I speak in churches on a fairly regular basis, filling in when pastors are vacationing or when a church is without a pastor. It does not usually take long when I visit a church for the first time to get a sense of the atmosphere in the church. Specifically, it is fairly obvious whether most of the congregants are just going through the motions or the church is spiritually vibrant and healthy. In one of those churches that seems to tend toward the “going through the motions” end of the spectrum I was speaking once on the latter part of James 1. James is one of my favorite books. It is a to-the-point book that includes a plenitude of practical instruction and for that reason it can be uncomfortable to read, to preach or to hear preached. For all the those reasons it is also a book I love to speak on, even if I will only be in a church one time. (Or maybe especially if I will only be in a church one time!) Verse 22 in particular is a sure-fire way to step on the toes of those that like to just go through the motions and feel like they are doing their part for God. On the occasion I have in mind, however, I found that even the unmistakeable instruction to be doers of the Word and not hearers only will only penetrate a heart that is sensitive to the working of the Spirit. In fact, it made me realize that even “hearers only” is a step below listeners.
I have said on many occasions, primarily in teaching but not always, that there is a tremendous difference between hearing and listening. We can hear things without really listening to them. In fact, we do it all the time. We do it often when we are in a store or a restaurant and music is playing in the background. I do it to television commercials. Some of us have been accused of doing it when our spouse is talking. On this particular Sunday, some of the congregants were apparently doing it while I was preaching. As I said, I spoke on the latter part of James–verses 19-27–and I pulled no punches. I made it clear that James tells us that ritualistic religion is worthless and does not please God in the least. I made it clear that if we are doers of the Word it will influence every area of our lives. I emphasized that in the original language, the words translated “deceiving yourselves” in English referred to a mathematical calculation. In other words, James was saying that if we think we’re doing all we need to do by hearing the Word, we’ve got the wrong answer!
Imagine then, if you would, my delight (pardon the sarcasm) when I stood near the foyer of the church greeting the congregants after the service and had one older gentleman shake my hand and tell me, “That was a nice story.” Really? A nice story?!? I had done all I could, to communicate as clearly as I could, that living the Christian life is serious business, not a casual or passive one. I was as clear and direct as I could be. And this gentlemen thought I told a nice story. I felt quite sure that he certainly was not listening to what I said, and I was not even sure he actually heard me. For a moment I started to think, “Well, what was the point? A lot of good that did.” It did not take long for me to feel the Spirit prompting me, though, reminding me that (1) the “success” of the message is not for me to worry about as long as I deliver it faithfully, and (2) how often must God feel the same way? He has provided us with all that we need for living a life that is pleasing to Him. His Word includes instruction, correction, encouragement and more. We no longer receive visions or hear from prophets because we no longer need that; we have the complete revelation of Scripture. How often, though, do I treat it like a story? How often do I check off my Bible reading, my pre-meal prayers and my Sunday morning church attendance and then go about the rest of my life doing my own thing? I cannot imagine having the opportunity to shake hands with Jesus and saying, “Nice story”–but I might be living my life that way far more often than I care to admit. The Holy Bible is far more than a “nice story.”