The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Hearing and doing

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What would you think of someone who sat down to a wonderful meal, beautifully served, who smiled in appreciation, breathed deeply to draw in all the delightful aromas, applauded the service, commended the chefs, and walked away without eating a single mouthful, having nothing to digest and from which to draw nourishment?

How would you respond to a patient impressed with the insight and skill of the doctor to whom they had gone, fulsome in praise of his diagnostic penetration and grasp of the available remedies, praising his ‘bedside manner,’ appreciative of his sympathetic honesty and his compassionate care, treasuring the fact that he had prescribed a particularly profitable regimen of exercises and a particularly effective medication, without having actually observed a single step of the exercises or taken a single tablet of the prescribed cure?

In either instance, you would be justified in saying that the individuals involved had rather missed the point of the transactions in question. There is nothing inherently nourishing about being at the meal table when such a banquet is served – the food needs to be eaten and digested. There is nothing inherently life-giving about a consultation with such a doctor – the advice and the medicine need to be taken.

And yet how easy it is to adopt such an attitude with regard to the ministry of the Word of God. How easy it is to be satisfied with – even to commend ourselves for – the hearing of vigorous preaching, sitting under sermons with searching application, the reading of stirring books that call us to a life of vigorous godliness, being pastored by faithful men who deal sincerely with our souls, and being part of a church built strongly upon Scriptural foundations.

There we sit, revelling in the aromas of good spiritual food, appreciating the fine service, commending those who bring the food to us so appetisingly (especially to other people whom we believe to be sadly malnourished). But do we eat and are we nourished? We praise the skill and insight of spiritual physicians, perhaps even boasting of their gifts and graces, confident that they are prescribing spiritual medicines of the finest quality and exercises of the highest calibre. But do we take the pill and follow the counsel?

There is nothing inherently virtuous in simply being in such a place under such a ministry. To be sure, it is a good place to be. It is the right place to be. But the benefits may be all around us without ever penetrating; the blessings may make no difference to us because we do not imbibe the things taught, we are not eating and digesting the food that is served.

You may know people who have sat in such churches and received such ministry for month upon month, year upon year, even decade upon decade. Why do they still lack spiritual maturity? Why has there been so little evident progress in sanctification? Why is there still that root of bitterness? Why is there so little Christian joy? Why are they still seemingly oblivious to particular weaknesses and sins? Why are so few of the opportunities offered and duties urged being embraced?

It may be because the working assumption has been that simply being there is enough. But it is not.

James calls upon the saints to “lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1.21). Here is that truly Berean spirit (Acts 17.11) which gives a ready and humble welcome to the Word of God, desiring that it will accomplish its intended purpose and opening the door of our hearts to give it a swift and unobstructed entrance, in order that it may take root in our souls and begin to bear fruit. In order to do this, we must decisively strip off and throw away whatever remains in our hearts of ungodliness, deliberately and unstintingly rooting out the weeds of wickedness in order that the flowers of righteousness may grow, bud and bloom in our souls. Such a reception, fiercely dealing with sin and meekly embracing the truth, will be the means of our salvation as we press on toward heaven.

James then speaks to the problem that we have identified:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. (Jas 1.22-25)

It is not enough, says James, to pat ourselves on the back with regard to hearing. The hearing is not an end in itself, but the means to an end. We must be always putting into practice the things that we hear.

Hearing only is the attitude of the student who does turn up to his classes and lectures but is perhaps too careless, too lazy, or too arrogant to assume that he has anything that he must learn and apply. His mere presence does not guarantee any benefit from the things being taught. There may be an occasional, accidental benefit – as of one with a very picky spiritual appetite, or from a piece of food swallowed unintentionally – but there is no sustained and ready embrace of what is consistently given. It is being taught, but it is not being learned. By contrast, the doer, the worker, submits to the authority of the Word of God and grasps and carries out its requirements. He feeds upon the truth and, being nourished, becomes healthy and strong. He repeats the exercises and takes the medicine, and so sustains and increases his well-being. To hear but not to do the Word of God is self-deceit. It gives us a false estimate of ourselves; it allows us to give to ourselves (and to others) the impression that we are walking closely with God when we may not be walking with him at all, let alone following close behind (Ps 63.8). Robert Johnstone says that “to rest satisfied with the means of grace, without yielding up our heart to the power as means, so as to receive the grace and exhibit its working in our lives, is manifestly folly” (Lectures on the Epistle of James, 111). He goes on to refer to Christ’s fearful warning about the hearer only and the doer also in Matthew 7.24-27, claiming that “there is reason to fear that, with great numbers of professing Christians in all sections of the church – persons who attend the house of God, listen with a fair measure of diligence to the proclamation of truth, and, it may be, in intercourse with their friend rather love to talk of sermons and ministers and orthodoxy – this is all; whilst yet they are impressed with the conviction that they are certainly Christians, – nay, perhaps singularly excellent Christians , – forgetting that any degree of religious profession, where the heart is destitute of the love of God, and the life not consecrated to His service, is in His sight utter mockery” (112).

James uses an illustration to drive home this point about hearing and doing. The one who merely hears is like someone who looks briefly and carelessly into a mirror. The mirror gives him something of an accurate reflection of his face but he gives no thought and makes no response to it. It is, perhaps, a passing glance, and he quickly forgets what he has seen. That brief glimpse of reality has no penetrating influence and makes no lasting change upon him: he derives no benefit from the perspective he was granted. The one who actually does is like someone who peers carefully into the mirror and who responds to the dirt and disorder that it reveals, enabling the viewer to correct what is ugly or uglifying and to cultivate true beauty. The reality that he accurately perceives in the mirror has an effect upon him and he acts in accordance with it: he derives lasting benefit from the perspective he was granted.

The Word of God is the mirror: it shows us what is presently wrong and what may be made right. Here, if we take time to consider the truth, we perceive the “perfect law of liberty” and – if we act in accordance with what we see – we will indeed reap the intended benefits in the things that we do, in the demonstrable pursuit of true religion in the salvation of our souls, the day-by-day application of Christianity in the great and small things of life.

James addresses three specific areas in which the hearing must translate to doing if the one professing Christ as Lord and Saviour is not to be self-deceived: the control of the tongue, the care of the needy, the keeping from the world. Have you heard sermons that deal with these directly, or at least touch on them? Has your tongue been reined in, your hand liberated, and your conscience bound? Have your words become purer, your hand freer, and your heart cleaner, as the truth of God has been preached? Think of the last sermon you heard. Was it a brief glimpse into your soul which accomplished nothing more than a passing sense of sin to be dealt with and grace to be cultivated? Can you even remember the applications and exhortations made? Are you making evident progress in response to the Word of God which you hear read and preached and applied?

Perhaps there has been an occasional, temporary response. You have come to the end of a book or a sermon saying, “I really must do something about this,” but the light that has entered your mind has not really penetrated to your soul, and by the time you get up from your chair or finish your journey home all the spiritual impetus has drained away. Perhaps you have been quite satisfied with the resolution to change without the reality of change. Perhaps you have been heartily glad that such applications are made and such exhortations given, but after a brief glance in the mirror you have been quickly persuaded that all is well with you, however much others are called to do. This is to hear but not to do.

How often – perhaps, more accurately, how rarely – do we go from the Word of God without a proper consideration of its application to us, and the matters of practical godliness in which it dictates to us? How grieved are our pastors that after another sermon, or series of sermons, or another conversation, or pointed exhortation privately given, or a pastoral visit to encourage or console or stir up, we are as much persuaded as ever we were that we are just where we ought to be, that he cannot possibly have meant us, and that – perhaps by very virtue of having been present when the words are spoken – we are somehow further on, or at least exonerated from the charges that were laid against others. “After all, I heard him say that it was a sin; more than that, I agreed with him!” Alas, how often do such passing glimpses into the mirror of truth produce nothing more than a self-deceiving self-commendation of the stagnant soul!

How much healthier is the trained and tender conscience that asks, “Is it I?” when the Word of God exposes sin. How much happier is the man who meditates upon the truth of God’s perfect law of liberty and brings forth fruit through pruning and nurturing, whose life is constantly being trained by the Scriptures, who eats the food before him and finds that even that which is bitter can become very sweet, who disciplines his soul to godliness even when the exercise is at first painful to the spiritual muscles, who takes his medicine and finds that his soul is made well.

Being taught and learning are two very different things. The former is necessary but it does not guarantee the latter. The mere spectator must become a true participator. The Word of God is for action rather than speculation. We must receive and obey the truth communicated to us. We must be both hearers and doers. Eat the food. Receive the counsel. Take the medicine. In so doing, you shall live.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 15 July 2011 at 17:05

Posted in Christian living

Tagged with , , ,

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  1. […] Hearing and doing « The Wanderer […]

  2. […] This is a really good exhortation from Jeremy Walker on hearing and doing the word of God. I would recommend that you stop by his blog and let this word soak in. His blog is called The Wanderer. […]


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