The emphasis in this section is on the dangers of self-deception: “deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22); “deceives his own heart” (James 1:26). If a Christian sins because Satan deceives him, that is one thing; but if he deceives himself, that is a far more serious matter.
Many people are deceiving themselves into thinking they are saved when they are not. Jesus said, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name and in Your name drive out demons and in Your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt. 7:22–23).
But there are true believers who are fooling themselves concerning their Christian walk. They think they are spiritual when they are not. It is a mark of maturity when a person faces himself honestly, knows himself, and admits his needs. It is the immature person who pretends: “I have need of nothing” (Rev. 3:17).
Spiritual reality results from the proper relationship to God through His Word. God’s Word is truth (John 17:17) and if we are rightly related to God’s truth, we cannot be dishonest or hypocritical. In these verses, James says we have three responsibilities toward God’s Word; and if we fulfill these responsibilities, we will have an honest walk with God and men.
Receive the Word (James 1:19–21)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry because human anger does not produce the righteousness 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.
James says God’s Word is “planted.” Borrowing from our Lord’s Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23), he compares God’s Word to seed and the human heart to soil. In His parable, Jesus describes four kinds of hearts: the hard heart, which does not understand or receive the Word and therefore bears no fruit; the shallow heart, which is very emotional but has no depth, and bears no fruit; the crowded heart, which lacks repentance and permits sin to crowd out the Word; and the fruitful heart, which receives the Word, allows it to take root, and produces a harvest of fruit.
The final test of salvation is fruit. This means a changed life, Christian character and conduct, and ministry to others in the glory of God. This fruit might be winning souls to Christ (Rom. 1:16), growing in holy living (Rom. 6:22), sharing our material possessions (Rom. 15:28), spiritual character (Gal. 5:22–23), good works (Col. 1:10), and even praising the Lord (Heb. 13:15). Religious works may be manufactured, but they do not have life in them, nor do they bring glory to God. Real fruit has in it the seed for more fruit, so the harvest continues to grow (John 15:1–5).
But the Word of God cannot work in our lives unless we receive it in the right way. Jesus not only said, “Consider carefully what you hear” (Mark 4:24), but He also said, “Consider carefully how you hear” (Luke 8:18). Too many people are in that tragic condition in which “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matt. 13:13). They attend Bible classes and church services, but never seem to grow. Is it the fault of the teacher or preacher? Perhaps, but it may also be the fault of the hearer. It is possible to be “dull of hearing” (Heb. 5:11) because of decay of the spiritual life.
If the seed of God’s Word is to be planted in our hearts, then we must obey the instructions James gives us.
Swift to hear (v. 19a). “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” (Matt. 13:9) “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Just as the servant is quick to hear his master’s voice and the mother to hear her baby’s smallest cry, so the believer should be quick to hear what God has to say.
There is a beautiful illustration of this truth in the life of King David (2 Sam. 23:14–17). David was hiding from the Philistines who were in possession of Bethlehem. He yearned for a drink of cool water from the well in Bethlehem, a well he had often visited in his boyhood and youth. He did not issue an order to his men; he simply said to himself, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” Three of his mighty men heard their king sigh for water, and they risked their lives to secure the water and bring it to him. They were “swift to hear.”
Slow to speak (v. 19b). We have two ears and one mouth, which ought to remind us to listen more than we speak. Too many times we argue with God’s Word, if not audibly, at least in our hearts and minds. “The wise man holds his tongue” (Prov. 10:19). “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint” (Prov. 17:27). Instead of being slow to speak, the lawyer in Luke 10:29 argued with Jesus by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” In the early church the services were informal and often the listeners would debate with the speaker. There were even fights and wars among the brethren James was writing to (James 4:1).
Slow to wrath (v. 19c). Do not get angry at God or His Word. “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly” (Prov. 14:29). When the Prophet Nathan told King David the story about “the stolen ewe lamb” the king became angry, but at the wrong person. “You are the man!” said Nathan. David then confessed, “I have sinned” (2 Sam. 12). In the Garden, Peter was slow to hear, swift to speak, and swift to anger—and he almost killed a man with the sword. Many church fights are the result of short tempers and hasty words. There is a godly anger against sin (Eph. 4:26); and if we love the Lord, we must hate sin (Ps. 97:10). But man’s anger does not produce God’s righteousness (James 1:20). In fact, anger is just the opposite of the patience God wants to produce in our lives as we mature in Christ (James 1:3–4).
I once saw a poster that read, “Temper is such a valuable thing; it’s a shame to lose it!” The person who cannot get angry at sin does not have much strength to fight it. James warns us against getting angry at God’s Word because it reveals our sins to us. Like the man who broke the mirror because he disliked the image in it, people rebel against God’s Word because it tells the truth about them and their sinfulness.
A prepared heart (v. 21). James saw the human heart as a garden; if left to itself, the soil would produce only weeds. He urges us to “pull out the weeds” and prepare the soil for the “planted Word of God.” Some gardens are overgrown with weeds that cannot be controlled. It is foolish to try to receive God’s Word into an unprepared heart.
How do we prepare the soil of our hearts for God’s Word? First, by confessing our sins and asking the Father to forgive us (1 John 1:9). Then, by meditating on God’s love and grace, and asking Him to “plow up” any hardness in our hearts: “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns” (Jer. 4:3). Finally, we must have an attitude of “meekness” (James 1:21). Meekness is the opposite of “anger” in James 1:19–20. When you receive the Word with meekness, you accept it, do not argue with it, and honor it as the Word of God. You do not try to twist it to conform it to your thinking.
If we do not receive the planted Word, then we are deceiving ourselves. Christians who like to argue various “points of view” may be only fooling themselves. They think their “discussions” are promoting spiritual growth, when in reality they may only be cultivating the weeds. James advises us to get rid of all that is wrong in our lives and “humbly accept” the salvation message we have received (“the Word planted in you”) because it alone can save us.
In Part 2, we will look at two more responsibilities we have toward God’s Word: practice it and share it.