We spend a lot of time in our family discussing good listening skills. You see, we have a three-year-old daughter who is a regular chatterbox. She talks from the time she gets up every morning until she goes to bed at night. Her oral skills are marvelous, but her listening skills sometimes leave something to be desired. And so we spend a lot of time talking about “listening ears” and reminding one another to use them. The thing about listening is that it is not a simple skill. Sometimes it is possible to listen but not really hear what someone is saying. (We experience this phenomenon quite a bit with our three year old.) The book of James addresses the idea that fully living the Christian life requires action. Although our faith is not based on works, the complete picture of what it means to be a Christian includes action on our part. Actively living the Christian life requires listening and understanding. Our passage today specifically addresses this issue and sets the framework for the rest of James’s theological perspective.
The first chapter of James begins like many early Christian epistles. James encourages the believers to stand firm amid persecution. This is a common theme in the New Testament epistles as many first-century Christians experienced persecution firsthand. The balance of the chapter deals with the importance of really listening to the word. Verse 19 begins with an admonition to be quick to listen and slow to speak and to anger. There is perhaps no wiser practical verse in all scripture. The human tendency is to do just the opposite, it seems. Verse 22 continues with instruction not merely to listen but actually to do what the word says. “Doing” is an important concept in James. For James, listening and even knowing what it right is not enough. You must take your listening and knowing to the next step and do what is right. In verse 26, the writer again cautions against the dangers of the tongue. We do not know much about James’s situation or audience, but they must have been experiencing a reality that many churches experience. Outside persecution can threaten a body of believers, but inner strife, often caused by an untamed tongue, can damage the body.
What an important message for the church today! I have often thought that verse 19 should be etched above the doorway at the entryway to the sanctuary. There is not a better attitude for Christian living than that! Most church crises that I have observed or experienced have occurred because someone was talking much more than listening. There are several ways that this is destructive to the fellowship. First of all, since it is impossible to talk and listen at the same time, if you spend all of your time talking then you probably will not hear God’s word for you. Talking busies our mind to the point that there is not much room for peaceful contemplation with the Lord. Talking can inhibit your relationship with Christ, which will in turn harm the fellowship of believers.
Second, talking can inhibit your relationship with other believers. No one wants to be in a relationship with someone who is not a good listener. When we fail to listen and do God’s word, we often fail to follow God’s important command to love one another in the way that Christ loved us. Third, a failure to control your tongue can harm your Christian witness. An effective witness is rarely one who says all the right things, but often one who listens and cares. A nonbeliever can actually be turned off to the gospel by one whose tongue is out of control and used to harm others. So, your unbridled tongue may even harm the growth of the fellowship.
The message of James for us personally is the same message that is preached in my home on a regular basis. Put on your listening ears! As believers we must be ready to listen and really hear God’s word. To really listen, we must learn to control our tongues. This is an important discipline of our faith. If we cannot gain control of something so small but powerful, we have little hope for a productive, full Christian life. There is a second important part of this message. It is important with our daughter as well. “Listening ears” are not enough. If we listen to the word, but do not do what it says, then we wasted our listening. As a believer you can listen and know the right way but not follow through, which is as good as not knowing at all. James encourages believers that taking an active role in our faith is imperative. We must act on the word, and put our calling as Christians in motion. Listen and do!