Four Steps to Better Bible Listening
August 8, 2015
When people ask me, “What’s your favorite Bible reading plan?” I always answer, “The one that works for you.” Any plan that gets you reading the Bible is good for your soul, and any plan you actually use is better than a plan you don’t use.
Several years ago while thinking about what I was going to do to jumpstart my personal Bible reading, I hit on a new idea (at least it was new to me) of doing some Bible listening. The plan works well if you have a smartphone. I found an app called Bible.is that contains a variety of audio versions of the Bible in many different languages. While I was perusing Bible.is, I discovered they had included some dramatized versions that use different voices for different speaking parts and various sound effects. If the text said, “Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee,” you would hear the sound of water lapping on the shore. If there was a battle scene, you would hear soldiers shouting. That became the foundation of my Bible listening project.
They didn’t have printed Bibles in the first century
Since then I’ve listened my way through a big part of the Bible. I don’t do “Bible listening” every day, but when I do, I find it helpful for hearing the Bible in a fresh way.
With that as background, I want to talk to you about four steps to better Bible listening. Everything I am going to say includes traditional Bible reading, but in this passage James is talking about listening to God’s Word. They didn’t have printed Bibles in the first century. When James says, “Be doers of the Word and not hearers only,” he means both parts of that statement literally. You heard the Word of God when someone read it on Sunday morning.
James lays out four steps we need to take in order to hear what God is saying to us in the Bible. Each step leads to a question we need to ask ourselves every time we read the Bible or listen as someone reads it to us.
Step # 1: Remove the Filth
“Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil” (v. 21a).
The journey to understanding the Bible starts on the inside. You aren’t really ready to hear God’s Word until you have done some divine heart surgery. Suppose you have been working on your sewer lines all day, trying to get rid of a clog. That’s hot, messy, dirty work. No matter how careful you are, you’re bound to get some stinky gunk on your clothes. Now it happens that you have been invited to attend a fancy dinner party that evening. You know you have to leave at 5:30 PM to be there on time. So what do you do? You finish work at 4 PM, go inside, take off your dirty clothes, take a shower, and then put on clean clothes. What would happen if you showed up at the dinner party wearing your filthy work clothes? Among other things, you would be turned away at the door. If you don’t change clothes, you show disrespect to the host and hostess of the dinner party.
Sin makes us deaf to God
It is a parable of the Christian life. We need to rid ourselves of “moral filth and evil.” No doubt James intends us to think of the dangers of an uncontrolled tongue and a bad temper he warned against in vv. 19-20. It extends to include all sorts of moral and spiritual corruption. The word “filthiness” comes from a Greek word that referred to wax in the ear. In verse 19 James has already told his readers they must be “quick to hear” what God is saying. But sin is like wax in the ears that shuts out the Word of God. Wax like that can make a man deaf. In the same way sin makes us deaf to God.
We all wonder how people can go to church for years, go through all the motions, sing the songs, pray the prayers, put money in the offering plate, listen to the sermon, and then leave completely unchanged.
They come angry; they leave angry.
They come filled with lust; they leave filled with lust.
They come with a chip on their shoulder; the chip is still there when they leave.
We are to be always repenting because we are always sinning
If we are going to change, we must actively get rid of the moral filth that has become like spiritual earwax. That means we must repent on a daily basis. The word repent literally means “to change the mind.” It has to do with the way you think about something. You’ve been thinking one way, but now you think differently. That’s repentance—the changing of the mind that leads to a change of heart that leads to change of behavior. It is foundational to a growing Christian life. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in 1517, he began with this crucial statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In a sense the entire Protestant Reformation hangs on those simple words. If you are a Christian, repentance ought to be part of your daily life.
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield says it very well in her book Openness Unhindered:
Repentance is the only no shame solution to a renewed Christian conscience, because it only proves the obvious: God was right all along.
There is no progress in the Christian life without daily repentance. We are to be always repenting because we are always sinning.
That leads to a personal question: Am I willing to repent of my sin? Until the answer is yes, we aren’t ready for step 2.
Step # 2: Receive the Word
“Humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you” (v. 21b).
There is a reason we are to “humbly” receive God’s Word. True repentance strips us bare, leaving us with nothing good to claim. We stand before God naked, exposed, with all secrets revealed, all hidden motives uncovered, all shameful deeds dragged out into the light, every casual thought and every foolish word brought before the Lord so that we might be forgiven, healed, and made whole.
God’s Word is a seed
A proud man can’t repent because he won’t repent. His pride keeps him from admitting anything. But when we are finally stripped bare, then we are in the ideal position to receive God’s Word because then we have a truly teachable spirit.
We are to “receive” God’s Word the same way we receive an old friend who has made a long journey to see us. That means when we hear the Word, we don’t argue with it and we don’t make excuses. We welcome it with open arms. “Speak to me, O Lord, I am ready to hear your voice.”
The word “implanted” pictures a seed planted in the ground. God’s Word is like a seed that will grow up within us to produce good fruit. If you combine this truth with the previous one, it means when we pull up the weeds of sin, we make room so that God’s Word can grow up within us to produce the fruit of a life filled with the beauty of Jesus. When that happens, the implanted Word is able to save us. It delivers us from sin, guilt, shame, condemnation, and the moral filth of the world around us.
Here is the second question: Am I willing to receive God’s Word with an open heart? If the answer is yes, then we can move on to the next step.
Step # 3: Respond by Doing
“But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (v. 22).
The real challenge for most of us is not in the doing, but in the deceiving. The worst lies are the ones you tell yourself. It’s one thing to deceive other people. That’s bad enough. But it is profoundly dangerous to lie to yourself. When John wrote his first epistle, he tackled this topic right out of the box. Three times in 1 John 1 the apostle repeats the phrase “If we say”:
Unless I am regularly contradicted by God’s Word, I am not engaging it.
“If we say, ‘We have fellowship with Him,’ yet we walk in darkness” (v. 6).
“If we say, ‘We have no sin’” (v. 8).
“If we say, ‘We don’t have any sin’” (v. 10).
Every deception starts with the man in the mirror. If you lie to a friend, that’s bad, but at least you know what you’ve done. If you lie to yourself, you’re probably not even aware of it. No wonder the psalmist confessed, “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12 NLT). Only the Lord himself can deliver us because he alone sees the part hidden from our own view.
Unless I am regularly contradicted by God’s Word, I am not engaging it. God’s Word is like a sword (Hebrews 4:12-13). Swords cut. Good swords are razor sharp. Even a slight touch draws blood.
That leads to a third question: Am I willing to be rebuked by the Lord? It’s one thing to read the Bible. It’s another thing to let the Bible read me.
Step # 4: Remember the Truth
“Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does” (vv. 23-25).
James begins with an illustration all men will understand. Most guys I know (I’m certainly in this category) spend as little time as possible looking in the mirror. We shower, we shave, we comb our hair, we take a quick look and say, “Close enough.” And off we go.
If the Bible is a mirror that reveals our true condition, too many of us walk away thinking we’re better than we really are. While it may be okay to say, “Close enough” when it comes to our appearance, it’s deadly to say that about our spiritual life.
The real danger is forgetting
The real danger here is forgetting.
We read “Love one another” but then we forget.
We read “Pray without ceasing,” but then we forget.
We read “Rejoice always,” but then we forget.
We read “In all things give thanks,” but then we forget.
We must “look intently” into the truth of God.
We must not forget what we have heard.
We are broken by the Ten Commandments
Note that the Bible is called the “perfect law of freedom.” That sounds very archaic to modern ears. We don’t equate law with freedom. We think the law restricts our freedom by telling us what not to do. That’s partly true. After all, eight of the Ten Commandments are in the negative. The law puts limits on our behavior. It tells us not to worship other gods, not to make idols, not to misuse God’s name, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to bear false witness, and not to covet. But those laws were given by God to protect us from our own sinful impulses. In a deep sense, we do not “break” the Ten Commandments. We are broken by them when we disobey.
For instance, a man may be bored with his marriage and decide he needs to have some fun on the side. So he joins one of those websites devoted to helping you have an affair discreetly. But then one day hackers break the encryption and suddenly his name is broadcast to the world as an adulterer. It costs him his reputation and his marriage, and it may cost him his career.
Meanwhile, here is a man who loves his wife, who because of a promise he made to her, fights off temptation, keeps his vows, stays faithful, and doesn’t have an affair. He and his wife have gone through the trials of life side by side and hand in hand. When they get to the end of their earthly journey, they are still together and still in love.
Which man is truly free? The man who kept the rules or the man who broke them?
Easy Way vs. the Hard Way
In all of life, there is always an easy way and a hard way. In the beginning, the easy way looks inviting because you can take short cuts to get where you want to go. The hard way seems daunting because it demands so much discipline. But in the end cutting corners and bending the rules always costs more. The easy way turns out to be the hard way, and the hard way turns out to be the easy way. So it is with the Word of God.
Am I willing to obey even when it is not easy?
That leads us to the final question: Am I willing to obey even when it is not easy? When the answer is yes, we discover the freedom that becomes a blessing from the Lord.
Here are the four questions we ought to ask every time we read the Bible or listen as someone reads it to us:
The easy way turns out to be the hard way
Am I willing to repent of my sin?
Am I willing to receive the Word with an open heart?
Am I willing to be rebuked by the Lord?
Am I willing to obey even when it is not easy?
Here’s the good news. You don’t have to know Greek or Hebrew to understand the Bible. You don’t have to go to seminary. You don’t have to be a pastor or a missionary in order to be changed by the Word of God. It doesn’t require special knowledge reserved only for a few.
But it does require a willing heart.
The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.
Until our hearts are made willing, we can read the Bible in the morning and listen to it all afternoon and still be unchanged in the evening. If we would be better people, we need better hearts. A friend told me about a billboard posted near a Chicago freeway advertising the cardiac services of Christ Hospital in the Oak Lawn area. The billboard reads: “Christ is #1 in Open Heart Surgeries.” I don’t know about the hospital, but I can vouch for its namesake. Jesus Christ is indeed #1 in open heart surgery. He has never lost a case yet. When you come to him by faith, he gives you a brand-new heart.
Some of us need to pray, “Lord, make me willing to be willing to be changed by your Word.” Pray that simple prayer and then get ready to be changed.
Lord Jesus, you came to show us a better way. Help us to delight in what you have given us. Make us willing to be willing to hear what you are saying in your Word. Amen.