Comments on James 1:19-27

10 Jul
James is addressing the issue of wisdom in this section. He has already addressed it initially in 1:5-8, but here he elaborates, especially with regard to speech and anger. These areas are common indicators of a lack of spiritual maturity. So James cautions his readers in verse 19 with a great word of truth for any age.
1:19 Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
In context James may be addressing the temptation of his readers to forsake God in the midst of trials. This God who has saved us and gives us every good and perfect gift can appear to us less than gracious when we are walking through a deep valley. So this could be a verse about not charging God with wrongdoing. But it could also be about personal relationships with others, a theme which James touched on in 1:9-11 and will revisit several times in this book. One of the great temptations of the believers James is addressing seems to be a tendency toward strife in interpersonal relationships. A great remedy to this kind of strife is the approach James recommends here . . . quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. What an appropriate message for today’s culture. And notice it is a message for every person, not just politicians, not just those with whom you disagree but for every person. To be quick to listen means I regard the other person highly enough to really give them my attention and regard seriously their words. To be slow to speak means I have a humility about myself which is hesitant to rush in with my opinions unless I have weighed my words carefully and know I am speaking them from a place of love. Slowness to anger is a sign that I am not relating to the other primarily for my benefit, as most often for most people anger is what happens when the universe doesn’t act as a butler for one’s personal agenda. This practical wisdom would serve us all well in an election year.
1:20 For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.
The  reason for James’ strong warning in verse 19 is that human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. I believe what James means here is that our anger is not what should characterize our lives. The righteous life God desires of us will not come in one who is proud, thoughtless, unloving and constantly frustrated. It is important to note that James’ use of the word “righteousness” is different than Paul’s (understanding this will be especially important in chapter 2). When James speaks of righteousness he is not normally talking about the righteousness of God given to us through faith in Christ, he is talking about our righteous actions which result from faith in Christ and walking with Him. He is not talking about righteousness as the root of our salvation (the Pauline emphasis) but righteousness as the fruit of our salvation. But this righteous life will not come without action on our part.
1:21 So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls.
So this life of Christ-like righteousness which is God’s goal for every believer (Romans 8:29-30) is not had without intentionality on our part. There is a putting away of filth and evil excess which is necessary. We usually think of these things as matters of personal immorality like sexual immorality or dishonesty, and that may be the sense James intends here. But in the context of relationships the filth and excess may also point to a pattern of simply living for self, of insisting on one’s on way, of trying to align all things to serve self. The point is one can be a very decent sort of person in the eyes of others and still be filled with filth and evil excess. This passage bears some resemblance with the put off/ put on language of Colossians 3, as the reader is urged to “humbly welcome the message implanted in you.” This verse proves that we never outgrow our need for the gospel. Notice the humility here. This seems to be the goal. A humble view of self and a high view of God combine to move us to love people and live for their blessing and benefit rather than living in a self-serving way. The message has already been implanted in us (1:18) and it is able to save us.
1:22 But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves.
But there is a potential problem here which James will continue to address in this letter. There is always a danger in throwing off the evil excess of our lives and humbly receiving the implanted word that we might stop there. There is a danger that for us Christian living may become a merely inward matter of sin management and gospel remembrance. Personal piety is always an essential aspect of the Christian life but by itself it is always insufficient to make a mature follower of Jesus Christ. There is a great danger here, the danger of self-deception. This was a problem for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who believed they could see because of their knowledge but were actually spiritually blind. It is a problem in our day, especially among evangelicals who value theology and desire to teach and preach the truth about God. This is a sober warning for preachers everywhere to not live simply an inward life but to live out the message.
1:23 For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. 1:24 For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. 
James uses this intentionally absurd illustration of the mirror to show us how absurd it is for someone to receive the implanted word and then forget what it means and the calling that comes with being a recipient of God’s grace. The key to not forgetting who we are is in living it out.
1:25 But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does.
James makes it clear that the habits of personal piety are important. There is a throwing off of evil that is necessary, utterly necessary. There is a humble receiving of the implanted word that is utterly necessary. There is an intentional gazing on, meditating on, the perfect law of liberty which is utterly necessary. You must have these habits of the heart to be walking in the way of Jesus (see also 4:4). But unless you live it out, it is all empty self-deceit. This is the power and challenge of James’ words. It really doesn’t matter how good your quiet time was or how much you enjoyed the choir anthem or how much the sermon touched you, if you don’t live it out you’ve engaged in a bit of religion but you have not followed Jesus. And following Jesus brings blessing, as verse 25 says. And here it is not the future blessing of the crown of life as in verse 12. Here the blessing is present: “he will be blessed in what he does.” So there is a blessed life in this life and it is the life of living it out as a follower of Jesus. So the burning question that should be on your mind here is “What does it mean to ‘live it out’?” James is glad you asked . . .
1:26 If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile.
So first James brings up speech. There is a disconnect in the life of one who claims to know Jesus but has no discipline regarding his speech. The word bridle gives us the sense that the tongue is something which must be directed, that we must uses the means at our disposal (humble reception of the implanted word) to speak words of life rather than words of death. To do otherwise is to live with a deceived heart and a futile faith. And I would add, this is a miserable existence. The one who thinks he is religious must surely be participating in activities which would mark him as a person of piety and yet in his everyday speech he is not talking in a way which reflects his personal practice of devotion. In this way, he is the double-minded man of 1:5-8, unstable in all his ways. Miserable, unstable people most often have a great disconnect between their aspirations and their reality. For the Christian, this is most miserable of all, because aspirations are not merely relational or material, but spiritual and eternal. So living it out has to do with my speech. Why is speech so important? Because, as Jesus said, “From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” Please don’t think of this as merely curse words. Filthy language is to be rejected (Colossians 3:9) but there are countless ways ungodly speech can come out. Christians without self-control in regard to speech are not living it out.
1:27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
In verse 27 James closes this section by telling us further what “living it out” means. Caring for those who have nothing to offer us is “living it out.” In James’ day it was orphans and widows. For us it may be someone else. In the end, we who were forgiven while totally undeserving, should be quick to love with the kind of love we’ve received. This is pure and undefiled religion because it is a reflection of our merciful God who gives generously without finding fault. We are called to be like Jesus and we are never more like Him than when we love those who have nothing to offer us in return, or even those who are against us. In addition, there is the matter of keeping oneself unstained by the world. In other words, as part of “living it out” personal purity does matter. I think in our culture some Christians are activists (“let’s change the world for Jesus”) and some Christians are separatists (“let’s steer clear of the evil world and live pure lives that will please God”). James shows us this is not an either/or but a both/and matter. Living it out means I am committed to selfless love for others and selfless devotion to God’s directions for my lifestyle.
None of us lives these things perfectly. There is a heaviness here similar to that of the Sermon on the Mount. It feels unattainable. Yet God has promised us the power of His Spirit. God has promised us that He will finish His good sanctifying work (Philippians 1:6). And God has promised that He will conform us to be like Jesus (Romans 8:29). So don’t give up. By God’s grace, live it out.
EXCURSUS: THREE ISSUES FROM THIS SECTION
1. “The Perfect Law of Liberty” — What does James mean by this phrase? Is he talking about the law of Moses, is he talking about the Gospel, is he talking about the teachings of Jesus? I do not think he is referring to the law of the Old Testament, because in the discussion of 2:1-12 the law of Moses is looked at as anything but liberating. As in Paul, the law puts an unbearable burden on us until we turn to Christ. On the other hand, the fact that he used the word law here makes me think he is talking about something more than the gospel message of salvation in Jesus. Some principle of living seems to be involved, though that principle, because it involves liberty, must have something to do with Jesus. And so I take the third option to be James’ meaning here, a reference to the teaching of Jesus. In particular, I see a connection between this phrase and the phrase in 2:8, “the royal law.” And what is the royal law? Not all the teaching of Jesus but the particular command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This command was not original to Jesus but was written in Leviticus. However, Jesus stated it was, with the commandment to wholeheartedly love God, the essential statement of what God desires from His people. This fits the context very well, as throughout this section James is talking about living out the Christian life in the sphere of relationships. And loving your neighbor as yourself is the law of liberty because the focus is not on you and your needs but on God and others. You are trusting God for your daily bread while you bless others in their needs.
2. “I don’t have religion, I have a relationship.” This phrase came to my mind while studying this section. I see this statement as potentially misleading. While it is true that religious ritual can never save us, it is also true that a relationship with God cannot save us. What saves us is the action of God on our behalf in sending His Son to die in our place and rise again, which is received by faith. To say it another way, relationship with God is not the root of our salvation but its fruit. God’s work on our behalf brings us into His family and this leads to a relationship of fellowship with God as His beloved child. This relationship, however, is not disconnected from the practices of religion. We pray, we read our Bibles, we go to church, and as James tells us, we speak love and live love toward those in need. And all of these behaviors are religious acts, because they are done as unto the Lord and in dependence on Him.
3. “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” This phrase also came to my mind while looking at this passage. I have heard it for years from many people and something about it always struck me as not quite right. I think the problem I see in it relates to James 1:27. James doesn’t tell us to measure how much we care, he just tells us to “live it out” by serving the orphan and the widow. Now, indeed, if you don’t care you won’t serve but if I am a person in need I don’t really care how much someone cares about me, I only really care if they can help me. I might like my surgeon to be nice and compassionate and caring but if I want a tumor out of my body I am going to try to get the most competent surgeon regardless of how much I perceive he cares about me. The other problem with this phrase is that it sets up the person in need as a judge of the person who is trying to help them. The idea seems to be “I am not going to listen to you until you exceed a certain bar of caring in my mind. Until then, you will not get a hearing.” Now I know this is reality in the minds of many but it doesn’t make it right. If I am a person of the “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry” variety, I will not spend my time trying to perceive how much someone cares about me before I will give them the time of day. I will instead value them as a person enough to listen to them, interact with them, and not demand of them in excessive ways. So this phrase, I believe, comes from a mindset that seems to be at odds with the truths James is sharing in chapter one of his letter.
Now if you’ve ever used either of these last two phrases, don’t feel bad, I’ve used them too. 🙂 You may even disagree with my views. That’s ok. It just gives you and I an opportunity to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” May God bless us all as we trust Him to strengthen us to “live it out” day by day.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Jas 1:19–27). Biblical Studies Press.

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