21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 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. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 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 immediate context of this passage is to be read in verse 19, which says: “19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Before one can be doer, one must be hearer first. This is the first hoop to jump. Our tendency is to speak and not hear. Our tendency is to be angry and not hear. This instruction by James has something to do with the larger context of suffering and persecution that Christians went through during the first century. Our sinful nature tendency to cling to comfort prompts us to reject inconvenience. Quite often the way we express our rejection of inconvenience is by complaining. And as the inconvenience grows more intense, like in the face of persecution or unfortunate events or severe suffering, we tend to blame God. We tend to be angry at God. All our misfortunes are caused by God, so we think. It is no secret to hear that when Christians suffer, they begin to complain saying: “Why in the world did I become a Christian? I thought if I become a Christian, God would just bless me and so I might live a happy life. But look at my life, I am more miserable than before I became a Christian. Why, O God, are you making me suffer like this? You are not a good God like You claimed to be. Forget it! I will be a Christian no more!” They do not wish to hear any explanation. They just shut their ears to any reasonable teachings of Scripture that direct them toward truth. And instead of hearing, they just speak their heart out, scream it so loud in the hope that the entire world would sympathize with them, and be angry so fiercely for not getting the comfort they so desire.
But there is another level of the failure, that is when someone only hears and not willing to do what he hears. At some point, they know that being angry at God because of their uncomfortable life is not going to make their life better. And so they are prompted to find an explanation that might help them make sense. As they begin to be slow to speak and slow to anger, they begin their journey in the “hear” land. They start to hear the explanation, the word. The persecuted Christians started to hear that following Christ did not equal to comfortable life, and in fact following Jesus meant suffering. The information heard is then stored in the brain. The mind chews on it and it begins to understand the connection. Jesus says in John 15:18-20:
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.
And we all know that Jesus is rejected by the world, hated without reason. And so, following Jesus means that we too will be rejected by the world and hated without reason. This then means that Christians living uncomfortable and inconvenient situation is just natural. It is the way it is. Okay, the mind knows it. It is new information that was previously not known. Now they know. But what should be done with the new knowledge? Just store it in the brain? Just knowing it enough? So when a paper and pencil test is given a proper answer can be given in order to pass the test with a good grade?
Clearly, there is a huge gap between knowing an instruction and doing what is instructed. For sure knowing the information on how to swim does not mean that you can swim. I can read a book on how to swim and memorize all the instructions on how to do a free style swim, but that doesn’t mean I can actually swim the free style. If I can’t swim the free style, can I claim that I know how to swim free style? I don’t think so. If I want to be able to swim free style, then I will have to put the instructions I stored in my memory into practice. Meaning, I have to actually do what is instructed. I have to jump into the water and start practicing the free style swim as instructed. The way the hand is to be moved, the body position and direction, the legs moving up and down in succession, the way breath is taken. All of the instructions must be practiced in order to be able to do it. In the same way, the gap between hearing the word, thus knowing it, and doing the word is huge.
To hear the explanation that being followers of Christ means suffering like Him – thus knowing it – doesn’t mean that one actually accepts and starts to live as Christ lived. Accepting the status as “persecuted” is a leap of faith. Our flesh desires comfort. Our flesh rejects the idea of persecution. We want to be accepted, not rejected. And so normally we follow our flesh in seeking comfort. Consequently, we strive to avoid persecution and rejection. Even though we know that we will surely suffer as followers of Christ, we betray that knowledge by directing our life toward the pursuit of “happiness,” of comfort, of convenience at all cost. And so we begin to search for the one thing we must have in order to be “happy,” to be comfortable, and to be convenient. It is most common to conclude with wealth. And it is common knowledge that to be rich means happiness, comfort, and convenience. If we are rich, we do not restrain our desire. We desire a BMW 745, we have the money, so we buy. We desire the newest gadget, Samsung galaxy 7 for example, we have the money, so we buy. Imagine we don’t have the money, yet our desires bug us every day and night, we can’t buy what we desire, isn’t it a torture? An uncomfortable life? A massive inconvenience? If you are to think about this, what is better: to be rich or to be poor? It is logical to conclude: to be rich is better. The world favors the rich. But to be rich is not easy. To be rich means to follow the way of the world. Otherwise one can’t be rich. I have to remind you that I have nothing against people having riches and wealth. The problem is when you love money. Paul says that the love money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Now, being followers of Christ cannot be combined with loving money, how much more loving the world. For the world hates Christ. How can we love the one that hates our Lord whom we follow? This is why doing the word is not identical with hearing it.
James warns Christians to do the word and not just be hearer of the word. Doing the word is difficult. Not to love money or the world, while living in this world, is extremely difficult. But it’s just what we are to do as followers of Christ. Will you do it? This hoop is big. Because it is tied so closely to our pride. Living in this world, one can’t avoid being influenced by the values of the world. Especially growing up in Asia, how much more in a Chinese family. The aim is to be rich. Since we are little, we are groomed to be rich. It is the expectation of most Asian parents, especially Chinese, for their kids to be rich, stinking rich. Isn’t it true that when we were kids, our parents asked us: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Then we are taught to answer: “Doctor, Engineer, Architect, Businessman, Lawyer.” Do you know why those professions? It is because those professions bring a lot of money in. How about answering: “I want to be a teacher.” Or “I want to be a pastor.” What do you think our parents would say to us? Yeah you know, they would say: “Hush, No! You want to be a teacher, or a pastor, what are you going to eat? How are you going to take care of your family? Teachers or pastors don’t make good money. They are poor. Don’t be teacher or pastor!” The materialistic value is rampant. It has filled our subconscious mind. We operate in the way of the world without we realizing it. To consciously confront this and then to deny this tendency is extremely difficult to do. It takes humility. Tons of humility. The pride of the family is when you become successful. Your own pride says you have to be successful in the eyes of the world. Loving money at all cost will take you there, but it means you can no longer be genuinely following Christ. Humility is the character to acquire if we are to be doers of the word. There is no shortcut. All shortcuts lead to hypocritical life. Humility gets you to surrender to God. Humility gets you to acknowledge that the love of money and the world is not the way to go as followers of Christ. But I must remind you that this step is no easy one.
The second step is obedience. Yet another difficult step. The pressures of our family and the temptations of the world are not easy to ignore. They bother us who desire to obey God and do His word. Our own family might just scorn at us for suffering for Christ. They would tell how stupid we are suffering for someone who is not even here physically. They ask: “Why not find a god that will make you rich? Why follow the God that allows you to suffer like this?” Then the temptations of the world arrive at your front door exactly at the same time the family pressure keeps you awake many nights. You see your best friend is just promoted as the CEO of a big company with a seven figure salary. And your best friend can buy whatever his heart desires, a new beautiful house in a premium real estate, a brand new Rolls Royce Phantom, an Armani suit, a Patek Philip watch, a pair of Versace shoes, and whatever it is you name it. Our mind begins to wonder: “What if…?” How are we to obey God? How are we to be doers of the word? Following Christ? Being hated by the world? Why would I do that?
Before you conclude “God no more” or “Christian no more” and the likes, think about this: “Why do you think Jesus did it?” Why did Jesus come to this filthy world, in an era where the modern toilet bowl was not even invented yet, no vaccines were available, no wi-fi, no cars, no planes, no cell phones, no gadgets, no movies, and so on? He had all the glory, grandeur of heaven, riches beyond anything in the world, powers above anything humans can imagine, yet He let that all go for a time just to come into our world 2000 years ago, to suffer all kinds of suffering the world may inflict upon for a good thirty years even run Him to His unjust and gruesome death. Why would He do that? You may complain and say: “Well, it’s Jesus, he knew before He came that He would only suffer for a time, and then died, and then raised to life, and then lives in heaven in all the glory and grandeur forever.” Let me ask you this: “Don’t you also know that as you follow Jesus genuinely, you also would receive the crown of life and live in heaven in all the glory and its grandeur? But why wouldn’t you believe His word and let go of loving money and this world?” Why cling to the world? Why cling to the love of money? You too know what Jesus knew. He did it, why don’t you?”
Now you know the extent of pride and disobedience. It is pride that hinders you from doing the word. Pride leads to disobedience. Our Lord has shown us the better way, the way of humility and obedience. He came into the world with humility. And so must we. His obedience was exemplary. He was said to obey the Father even until death on the cross. No model of humility and obedience is greater than what Jesus has shown. And in so doing, He did not live a life filled with material wealth. He did not seek earthly comfort. And His life was far from convenient. Yet no one can ever surpass His greatness and glory and honor in the whole wide world.
Let me tell you a story of a great man. John Sung was his name. He was born in 1901, September 27, in China. And he died at the age of 43 in August 18, 1944. His father was a pastor of the American Wesleyan Methodist Church in Fujian China. He was largely known by the western people as the Apostle Paul of the East. John Sung was a genius in the field of Chemistry. He went to the US to study. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with cum laude with a degree in pre-med. He even received the gold key as the honorary citizen of the city due to his accomplishments. He finished a Master of Science from Ohio State University in 9 months. And then he went to a doctoral program in Chemistry and finished it in 21 months from Ohio State University. John Sung became the first Chinese to ever be awarded with a PhD. Now at the crossroads, young John Sung, age 26, a genius with the brightest future, was weighing his options. He had received letters of invitation from Harvard University to teach there, from Tubingen University in Germany to teach there, from Beijing University, and many more elite and prestigious educational institutions. John Sung held all those letters in his hands, but he did not feel peace whatsoever to grab these golden opportunities to cash in his genius feat and accomplishments. So one night he prayed fervently to God for guidance. It would be easy for him to just grab the most prestigious offer and move on. But he didn’t. John testified that Jesus appeared to him one night telling him to serve Him, to be an evangelist. As a young man, with golden opportunities on his hands, being an evangelist would mean tossing away all his bright future into the garbage can. According to the wisdom of the world, it would be the most stupid thing to do. But you know what? That’s exactly what John Sung did, he tossed all those golden opportunities away. He went on to enroll in Union Theological Seminary in order to become a pastor. But UTS was so liberal that he protested against his professor. So he was considered mentally ill and was sent to the mental asylum. A Chinese representative was sent to fetch him and bring him back to China. It took the representative 3 months by sea to arrive in New York. 3 months in the mental asylum did not deter John Sung from being an evangelist. It should have been a good ground to forget about being an evangelist and just went straight to accept any of the prestigious offers. It wasn’t too late yet had he wanted to do so. But surprisingly, he did not grab that opportunity either. Instead, John Sung studied the Bible zealously, and read it 40 times in 3 months. That’s his theological education. At the end of the 3 month time, he went with the Chinese representative heading for Shanghai. On the sea, he threw away everything except his PhD diploma. He threw away his Bachelors’ diploma, his Masters’, and even the gold key to the city into the Atlantic Ocean. John Sung was determined to obey His Master and he never looked back. He only kept his PhD diploma to show it to his dad that he actually achieved something extraordinary while studying in the US. But his heart was sure that he was meant for the work of evangelism. So he traded his golden opportunities with the poor life of an evangelist. All was due to his obedience to the Lord. He did not presume to be the genius and great person he was with all his achievements and then clinging to his pride. But instead, in humility he prayed to the Lord to guide him. Humility and obedience both formed in his heart that led him to walk the path of suffering and difficulties as an evangelist. John Sung is now known as the greatest Chinese evangelist of all time. Without John Sung’s ministry, a lot of Chinese churches in Asia – in Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore – would have died a long time ago.
Brothers and sisters, what about you? With all the opportunities and potentials in your life, what would you want to do? I do not speak to you today so that you all become evangelists. I speak to you today so you will make the most of your time to live for God. Hearing the word is the easier step. A lot of Christians today think that being Christians mean going to church, hear the sermons, and then done. But they are mistaken. They are to put what they hear into practice. That is the mark of true faith. Will you humbly come before the Lord to hear Him and believe? And will you obey the Lord as a necessary consequence of your believing His word? The world will tempt you to compromise your faith. The world will seduce you to cheat for success. Your family will pressure you to use any means possible in order to achieve the world’s promise of wealth, power, and fame. Even if it means trading your God for riches. Even if it means exploiting God for your success. When the temptations and the pressures come, will you stand your ground and be doers of God’s word? I pray that you will stand your ground and be doers of God’s word. Jesus did. Peter did. Paul did too. James, the writer of the text we read, did as well. St. Augustine did. St. Thomas Aquinas did. Martin Luther did. John Calvin did. Charles Spurgeon did. John Sung did too. And by the grace of God He granted me the opportunity to stand my ground and be doer of God’s word as well. Hope you will too. Amen.