“But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever heard a really stirring speech or maybe a sermon that grabbed hold of your heart and made you feel like you were ready to go take on the world? Did you? Or perhaps have you seen one of those commercials with the old white guy promising not to let anymore African kids starve if you give him your money filled with all kinds of really pathetic-looking little ones? Did it yank on your heartstrings? Did you send him money? Being stirred to action emotionally is one thing. Actually moving is something entirely different. James agrees.
One of the things the church has done just an average job of over its history is encouraging its members to read their Bibles. Some seasons have been better than others. In recent times some denominations have been better than others.
With much respect to my Catholic friends, the Catholic Church has the reputation of not encouraging Bible reading much at all. More theologically conservative Baptist churches have the reputation of a better track record. Notice I said better, not good.
As a pastor I regularly come across programs and packages that promise to help me get my people reading their Bibles more consistently. Some seem more gimmicky than others, but they all have in common this awareness that many individual followers of Jesus express personally: We should be reading our Bibles more than we currently are.
That’s a sense of guilt many followers of Jesus share. My guess is that you’ve made at least one New Year’s resolution to read your Bible more. You’ve heard a sermon about it and decided to get more serious about adding it to your daily routine. You’ve felt ashamed when listening to other believers talk about doing it more than you do.
Well, the truth is that reading the Bible is something we should probably all be doing more than we currently are. I’m not going to try and soften the weight of that particular guilt for you in this note. What I am going to do, though, is set before you one more thing to be sure to set in place before you set out to assuage your conscience. What James is saying here is that if reading the Bible is your goal, you’d better make application your aim or else you’ll be wasting your time.
That’s right: If you don’t make plans to actually put into practice what you read—that is, if you don’t move from being merely a hearer to an active doer of the word—you just about might as well not bother with it. Reading it is better than not because if it’s in your heart and mind taking up space, God can more potentially do something with it than if it’s not there in the first place. But without applying it, reading it is only marginally better than not.
As for why this it, James tacks on two words at the end of this sentence that offer the explanation. Getting into the habit of reading it without applying it sets us up to live lives of self-deception. We deceive ourselves into thinking we’re right with God because we are reading His word. But if we’re not doing His word, we’re not going to be right with Him, because by default we’ll be doing somebody else’s word instead.
We’ll be like the person who feels healthier and smugly superior to their sedentary friends because he goes to buy a new pair of running shoes. Owning the shoes does open the door to a healthier lifestyle, but unless we actually put them on and start moving we won’t ever actually experience the benefits of that healthier lifestyle. All our delusional superiority will not only not help us, it’ll probably hurt us because we’ll likely start assuming on our delusion in our daily choices, writing checks on an empty account.
Now just so we’re clear, I am not saying that reading your Bible is worthless. I’d lose my preacher card if I did. What I am saying with James is that if you’re going to read your Bible, make sure you are ready to do what the particular author you are reading says. Otherwise you’ll waste your time. Or, to steal James’ phrase: Be a doer of the word, not merely a hearer.