You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
“ … be doers of the word, and not merely hearers”, is a sobering and important challenge. I once spotted this text on the back of a church’s noticeboard – visible only to those leaving via the lychgate beside it. I was struck that on the back of a board bearing the times for worship and contact details for the church these words were the “small print” of what is entailed for those daring to worship. I suspect that over time the familiarity of knowing the text was there resulted in it losing its impact but the temptation to limit our faith to hearing rather than action is real. James uses the metaphor of looking at ourselves in a mirror as being a temporary way of seeing what we look like – forgotten as we look away. There is always the danger that however inspirational or challenging the words of scripture or worship might be they can all too easily be forgotten as we return to the challenge of daily life.
St Francis de Sales is credited with saying, “The test of a preacher is that [their] congregation goes away saying, not ‘What a lovely sermon!’ but ‘I will do something.’” James is adamant that faith is more than mere words and must prompt doing something. That said, he also recognises the importance of choosing the right words in highlighting the dangers of an unbridled tongue. The words that drop from our tongue can make all the difference between others being helped and healed or hurt and harmed. And as James could have had no idea about the impact of social media it is worth recognising the harm of unbridled Facebook posts and the like. Or emails, for that matter. Whether our words are spoken or written we do well to remember that they will in themselves demonstrate whether we are those who are doers as well as hearers when it comes to our faith.
We give thanks, O God, for your love and mercy made known in Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh, through Scripture read and interpreted and for all whose words speak to our hearts and minds. Bridle our tongues and keep us mindful of the potential for good or harm of what we say or write. Translate our careful hearing into Christ-like action. This we ask in the name of Jesus, your Word to us. Amen.
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke, Moderator of East Midlands Synod, St Andrew’s with Castle Gate, Nottingham