Worthless religion. Of course its James that drops a statement like this. James is referring to the kind of Christianity that reads and knows the Scriptures, but is never changed by it. The kind of religion that knows more than it actually acts upon. It is this kind of religious expression that understands things intellectually, but is not impacted or changed internally. Religion like this, James calls worthless.
In my experience, many Christians are sick of this kind of religion. It’s not only frustrating, but its exhausting and it feels just as James describes it; worthless. It feels like a waste of time. Nobody likes to say that out loud of course, but many think and feel it. We know the Scriptures are and should be significant in our day to day lives, but we continue to seriously struggle to enjoy, engage and internalize them.
So, what does a healthy engagement with the Scriptures look like? How can we better engage when reading them? What can we rightly expect will happen when we do?
Get Out of the Way
James begins by encouraging his “beloved brothers” to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” With one fell swoop James makes it clear that we need to get out of the way.
Quick to hear, slow to speak. My mind and mouths agenda, opinions and presuppositions need to take a seat, and my ears need to come alive. Like walking into Tombstone (thats a western movie reference for those of you who have been culturally deprived of the best movie genre of all time), you have to check your weapons before you come in. This is no place for my agenda, or my arguments against my opponents. I find that when I am struggling with these kinds of tendencies it is because I am struggling with something deeper. I’m struggling with anger. Anger with other people’s views and what I believe to be their misinterpretations. Anger that drives me to want to arm myself against the people who disagree with me. And anger towards a world and culture that I feel, is opposed to me.
But anger isn’t always the product of other people, it can also be how I am responding to myself. All to often, I have gone to the Scriptures fuelled primarily by my self-hatred. I am angry that I am struggling and I hate that I am unable to overcome it. I go to the Scriptires to put an end to my nonsense. I go with a mind to beat myself with the Word. Bringing my weak places into submission.
Whether it is anger at others, the brokenness of the world or anger at ourselves; the anger of man can never produce the righteousness of God.
Get Low and Get Ready
Instead of anger James tells us to “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Where anger fails, repentance succeeds. I find that the anger of man holds within it some semblance of pride. Because anger takes personal offence and personal responsibility. Anger is about what I want, deserve, believe and demand. I wrongfully think that through my anger I can make myself or others change. It is really just my emotional way of trying to force myself and others to do what I want. Repentance, the willingness to say that I am broken and am in need, has no pride.
Repentance is a right view of self, instead of self-righteousness. It is necessary that I recognize that I have “filthiness and rampant wickedness.” I am a part of this world, I am not an exception. On the contrary, I, like the rest of the world, need Him. This is the “meekness” that James speaks of. It is the posture necessary to interact rightly with the Scriptures. Why? Because the Scriptures are all about Jesus. And trust me when I say, we must learn from the Scribes and Pharisees when it comes to this very thing. If we don’t realize our need for Jesus, we will not see Jesus. And if we can’t see Jesus we won’t be able to rightly see the Scriptures. They will continue to be elusive, impersonal and discouraging.
All of these steps prepare us. They get us ready for something that we must be readied for. Receiving. James is pastoring us into a heart posture that quiets the arguments and pride which then allows us to rest in a meekness that is ready to hear and able to receive. But receive what? The implanted word.
This is the revolutionary idea that James is introducing; that the Word is not something we look at as a distant object of study. He is saying that the Word is available to be implanted. In referring to our need to receive, James does not mean an intellectual agreement, he literally means that the word enters into us. And not just in a, “Oh, I’ll take this to heart” kind of way but in a miraculous and spiritual way.
He pushes this point home by further illustrating what exactly takes place in this miraculous mystery.
“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
The analogy of Scripture being as a mirror that we look into is not simply metaphorical. James is stating emphatically that to stare into the Scriptures is to stare into “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” What is the perfect law of liberty if not Jesus Himself? The reality that James paints here for us is one of promise. The promise that the Scriptures Reveal Christ, and when we look into the Scriptures, knowing our need for Him and having a willingness to receive from Him we will see Him. But not only see Jesus, but see ourselves. For are we not also united with Christ? In seeing the face of Jesus, we see also our true face. The Scriptures are both for us; a living portrait of Jesus and a mirror to our true identity.
All too often, my life, my situations, my hardships and the brokenness of my own heart and actions present such a strong case for my fallenness that I no longer can see Christ in me. I find it hard to believe that I am forgiven, righteous, and redeemed. I find it near impossible to believe that I am somehow going to share in His Resurrection. I see death on my face. I see myself as ruined. It is in staring into the triumphant face of Jesus, written in the Scriptures that I see again, who I really am. I see what He has done. I see what He is like. I see His perfect work and am reminded of how He has made me and how He has promised to complete me. My true and ultimate reality is that I am a product of His perfection. I am the completed work of Jesus. I have been given His identity.
I find myself, in Him, once again.
It is in these moments that the Word of Christ moves from the pages before me into the deep places of my heart by the Spirit. It not only jumps off the pages, it jumps from Christ into me. The Spirit then speaks to my spirit, “Remember and receive. Remember who He is and receive who you are.”
We have lost the miraculous nature of this Christian life when we relegate everything to simply symbols. Yes, the Scriptures tell us about God. But, God has also deigned that they would mysteriously put God into us. It is not just a cook book but a menu. It is showcasing all that is accessible and available. What Christ has made possible the Spirit now makes actual within us through the reading and preaching of the Word.
Scripture is Sacramental.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
James’ final words on the subject propel us into a life of action. For a Word that can come into me, reminding me of my true identity in Jesus, equips me to also act accordingly. If this is truly who I am. If I am able to say that because of Christ, I am righteous, should I not also be able to say that He has made me able to do righteousness? If I can say that I have shared in Christ’s Resurrection can I not also say that what I was once unable to do (self-discipline, generosity, self-sacrifice) I am now capable of doing? This is how the Gospel changes us. It tells me of the person and work of Jesus both for my identity and ability.
There is no excuse for a Christianity that does not act, does not serve and is not generous. For if we are truly sons and daughters through adoption, we can spare our earthly possessions for the poor and needy, knowing that our Father cares for our every need. To not believe enough to act is to not believe at all. It is not a game that we play. It is about life and death. If I truly believe that enough grace is available for forgiveness of sins, then I must also believe that same grace to be enough to give me the ability to say no to that sin. To not believe in His grace for my actions is simply symptomatic of not having believed in His grace for identity. And if I have not believed for my identity then I have not believed at all. Religion like this is not only worthless it is dangerous.
But this is not James’ primary Message. His Message, is that the implanted Word, able to change you inside and out, is available. We must simply…
Get out of the way.