The Biblical book of James is a very blunt, practical book of Christian doctrine. Consider for instance, the following passage from the first chapter: “But 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 perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25; ESV)”
The Bible is not meant to be a coffee table book, honored but never read, or read but never applied. It is not meant to be a family keepsake for the keeping of familial dates and the storage of important documents. Nor is it some talisman, the mere presence of which will bless a home, keeping away tragedy and evil. It is a book of wise instruction and sacred guidance for the securing of blessings and salvation. It is a message from the Creator to His Creation which provides the story of His love and the details concerning how men might abide eternally in His love. It is, in short, a book about what men should be doing.
James likens the Bible to a mirror. The original purpose of a mirror was not primarily for decoration or aesthetics. A mirror is useful in allowing you to know when your face needs scrubbed, which hairs are out of place, to remind you to shave, or even to aid in the application of cosmetics to the face so as to apply such evenly and neatly. If one has a dirty face, looks in the mirror, sees there is a need for washing, and then goes on without engaging in said washing, the mirror has done nothing useful.
So it is with the Bible. A man might read every page of the Bible, or listen to a sermon daily, but until that man puts the things he has learned into practice, it does him no good.
Jesus taught a very similar lesson in the Sermon on the Mount. After laying down precept after precept in His sermon, Jesus concluded by saying, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27; ESV)”
The sermon Jesus had delivered was not meant to be an entertaining diversion, or an emotionally uplifting bit of rhetoric for the soothing of nerves. It was meant to be an authoritative discourse by which men could prepare themselves spiritually for the Kingdom of God through the act of “doing.” Merely listening to the sermon did no good in the long run if one was not willing to obey it.
Notice, as well, the emphasis Jesus placed, not just on the idea of “doing,” but on the universality of the need for such obedience. “Everyone,” Jesus says, not once but twice, in reference both to the wise doers and those who foolishly failed to do.
Which makes an additional point about the Bible and the message of Christ. The commands of God, in Christ, are not for a select few well-doers or an elite cadre of Christians. God does not have certain expectations for apostles and ministers, whilst allowing everyone else to muddle by without actually paying attention to what He has said. Too many have the notion that God might want other people to heed His word, but that they themselves have no immediate need to be doing what the Bible is clearly telling them to do, or else that God will overlook their failure to listen to Him. But the Bible is meant to be applied equally by all who are concerned about their spiritual needs, and their relationship with God, who we are told, is not going to be partial, playing favorites (cf. Acts 10:34-35).
Each of us needs to ask ourselves if we are actually striving to do what it is that God teaches us to do in His word. This requires, firstly, that we know what it is God teaches in His word. But once we have read it, or heard it, we each need to be doing it. “Everyone,” in this case means exactly that.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.