THE LAW THAT SETS YOU FREE
"Obedience is the road to Freedom."
C. S. Lewis
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the Word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing ithe will be blessed in what he does (James 1:19-25).
ames has been writing about the "word of truth," our sure defense against the devil. This, he continues, "you know." But its not enough to know the Word. We must "listen (to it)" and "do what it says."
Here James enjoins the necessity of response. The difference made by the Word is the difference it makes in us, but for it to make any difference at all, we must decide whether we will receive it with humility, or place ourselves in opposition to it.
The point James makes is complementary to Jesus parable of the sower and the seeds (Matthew 13:19). The seed is the Word that is "planted" in us. It comes to us through reading, through others preaching and teaching and the counsel of wise friends. If we are good soil it will implant itself in us, take root and eventually bear fruit. If we do not receive the Word it will go some other place and find root in someone else, happily producing the fruit of the Spirit. We will, however, have disturbed ourselves and become very unsoundangry and full of neurotic aggression.
The word James uses, translated "angry," suggests an ambient (in contrast to transient) anger. Archbishop Richard Trench defines it as "a settled habit of mind." It is deepseated hostility and bitterness of soul, a restless, argumentative spirit that inveighs against our righteousness, the goal to which this book is committed.
Odd isnt it, that when we will not "do" the Wordwhen we see our sin mirrored on its pages and walk away defiant, unrepentant, unchangedwe degenerate into resentment against God and his people. Thats because there is no moral stasis. Were either becoming more gentle and gracious, or more warped and embittered. There is, as philosophers say, no tertium quid no third thing.
The way to grow in grace is to be "quick to listen"to hear what God is saying to us. Thats an idea James sets in contrast to being "slow to speak (talk)," i.e., chatter on about Gods Wordanalyzing it, dissecting it, abstracting it, all the while building walls of pride and reason so the heart can remain independent. "Saying and not doing," as you may know, is one of James dominant themes.
What James is concerned with here is the tendency of those of us who take the Bible straight to approach it as an object of mere intellectual interestto study it assiduously, to talk about it incessantly, but do nothing with the data we collect. This James says, is like looking into a mirror and seeing dirt on our faces, but choosing to do nothing about it. We believe the word, but we do not think in terms of repentance, faith and obedience. Such reading, James insists, is downright dangerous.
C. S. Lewis has this sort of person in mind when he has his senior demon, Screwtape, give the following advice to his nephew, Wormwood:
The great thing is to prevent his (Wormwoods new Christian client) doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will.
The problem is that the more we keep the Word out of our will the more theoretical, abstract and distant God becomes. Then terrible things begin to happen to us: our hearts begin to harden (because unlived truth always brutalizes us), coldness sets in and eventually bitterness overwrites our souls.
Truth does call for some discussion and understanding, but not as much as we think. There is an order in the way God reveals truth and that order is inviolate: he speaks; we obey; he explainsmaybe.
It is simply not true that we must understand a text before we can obey it. God is not obligated to explain anything to us and there are some things he will never be able to explain until we get to heaven and have his pure heart. We must obey whether we understand or not. We must put an end to our garrulous, restless, quibbling about Gods Word and "humbly accept" it.
James word, "humbly," is a great Greek word with no exact English equivalent. It refers to one who is teachable, tractable, humble enough to learn. It is one who is willing to bow before each word in humble submission.
T. S. Eliot wrote,
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel.
Note James order: we must rid ourselves of "all moral filth and evil." "Moral filth" is anything that is dirty and that defiles us as human beings (the word means "ear wax" in ancient medical textbooks). "Evil" is a generic term for anything ugly and demeaning that "entwines itself" (the meaning of "prevalent") around our souls and entangles us.
James is not insisting that we set ourselves right before the Word can set us right. That would make no sense at all. No, James is concerned here with a disposition, a fundamental willingness to put off anything that defiles our bodies, souls or spirits.
What James means is this: if we find ourselves reading the Word and unchanged by it, it may be that there is some unwillingness in us to let God repair everything that is unworthy or wrong. Unreadiness and resistance tie his hands.
What is the solution? To "humbly accept the Word," to drop our defensive posture, to read with a readiness to obey so the seed can germinate in the soft and yielding soil of our souls.
God can then use his Word to probe and delve into our pride, avarice, greed, hateful thoughts, resentful grudges and indifference to human need. He can disinter the buried secrets and dark thoughts in us that so deeply defile us. He can speak to every harmful habit, every bad attitude, every troubling perspective, every destructive way of relating to others. He can begin to deal with all evil, malignant attitudes and actionsif we are willing to relinquish them. If we put ourselves in Gods hands, he will begin to change us.
Thats what James means by the "Perfect Law." It is perfect in that there is no word that is any better; it is perfecting in that there is no word that can make us any better. It is intended to move us toward Gods perfect endconformity to the character of his son, Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, the Word "gives freedom." "The wise man alone is free," said the Stoics, "and every foolish man is a slave." Freedom is not the power to do what we want. (Thats the worst sort of slavery.) It is the power to do what we shouldto be godlike in all that we do and say.
There is power in the Word. Those who look intently into Christs perfect law and are ready to do it, "will be blessed in their doing"enriched and strengthened by Gods grace to conform to his will. Change requires an alteration of our wills, but an alteration that cannot take place apart from Almighty intervention. Without God working through his word we can do nothing; with him all things are possible. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," Jesus said, "for they will be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6).
What Im saying is this: the greatest enjoyment of the fruitfulness of the Word is available to those who interfere with it least. The Word will do its work if we receive it with an "honest and good heart" (Luke 8:15). Those willing to cooperate with Godwho will let him do whatever he wants to do, however and whenever he wants to do itwill yield a bumper crop of righteousness. God wills us whole and happy, and it will happen, if we dont get in the way.
This sentiment is of a piece with what James has been saying all along: Gods intention is to make us full and complete. Its not that judgment falls on us if we fail to make the proper response to his Word; its rather that we miss out on all the good God has in mind for us.
For a plant, the failure to bear fruit is not a punishment visited upon it, but an unhappy departure from the purpose for which it was created. So it is with us. Resistance to Gods Word means that we miss out on the very purpose for which we were madeour freedom, our fruitfulness, our fullness.
Heres the way I look at it: if I make a deficient response to the Law of Liberty I have not failed to live up to some set of rules God arbitrarily made up and handed down. I have failed to live up to my identity and destiny as a man. That is my tragedy.