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If We Aren’t Listening, How Can We Know We’re Doing God’s Will?

The order makes all the difference. First listen, then do.

by Rachel Gilson

do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. do what it says. — James 1:22

One of the best gifts I have received in the past couple of years is a pair of efficient noise canceling headphones. In the era of working from home when kids are sometimes present, these headphones can be the difference between a completed assignment versus another email asking for an extension.  

But that noise-canceling has some funny effects too. Sometimes I wear them while doing dishes, listening to music I love as I wash that same bowl for the billionth time. But with my eyes and ears distracted, I can easily miss when people come into the kitchen. Reader, when I tell you I have terror screamed at my husband just for greeting me because I was spooked so badly by his sudden arrival, he will confirm it. My heart jumps into my mouth, and then of course I have to laugh. I’m not sure he’s as amused, to be honest.  

While some situations are truly funny, not hearing sometimes has more serious outcomes. If I was wearing those headphones in an airport and didn’t hear that my gate had changed, I could miss my flight and be prevented from getting to my destination on time. The cost in time and money could be more than I could afford. If I was wearing those headphones while hiking alone, I could miss the sounds of a dangerous animal approaching, and not take precautions to protect myself. That cost could be literally life or limb, depending on what animal I encountered.  

I promise this isn’t actually a diatribe against noise-canceling headphones. I really do find them useful in their right context. But out of context, not hearing can be outright deadly.  

Our verse this month, James 1:22, is an important warning about how deceptive it can be to hear the Word and think that’s enough, without relying on the Spirit to put those words into action. But implied in James’s warning is the reality that as God’s people, we are expected to be alert to his Word. How in the world are we supposed to put God’s words into action if we don’t know what he’s said? If we must be doers, then sisters and brothers, we must also be hearers.  

I’m reminded in the first place of Paul’s words to the church in Rome, “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14b). The gospel at its core is good news about what Jesus Christ has accomplished, and like all news, in order to have any response, we have to hear about it! In the very center of our faith, hearing that the “Word became flesh” is the invitation itself to become God’s redeemed and beloved children. We have to hear that our sin is serious, high treason serious, and worthy of a death sentence. We have to hear that Jesus’s death stood in for ours, that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Hearing is not enough, we must believe it and repent. But we can’t do that unless we first hear the news.  

But of course, hearing isn’t something we do only at the gateway of our Christian life, as if our initial response to the gospel means we are free to put our headphones on and listen only to other things. As James assumes through his warning in 1:22, hearing God’s voice, listening for his words, is the oxygen that fills our lungs. We don’t take one breath at the beginning of our life and survive off of that. We don’t even take one big gulp each morning to last us through our day. Each day, all day, I should breathe. In and out, in and out, the gracious gift of air to keep me connected to life. Each day, we should hear the Word, pay attention to God’s voice. In (through listening) and out (through grace-fueled obedience), in and out, the gracious gift of God’s Word to keep us connected to life.  

If I stop taking in what’s good and right, I simply have no shot at putting out what’s good and right. And yet is deceptively easy to stop listening regularly, even as God’s children. Maybe we had a season of months, or years, or even decades, where we paid close attention to God’s Word, in community and individually. But then something happens, a life circumstance or season that removes or disrupts our hearing of God’s Word. Or maybe just plain exhaustion, or feeling disengaged with the text. And slowly, slowly, we stop listening, and our doing goes awry.  

Scripture is full of examples of God’s own people doing wildly godless things because they weren’t paying attention to his word. In Judges 17, a man named Micah makes his own shrine, filled with items like were associated with God’s established religious practice, such as an ephod (a type of clothing item associated with the priesthood), and a Levite priest, and he is sure God will prosper him for it (Judges 17:13). But any hearer of the Torah would know he’s taken God categories and totally misapplied them, and is practicing false religion!  

Or what about 1 Corinthians 5? Paul hotly rebukes the Corinthians because they were celebrating the relationship between a man and his stepmother. They should have known from God’s Word that this sexual and romantic relationship was not fitting for God’s people, as it was a case of incest. The Corinthians really were God’s people, and yet, by not paying attention to his Word, they weren’t doing what was right.  

We can be just the same. When we get detached from God’s Word, we can end up celebrating worldliness, treating our money just like our neighbors do theirs, with no hint of God’s concern for the poor or for mission impacting our budgets. When we stop hearing God’s Word, we can be overcome with fear about the state of our country or the state of our culture, and demonize fellow citizens instead of loving, praying for, and even dying for them. When we stop hearing God’s Word, we can more easily make excuses for our little lies, our little drips of gossip, our little nursing of envy or hatred, all of which swallow us whole.  

Beloved, Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, came that we may have life, and life to the full (John 10:10). There is freedom, adventure, joy, and yes, even suffering, when we listen to his words and put them into action. James 1:22 is not a call to a guilt-trip. It is a call to repent, and to take hold of the life he has for us. He doesn’t want us crushed by our sin and ignorance, he wants us to know the truth. Like a good father sharing good promises, and good warnings, he speaks so that we can be free to follow him, no matter the cost. Let us listen, not as those condemned, but as those who have received and are receiving life eternal.  

Spend a moment asking God to reveal any area in your life where you are merely listening to his Word and not living it out. 

🎧 ON THE PODCAST: Help! I'm Struggling with the Same Things Over and Over

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Rachel Gilson lives in the Boston metro area, working for Cru on the leadership team for theological development and culture. She has a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and is the author of Born Again This Way; Coming Out, Coming to Faith, and What Comes Next. Her writing has also been featured in Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God.

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