(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

It is easy to deceive ourselves that we are better Christians than we are. This passage in James should make us examine our lives critically. James is not every Christian's favourite book because it moves us out of the comfort zone. Warren W. Wiersbee entitles his exposition on these verses: 'Stop Kidding Yourself.' He writes: It is a mark of maturity when a person faces himself honestly, knows himself, and admits his needs.

(B) Be teachable.

James writes: Let every man 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. v20.

In my long career teaching Geography most of my pupils did a lot of listening, rarely interrupted and were never angry. As a consequence several of them learned quite a lot. There were occasions though, when a student was not prepared to listen, did interrupt and lost his or her temper. These were the times that I was addressing a pupil's bad attitude and behaviour. I was trying to put someone right! I can remember sending a boy off in a school football match. I saw him in my room next morning. I started to tell him about the value of self-control. However, he wasn't going to listen. He soon butted in and said, "If the ref doesn't protect you; you have to protect yourself." When I pointed out that this attitude would get him into plenty of trouble in the future he stalked off in fury.

The Pharisees got very angry when the man blind from birth whom Jesus healed tried to put them right. We read in John's gospel the blind man's defence of Jesus and the Pharisee's reaction: "Now this is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out. John9v31to34.

Folk in Britain get very upset when their beliefs are questioned. They are not then quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. Far from it! They do not like being preached at. It is not politically correct to attack the religious beliefs of others. Yet this is just what Jesus did when he was here on earth and was hated for it. He said of his own people:

          "You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
          you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
          For this people's heart has become calloused;
          they hardly hear with their ears;
          and they have closed their eyes.
          Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
          hear with their ears,
          understand with their hearts
          and turn, and I would heal them."

Church congregations are very polite. It is very rare for anyone to interrupt the preacher! But behind the expressionless face there can be raging fury if the preacher has dared to attack the hearer's sacred cow.

James goes on to say: 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. James1v21. This is not an easy verse to translate from the original Greek.

Let us start with the word that can save us. The gospel is the word that can save us. The gospel is summed up in the well known words of John3v16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. If we believe in Jesus we will be saved. However, belief involves submission and action. We yield to Christ. We trust in his sacrificial work for forgiveness. We are born by his Spirit into God's family. We accept his authority over us and live in obedience to his teaching and example. We are his followers, his disciples. Our lives bear fruit that show our love and respect for him.

The Christian teacher with the help of the Holy Spirit does his utmost to plant this word into the hearts of his hearers. According to James success is dependent upon two basic conditions:

    (1) The hearer must receive Christian teaching with discernment and good judgment. The authors of the NIV translated what Prof. Barclay calls the untranslatable word prautes, as humbly. It is important to be humble in order to be taught anything but I think the word prautes also carries the meaning I have given to it. The open, humble, discerning and discriminating heart will receive the gospel with gladness. Such hearts have been prepared, like the hearts of Cornelius and Lydia, for the good news about Jesus.

    (2) The person who has received the gospel must clear out of their lives those things that would hinder its development - the evil that is so prevalent. v21. The word James uses to describe evil (perisseia) is suggestive of tangled undergrowth that would hinder the growth of productive plants. James is repeating what Jesus taught in his Parable of the Sower. "Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants." Mt13v7. "The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful." v22.

What James and Jesus tell us is, of course, true! Every teacher knows that it is true. I used to give my pupils good advice on how to write their course work assignments. I relied on the fact that my students were reasonable and moderately discerning - that they would see the good sense of my advice. Some, sadly, did not! Of those that did, not all followed my advice. Producing a good piece of Geography coursework was not top of their list of priorities. They had other demands on their time: casual employment, socialising and a great variety of leisure activities. So my advice never bore fruit - it was lost amongst a host of competing interests.

So it is with Christian teaching. We are told that prayer is the Christian's vital breath and know it to be true but finding time for prayer is quite another matter. I squeeze prayer in at the end of the day when I am far from being at my best. I find time to read the daily paper, watch TV and for studying and writing but, to my shame, prayer gets crowded out with the result that spiritual growth is stunted.

(C) Be practical.

James writes: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. v22. We are to treat God's word as a manual rather than a mirror.

I look in the mirror, perhaps, twice a day - to shave and to comb my hair. There are things I hardly notice - the wrinkled forehead, the purple veined nose and the grey sideburns. If I do from time to time observe these signs of aging I certainly do not dwell upon them. When I smile at a pretty girl I tend to imagine that I am still in the prime of life. The predictable reaction of the pretty girl is a sure sign that I am deceiving myself.

There are folk who regularly attend Grace Baptist Churches in Suffolk who have heard the word of God for years. Every so often they get a glimpse of themselves as they truly are and shudder. But they do nothing about what they have seen and in a short space of time all is forgotten. There are others, poor quality Christians, who are given good advice on improving the quality and productivity of their lives. They feel the message does them good but, it doesn't, because they never do what it says.

God's word, both written and spoken, must be used as a manual. I have several cookery books. After my mother died I read recipes and then put them into practice. I made apple crumble, cherry tart, treacle pudding and a luscious fruit cake. I made great progress as a cook. Since my father died I occasionally read recipes out of interest but I have stopped following them. My repertoire of dishes has not increased. I have stopped making progress as a cook.

When I bought Paint Shop Pro for my computer a user manual was provided. I read parts of the manual to see what Paint Shop Pro would do. For some time I did not follow the instructions. I acquired no skill at using the program. Then I decided to add a Geography section to my website. It involved drawing diagrams. I began to use the Paint Shop Pro manual. It was hard work to begin with, and I made only slow progress, but as I persevered my expertise grew. I got better by reading the manual and practicing what I read - read, practice; read, practice; read, practice. After a while the basic tasks become almost second nature but the manual still has to be consulted in the hope, one day, of using the program to its full potential. The more I actually use Paint Shop Pro the greater my freedom becomes - freedom to accomplish a variety of satisfying tasks.

James teaches us to approach God's Word like the Paint Shop Pro manual. Look intently into it. Keep referring to it. Don't forget it but do it. This is the pathway to freedom - freedom to live in such a way that brings blessing to others and us. Do we know the Sermon on the Mount? Do we keep returning to it? Have we forgotten parts of it? Are we trying hard to practice it? Jesus said: "But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." Mt7v26and27.

(C) Be Realistic.

James highlights three qualities that a practicing Christian should possess. He sets three realistic targets - three things to do.

    (1) A Christian should be able to keep a tight rein on his tongue. v26.

    I would suggest four simple rules for anyone who wishes to control their tongue:
    (a) Don't talk too much about yourself. There are lots of Christians who talk endlessly about themselves. They are completely self-absorbed and have no interest in anyone else. Elderly folk pre-occupied by failing health and their bodily ailments can be guilty of this. We should all cultivate the art of listening.

    (b) Know when to stop. My mother never knew when to stop. If something upset her she would go on and on about it. In the end she forfeited the sympathy of her hearers. My youngest brother is just the same. His sons are often not ready when it is time to leave to play cricket on Saturday. They certainly deserve a sharp rebuke. I would leave without them! However, Philip is inclined to nag them for 10 minutes on the way to the match which means they all turn up in a bad mood.

    (c) Keep quiet when it is dangerous to speak. I have got myself into trouble by not following this advice. I have sat in staff meetings listening to policy statements and getting more and more irritated. I know that if I start to voice my opposition I shall end up losing my temper. I find it difficult to argue about religion without getting angry. If my friend Pastor John Skull attempts to defend the pernicious doctrine of unconditional election such is my dislike of it that I find it hard to keep cool. I cannot discuss emotive topics calmly. So it is best if I never start.

    (d) Never say things about a person in his absence that you would not be prepared to say to his face. We need to remember what Paul wrote about love: Love .... keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects...... 1Cor13v5to7. Christians should never trash someone's reputation.

    (2) A Christian should look after orphans and widows in their distress. v27.

    James means by this that we should help those who cannot help themselves. On the whole orphans and widows are well looked after in our society. There are very few who are financially destitute. But there is a group of people who do need help. Very old folk lose their mobility. A time comes when they have to give up their car. Christians with cars can then be a great help - taking them: to church, shopping, to visit relatives, out to lunch or for a ride in the countryside.

    (3) A Christian should keep himself from being polluted by the world. v27.

    There are so many worldly values that do great harm to the church if adopted by Christians. Let us look at a few:
    (a) Keeping your options open. Christians who do not want to get tied down and lose their personal freedom are unwilling to take responsibility in the church. Their commitment is in doubt.

    (b) Doing what makes you happy. Christians who move into an area look for a church where they will be happy. Perhaps they should look for a church where they are needed. Young Christians leave a church with a preponderance of elderly saints for a lively, dynamic, youth-orientated fellowship. They leave without a thought for the old Christians who are left behind.

    (c) Publicise your successes - promote yourself and your cause. Tell people how well you are doing. Everybody loves a winner. But Jesus said: Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. Mt6v1.

In the view of James religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless consists of living in obedience to the teaching of Jesus. We shouldn't be like the wood pigeon. In G. Eliot's book, 'Scenes from Clerical Life,' Farmer Hackit remembered a telling illustration from a clever evangelist's sermon. It was brief and to the point: You're like a wood pigeon; it says do, do, do, all day and never sets about any work itself.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net