,24). In many ways, our biggest problem is our self-deception (Jer.17:9). We have an infinite capacity to lie to ourselves, justify our attitudes, and rationalize our behaviors. But through his Word, God buts through all of this and exposes our deepest thoughts and intentions (Heb.4:12,13). He exposes the lies (“thoughts”) we believe about him, ourselves, and others), and he exposes the wrong motivations (“intentions”) of our sinful behaviors.
This is traumatic. In fact, if we don’t look intently at God’s love/grace, we won’t be able to bear what we see in the mirror. But since the One who is exposing what we look like is also the One who loved us enough to die for us, we can afford to agree with what he shows us and run to him for help (Heb.4:16). “Not only has the truth about ourselves come by (his Word), but also the truth about God’s... love towards us. Left to ourselves, our guilty consciences would only tell us that God is against us, that he is the God with the big stick. We see him only as the One who sets impossibly high standards for us, and therefore who cannot but censure us when we fail. But the Cross of the Lord Jesus... shows us God as he really is. We see him, not charging us with our sins... but charging them to his Son for our sakes... What we thought was the big stick was really the outstretched arm of love beckoning us back to himself. In the face of Jesus Christ... we see that (God) has not set new and unattainable standards, but has come to offer forgiveness, peace, and new life to those who have fallen down on every standard there is... This is... ‘the surprising generosity of the Cross.’ It not only surprises our guilty consciences but also melts and draws us, impelling us to return to him in honesty and repentance, knowing that nothing but mercy is waiting for us.”
Fourth, take action on what it shows you. As James says, we should not be hearers only, but also doers (1:23,25). We come ready to listen, we look intently at God, we see what God shows us about ourselves—and then we act upon what we have received. This “doing” is essential if we are to truly benefit from God’s Word (“he will be blessed in the doing”). In fact, chronically hearing without doing is harmful because it promotes spiritual self-deception—the self-righteous illusion that mere familiarity with God’s Word makes you spiritual (1:26).
Sometimes, the “doing” is simply to agree with and embrace what God wants to give you. No one else sees you “do” anything—but God sees, and he blesses you in your doing. I remember like it was yesterday when God spoke to me through Rev.3:20 (read)—and I simply responded by saying silently: “I am opening the door of my heart because I want you to come in.” This was my silent “doing”—and I was blessed in my doing because Jesus moved into my soul that day, and made me God’s child, and began to change my life in ways that continue to amaze me. This is what he is saying to some of you this morning. Will you hear and do—or only look and go your way and forget? The choice is yours, but I hope you will hear and do!
Overall, the “doing” will move in the direction James describes in 1:16,17 (read). These verses are a “table of contents” for the next 3 chapters.
He will call on you to use your speech to praise and thank him and/or encourage others (rather than to complain, criticize, boast). More on this in chapter 3.
He will call on you to serve the needy people he is bringing into your life (orphans, widows, trafficking victims, lonely people, people broken by tragedy or relational failure, etc.). More on this is chapter 2.
He will call on you to turn away from values/ways of life that pollute your soul—like materialistic hoarding or spending, like sexual impurity, like relational autonomy. More on this in chapter 4.
Everyone can do this, because it’s all attitudinal. It doesn’t require a seminary degree or a high IQ. And as you receive God’s Word this way on a regular basis (1:25 – “continues to do this”), it begins to work deeply and powerfully in your life to bless you (Ps.1-3). That’s what James (and the rest of the Bible) promises will happen, and he describes it in two ways...
How will God’s Word bless you as you humbly receive it?
It will save your soul (1:21). James is not talking about being saved from God’s condemnation, because his hearers are already saved in this sense (1:18). Nor is he talking about our bodies being saved, because this happens when Jesus returns. Rather, he is saying that God’s Word has the power to heal us from crippling psychological and emotional and relational brokenness from our own sinful choices and from others’ sins against us.
I have seen this in our marriage. So many factors were stacked against our marriage (EXAMPLES) that many of our Christian friends warned us that it wouldn’t last. But God has brought healing to us so that we are best friends, can fight fairly, are a team rather than competing against one another, etc. This is the healing power of God’s Word!
I see this in many people in our home group. We are truly a band of wounded, broken people. Many are being healed of damage from wrong choices (e.g., heroin and cocaine addiction; materialism and status addiction), and from wrong choices inflicted on them by others (sexual abuse; parental abuse and rejection; etc.). Those who are being healed are all humbly receiving God’s Word!
Do you want/need this kind of healing? Have you despaired of finding it through self-help, secular therapy, etc.? God’s Word has the power to do this! Start humbly receiving it!
Jn.20:5,11; Lk.24:12 (Peter and Mary peering into Jesus’ tomb); 1Pet.1:12 (angels passionately desiring to peer into the gospel); LXX: Jdg. 5:28 (Sisera’s mother scanning at the horizon for her son); 1Chron. 15:29 (Michal staring at and judging David dancing before the Lord); Gen.26:8 (Abimelech watching Isaac caress Rebekah)