Not content with the notion that we should welcome trials, (not because they make us happy or we enjoy them, but because they represent opportunities to be tested, and tested faith leads to completness) James lays into us about how we speak. As Americans we like to say things, a lot. We almost worship our 1st amendment right to free speech and say things like,”I disagree with what you say, but I would fight for your right to say it.” We have whole shows on radio and TV about nothing but speaking, Talk Shows. We like to talk and we like to hear ourselves talk and the more we talk the more we like to hear ourselves. Its an endless circle. I feel certain that this propensity to speak, even with nothing to say, is part of the human condition, as applicable to the 1st century Christians as to 21st Century Americans.
As usual he presents his thoughts in pairs, quick hearing/slow speaking, anger of man/righteousness of God, wickedness/meekness, hearing/doing, looking at your self and forgetting/looking at the law of liberty and forgetting.
He starts this strand by urging Christians to shut up and listen. To listen quickly, listen first and speak slow, speak last. Why? Well one commentary suggests its related to the trials he talks about in the first part of the chapter. That these trials may cause friction among Christians or families that are undergoing them and that, as a result, they may lash out at those around them. As James says “…the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”. He urges us, instead, to put away “filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive meekness”. The meekness is commended to us because of its ability to save our souls.
Here are some contrasting thoughts in verse 21.
put away, versus, receive
filthiness and wickedness, versus, meekness
which threatens you (implied), versus, which can save you
How are we at being slow to speak and quick to listen? Do we listen only to hear the pause in another’s speech so that we can say what we want? What would happen if we listened in meekness and spoke without anger? Is that even possible? What does the filthiness and wickedness have to do with this business of being quiet? Who should we be listening to? Does this mean there is no time we should speak?
And then James delivers his most quoted line “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James will talk later about what it means to truly believe something, but he gives us a hint here. He says that if we don’t act on what we know the truth has not truly possessed us. If we study scripture and do not act on what we find there, he says we are like someone who looks at himself intently in a mirror and then turns away and forgets what he looks like. He urges us instead to look at the law of liberty and keep on doing what it requires.
What does he mean when he says we are fooling ourselves if we only hear? What is this self deception? Is James saying we are deceived about our salvation if we only hear, or is he saying only we may be deceived about the true nature of Christian Life? What is this Law of Liberty (can Law mean Liberty?)
James finished this section, this strand, by saying that failure to control ones tongue leads to self deception and futility in our attempts to relate to God. He defines pure “religion” (says the New English Translation). The words translated religion are threskos, an adjective, and threskeia, a noun the word relates to the outward practice of religion, observing feasts and fasts, making sacrifices, praying, attending worship services, etc. Again he shows a contrast between religion that deceives and religion that is pure.
He note two traits of the pure practice of outward religion: caring for the unfortunate (he uses widows and orphans, among the most unfortunate of his day), and keeping oneself unstained by the world. We are called to be different from the world and noticeably so. But what does it mean to be stained by the world? Are we stained? How do we avoid being stained?