Most of us are guilty of hearing far more than doing. We know what we ought to do, but fail to execute on the knowledge we possess. As one man said, “We’re educated far beyond our own obedience.” The book of James offers some great insight on how to move from “hearing” to “doing.”
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. — James 1:22
The idea of listening refers to someone who sits in an audience passively listening. If you have kids, you understand exactly what James means by “passive listening.” It’s the equivalent of listening “cafeteria style,” taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that while conveniently ignoring the main course of what you’re trying to say.
Passive listening goes something like this: “If you’ll make all A’s and B’s on your next report card like you did 10 years ago when you were in kindergarten, I’ll give you $50 next month.” But your kids hear: “Since you made all A’s and B’s on your report card when you were in kindergarten, I’m going to give you $50 a month for the next 10 years.” Passive listening at its best.
James continues with, “Do what it says.” Doing is more than a one-time act of obedience; it implies being a “continual doer.” It’s not mindless action, but rather obeying with all of your being … spirit, soul, mind and emotions. James isn’t saying to just “do,” but to “BE a doer.”
John MacArthur compares listening without doing to auditing a class in college. As an auditor, you enroll in, pay the tuition and fees for, and attend classes. However, you do not take tests, turn in papers or complete any assignments. In other words, you “listen” to the course, but you don’t “do” anything with what you hear. There’s no accountability, and therefore, no credit for the course. James’ warning is to avoid becoming a “spiritual auditor”where we hear what God’s Word says, but we don’t act.
When we do become spiritual auditors, we “deceive ourselves.” James expounds on the idea of self-deception by using the illustration of a mirror. He writes:
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. — James 1:23-24
When James wrote his letter, mirrors were typically nothing more than highly polished brass or bronze, or silver or gold if you were wealthy. Obviously a mirror like this provided only a dim or distorted reflection. What’s interesting is that the word James uses to describe “look” means more than a quick glance in the mirror. It actually implies “looking carefully,” which is the only way you can look in a mirror made of brass or bronze.
James’ point is clear: When you’re a “hearer, not a doer” of God’s Word, you may actually be listening carefully to what God’s Word says. But your careful listening is not translating into intentional doing. James continues:
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 it — he will be blessed in what he does. — James 1:25
MacArthur observes that when James says “looks intently,” it literally means to bend over and carefully examine something from the clearest possible vantage point (MacArthur, p. 85). To “look intently” into God’s Word is like mining for gold.
Now, why would a person spend that much energy, and exert that much focus, on a book? You may love to read, so you might think, “Well if it’s a really good book I could see spending a bit more time with it. I might even read it twice if it’s that good.” But if you’re like the 55 percent of Americans over the age of 13 who didn’t read a book in the last 12 months, then it might take a bit more convincing for you.