Doing the Word

  • Nathan Schneider
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A while back, I came across an article in a 2005 issue of Scientific American. Now, if you’re doing the math, that’s about 15 years ago that I first read this article, but it was such an astounding read that it has stuck in my mind to this day.

The article was about a man named Laurance Kim Peek, and the article was titled, Inside the Mind of a Savant. Reading more about this man, I came to find out that Kim Peek was actually known as a megasavant. Peek was born in 1951 in Salt Lake City, UT. He was born with a condition known as macrocephaly, or an unusually large head, as well as several other congenital and neurological issues which presented numerous developmental challenges from an early age. Until age four, he was unable to walk, and even after that he walked only with an unusual, sidelong gait. He couldn’t button his shirts and had difficulty performing other fine motor skills.

Yet despite these developmental challenges, Kim evidenced from an early age some rather astounding intellectual abilities. According to his father, from as early as 16 months, Kim demonstrated an ability to memorize things he had read, and could recite books he had read with perfect recall. He would read a book, memorize it, and then place it upside down on the bookshelf to mark the books he had read, and he continued that practice throughout his life. Kim’s ability to read and memorize books was astonishing. He could speed-read a book in as little as an hour, memorizing nearly everything in it. By the end of his life, he had read and memorized vast amounts of books, and could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 volumes on a range of subjects, from history to literature, geography, numbers, sports, music, dates, and even the entire Bible.

One of the reasons Kim could intake and memorize so much information was because he could open a book and read each of the two facing pages at the same time. He would scan the left page with his left eye, while his right eye scanned the right page. This allowed him to filter through even the thickest of books in an expediate amount of time, and he became known from working through an entire catalog of books in the Salt Lake City Library. Kim Peek’s abilities became well known following the release of the 1988 film Rain Man, in which Peek was the inspiration for the character Raymand Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman.

But sadly, one of the realities brought up by the article in Scientific American was that, despite Kim Peek’s remarkable intellectual abilities and the vast volumes of books he had memorized and could instantly recall with accuracy, he had trouble understanding the significance of the books that he read. That’s not to say that he didn’t understand anything in them, but his ability to digest and then apply the principles of books on a philosophical level was a struggle for him. So he was filled with knowledge, but he struggled to apply that knowledge in practical ways in everyday life.

It occurred to me reading that article that even though the parallels with Kim Peek are limited in this analogy, churches are nevertheless filled with individuals who are bursting with knowledge but struggle to put that knowledge into practice. Too often we are much too willing to hear the word without ever actually doing anything with it. Week after week, we sit under preaching, read our Bibles, listen to sermons and podcasts on our commutes and during our free time; we attend Bible studies, accumulate Bible knowledge and theological acumen—but does it actually translate into anything tangible in our life?

In James 1:22-25, we are exhorted to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 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 persevered, being no hearer who forfeits but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

Four truths fly out of this text and slap us in the face. You want to be more than just a hearer of God’s word? Then let these four things sink in.

Doing the Word is An identity, not a Pastime

The first thing we need to understand if we’re going to be doers of the word is that “doing the word” isn’t a pastime activity. It isn’t a hobby which we dabble in on our off time. It’s not an interest or a fascination. It’s not something we do when we can. It’s an identity. Doing the word has to be so much a part of who you are that it is as essential to your identity as your DNA is.

Growing up in northern Virginia and right down the road from the site of several major battles of the Civil War, I’ve been able to attend a Civil War reenactment. Now, these reenactments are quite astounding. The men and women who participate in these are meticulous. They care about the details. Everything from the uniforms, the weapons, the customs, the accents, and speech style—everything is reenacted to communicate a holistic sense of what it would have been like to live and fight during that war. It really is an educational experience for everyone, and the participants in these reenactments delight in reliving the past, in remembering the events, and commemorating this time in our nation’s history, both the highs and the lows.

But here’s the thing: eventually, after it’s all over, they strike the camp, get in their cars, drive home, and eat a burger, take a shower, and watch some TV. While they’re reenacting, they’re on—they’re totally engaged. But when it’s over, it’s over, and they return to normal life.

That’s not what it takes to be a doer of the word. This isn’t a pastime. It’s one thing to work on your car, change the oil…it’s another thing to be a professional mechanic. It’s one thing to spend a few days or weeks engaged in an armed conflict. It’s totally another to be a professional soldier, whose entire life is dedicated to warfare.

That profession becomes your identity. It’s not just what you do, but who you are. And as Christians, born again by the word of truth, and having that word implanted in our hearts, we must BE doers of that word.

Doing the Word is a Necessity, not an Option

If you’re not a “doer” of the word, then that leaves only one other option: being a “hearer only.” Now, by itself, being a hearer of the word is not a bad thing. The problem, of course, is not in being a hearer, but in being a hearer only.

The word “hearer” in classical Greek referred to to an individual who attended the lectures of philosophers and public speakers, but who wasn’t an actual follower or student of the one who was teaching. So the educational equivalent of a hearer would be our modern notion of an auditor—someone who sits in on a class, but is not accountable to completing the work.

Now, I audited a class during my time in seminary. And let me tell you, it was fantastic. I showed up, I listened to the lectures. I skipped a few classes. There was no homework, no final exam, no memorization work—absolutely NO STRESS! But there was also little to no lasting impact on me now some ten years later. The classes that have had the greatest impact on me have been the ones I threw myself into with full force. They were the ones that I knew I was accountable for, the ones where I worked hard for my grade.

There is no auditing allowed in the Christian life. James makes that perfectly clear, first off because he has given us a command here: BE doers of the word, and not hearers only. There’s no other option. Being a doer is a necessity. It’s part of being a believer, and anyone who thinks he can be a Christian and be a “hearer only” is deceived by the fallacy that hearing is enough.

Doing the Word is an Effort, not a Leisure

James begins in verse 23 to paint a picture for us of the difference between a doer and a hearer. And he does this by using a simple image from everyday life—a man looking into a mirror. But he’s not just looking, “staring intently”, which is a good translation of this term, because it dispels the common notion that the underlying sin of this individual is simply that he gave nothing but a hasty, careless look. The term means to look at something with reflection on what’s observed. It means to direct one’s whole mind in observation, and what he’s staring at is his own “natural face.”

Mirrors at that time were not the clear, highly reflective glass mirrors that are commonplace today. The first glass mirrors weren’t available until late in Roman times. They were made of polished metal, usually copper or bronze, so they produced dim and warped reflections. So, while you could gain a good impression of yourself, you couldn’t simply glance at a mirror and learn much. You would have to look intently at what you saw in a mirror, and that’s exactly what this individual is doing.

So up to this point, the actions of this individual are understandable and perfectly acceptable. The issue isn’t what he’s doing at the mirror that’s the problem, but what happens next: he goes away and forgets what he’s like! The difference between the doer and the hearer is not in the quality of their looking, but in the perseverance of the doer to act on what he sees. The hearer stares at himself, carefully observing his appearance. He notes the frazzled hair, the crusty sleep in the eyes. There’s obvious work to be done. But he then goes away without dealing with what he sees. That’s the issue. And because nothing was dealt with, and because he’s no longer in front of the mirror, it’s not long before he forgets the blemishes he saw at first.

In contrast, the doer stares into the mirror—which in both cases is actually the word—but rather than going away, he remains and deals with the problems he sees. Anything less than that is absurd and pointless. A life that is lived under the word must be then shaped by the word if it is to have any lasting value on that person, and that kind of life takes effort.

Doing the Word is a Joy, not a Burden

Now, why would someone embrace doing the word as an identity? Why would someone commit to doing the word as a necessity? Why would someone dedicate himself to doing the word if it’s such hard work? The answer is because it’s a joy to do it. And the reason it’s a joy is because they’ve been set free.

To an unbeliever, obeying the word is not a joy. It is a burden, and they feel the weight of that burden on them. It’s a burden because it calls them to do that which they do not desire. So many an uncoverted person has sat in the pew on a Sunday morning. And they are content to play the part, as long as they don’t have to live the part.

But for the believer, obeying the word is not a burden—not anymore. For them, it’s freedom. It’s freedom because the law is written on their heart (Jer 31:33). And the heart they now have is a new heart, empowered by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Ezek 36:26). When you are a doer of the word—a doer who obeys because he wants to, not because he has to…it produces something in you: “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.”

Doing the word produces joy. Obeying God brings happiness.

And notice what this happiness is connected to. Sure, there is blessing in the kingdom to come for those who obey God. But that’s not really what James is promising here. He’s not just trying to motivate you by offering you some kind of future reward. He’s actually saying that obeying God will bring you happiness in the very act of obeying. He’s saying that the one who does the word is a happy person.

Why is that? Well, first there’s joy in obedience because we find joy and happiness in doing the things that we want to do. And when you want to obey, you will find happiness in obeying. It’s that simple. But when you don’t want to obey, you won’t be happy, even if you do obey because your heart’s not in it.

But there’s a second reason. Obedience also brings happiness because it reinforces in us the assurance of our salvation in Christ. True believers obey God’s word (John 8:31-32; 1 John 2:3). We know that we have come to know God when we obey his word. And that knowledge produces confidence, which brings happiness and joy because we have evidence of the sincerity and genuineness of our faith. It brings you confidence that you are who you say you are.

This week, as you read the word, listen to the word, and study the word, remember that the work isn’t done until you’ve dealt with what you’ve seen. This is the messy part of sanctification. After, how often is our sin exposed and we like what we see? Let’s not walk away from the mirror. Let’s experience the joy of engaging with the word, implementing it in our lives, and experiencing the joy and blessing that comes from walking in the precepts of the Lord.