Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak . . . (James 1:19)
Have you ever wondered why God gave us two ears but only one tongue? “Some people say that’s because He wanted us to spend twice as much time listening as talking. Others claim it’s because He knew listening was twice as hard as talking.” Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that listening is not an easy task.
Wives will often ask their husbands, “Will you please just listen to me?” Our wives ask this of us men because, when they come to us to share their problem, we immediately speak back to them and try to offer them solutions. In truth, our wives would rather we first take the time to listen to them, giving their concern the serious consideration that it deserves, before formulating a response. Of course, like men, women also struggle at times with their ability to listen well.
James was fully aware of our struggle to listen to others when he wrote, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). As we explore the meaning of this passage in the paragraphs below, we will consider the following three points: the message to which we listen; the motive for which we listen; and the manner by which we listen.
The Message to Which We Listen
In this passage, James specifically addresses his fellow believers in Christ, addressing them as “my beloved brothers.” To them, he issues not merely a request but a command—“know this”—which makes it clear that what James is telling them to do is both urgent and crucial. What exactly is it that he wants them to know? Before answering this question, it’s helpful to notice a distinction that’s made by the King James Version translation of this passage.
In the King James Version, this verse is translated, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak.” The English Standard Version reading begins with the word know, and the New International Version expresses this as “take note of this.” Therefore, which reading is best?
I favor the King James Version, because the expression “wherefore” seems to offer the most appropriate transition from the preceding verses. In verses 17–18 (in the New International Version), James writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
In verse 17, God is presented as the source of all blessings—the giver of every good and perfect gift. In verse 18, James informs us that one of these gifts which God has given to us is the gift of birth—spiritual birth. Sin gave us death, but God gave us new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1, 4–5), and He chose to accomplish this “through the word of truth.” First Peter 1:23 states it this way (in the English Standard Version): “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”
In the two previous verses, we have been taught that spiritual birth or regeneration is a gift of God and that God gives this gift through the Word of God. Given these truths, everyone should therefore be quick to listen to the Word of truth. Because Scripture is the primary instrument through which God gives His marvelous gift of salvation, everyone should be listening to this “word of truth,” which is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is the object of our listening? It is the very written Word of God—the Bible. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man. All the good from the Savior of the world is communicated to us through this book.” It could never be stated strongly enough: we must listen to the living Word of God.
The Motive for Which We Listen to God’s Word
Why must we listen to God’s Word? Here are five reasons which are given to us in this passage.
1. We must listen to God’s Word because this is the ordinary means through which God saves sinners (James 1:18, 21). Paul confirms this in Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes to us through the Word of Christ.
If you are not yet saved, there is good news for you. As you listen to God’s Word, God can save you using that Word. Acts 16:31 makes the exhortation plain: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Of course, we’re always tempted to ask, “Is that really all that I must do to be saved from my sins?” but James is speaking to us through our text, saying, “Psst! Before you speak . . . LISTEN! Hear what God’s Word says to us, and let this truth sink deeply into your heart!”
Nonetheless, we may want to speak again, asking, “But my sins are too many . . . how can God save me?” Again, we should hear the command, “Listen!” and heed biblical teachings such as Isaiah 1:18: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” John Newton, writer of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” when he was old and about to die, said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” Like Newton, we are great sinners, but we must never forget that Jesus Christ is a great Savior. God’s grace is greater than all our sins.
2. We also must listen to God’s Word because it is the ordinary means by which He sanctifies His people. Why do you think James wrote his book? One of the reasons was to help his fellow believers grow in their faith, even in the midst of trials (James 1:2).
One thing is for sure. We will never mature spiritually if we disregard what the Bible teaches. Instead, we must heed the words of 1 Peter 2:2: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” Practically, this means that the gospel must be central in our daily lives.
Some Christians believe that the gospel is only for non-believers. They’ll say things like, “I no longer need to hear the gospel, because I’m already saved.” However, this is the wrong way for believers to think. For example, instructing his fellow believers, Paul says, “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). This should remind all of us who follow Jesus to keep the gospel ever before us, striving to be continually sanctified by this life-changing gospel.
Of course, our goal is not only to listen to the Bible but to understand and apply it to our lives, as well. A popular children’s song expresses this well: “Read your Bible, pray every day. . . . And you’ll grow, grow, grow. . . . Don’t read your Bible, forget to pray. . . . And you’ll shrink, shrink, shrink!” It goes without saying that we should aim for growth in our walk with God, and we can do this only as we spend time feasting upon the rich teaching of God’s Word.
3. Another reason for listening to God’s Word (and perhaps the most significant reason) is because God commands us to do so. The expression “every person” certainly includes you and me, and the command here is for all of us to be quick to listen to God. When we disregard God’s Word, we are both disobeying Him and rejecting anything that He might want to say to us. By neglecting to listen to Him speak through His Word, we are sinning against God just as surely as if we had disobeyed any other command that He gives to us in Scripture.
There is a growing trend in our churches for young people to bring their smartphones into the worship service and send text messages to friends or play games during the sermon. How offensive this sight must be to our holy God, who desires for every person to hear Him speaking to us through His life-changing Word! We must pray against this sinful practice, and do all that we can to encourage every person—meaning every child, every teenager, every adult, and even every church leader—to listen to God speak through His Word, just as He has instructed us to do.
4. We must also listen to God’s Word—the word of truth—because it is literally God’s love letter to us. How can we possibly fail to read the loving words which are given to us by the almighty God of the universe? There is no more important person whom we could ever hope to hear from, and there is no excuse that is sufficient for failing to hear God speak to us through His Word.
When I receive a love letter from my wife, I read it with great joy and excitement, because I love her deeply, and I read it multiple times—not out of duty but with delight. After all, who am I, that the woman I love should go to such great lengths to demonstrate her love for me? I feel unworthy of such affection, and thrilled beyond words to receive such a gift from her.
If the loving words of a spouse can bless us in such a way, how much more blessed should we be by God’s love letter to us—His holy Word? Remember that James is addressing this book to those who have already received the gift of spiritual birth in their lives. For these born-again people, the voice of their heavenly Father must be so sweet to their ears. This same joy is expressed well in Psalm 119:103: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
If you are able to read these same words from James and still not be stirred in your heart toward a deeper knowledge and understanding of God’s Word, could it be that perhaps you have not yet experienced God’s regenerating grace in your life? If, however, you’re confident that you have been born again into God’s eternal family, do you desire to hear God speak to you through His Word more than you desire to hear from anyone else in the world? If not, then consider asking God to put such a love for His Word within your heart.
5. Finally, we must listen to God’s Word because whenever the Bible is read, taught, or preached, it is God, the eternal ruler of heaven and earth, who is ultimately speaking to us. There is no higher authority than God, and we are expected to submit our entire lives to Him. We do this, first, by hearing what He says to us through His Word.
The gospel which is proclaimed to us in Scripture is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He is our glorious Savior and Lord, and we must give Him our full attention as we listen to Him teaching us through His Word—the Word which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have given to us so that we might know our triune God more fully.
Ironically, we all want God to listen to us when we pray, but we rarely want to listen to Him when He speaks to us through His Word. As we remember that it is God who speaks to us through the Bible, it should motivate us to listen far more attentively to what it says.
The Manner by Which We Listen
Given the importance of our listening to God’s Word, in what manner should we do this? There are many things that we could say about this, of course, but a helpful guide for us at this point is the Westminster Larger Catechism, which asks: “What is required of those that hear the word preached?” (Q 160). Answer: “It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence (Prov. 8:34), preparation (1 Peter 2:1–2; Luke 8:18), and prayer (Ps. 119:18; Eph. 6:18–19).” To express this wise counsel in a slightly different way, we must strive to be diligent, disciplined, and dependent upon God as we grow in our submission to His Word.
1. We must be diligent in listening to God’s Word. By nature we do not want to listen to God. In our natural condition, we are like our first parents, Adam and Eve, who did not pay attention to God’s commandment. However, God calls us to listen to His Word with all diligence. As our passage instructs, we should “be quick” to hear God speaking to us—making every effort to become good listeners in our churches and eager students of the Word in our homes. Let us, therefore, pray and ask God to put a hunger for His Word within us, and to help us grow in the ability to listen well to the preaching and teaching of His Word.
2. We must also be disciplined in preparing ourselves to meet with God regularly, both in public worship, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in our own daily quiet times with the Lord. We must realize that the devil will do all that he can to distract us from God’s Word, and we must make every effort to stay faithful in the time that we spend with God and His Word. Spending time with God must be the top priority of our lives. Every opportunity to meet with God in prayer, in the reading of His Word, or in corporate worship with His people must be treated as sacred. A half-hearted effort will never be enough to keep us growing in our walk with God. We must keep God first in our lives and refuse to let the enemy keep us from meeting with Him.
3. In the end, though, we must also recognize that we are still completely dependent upon God, even in our quest to grow closer to Him. No matter how hard we try to keep God first in our lives, the sin with which we still struggle will always prevent us from being perfect Christians. Oh, how dependent we are upon God’s grace and mercy in every area of our lives!
Despite our greatest efforts, we will never be as diligent as we should in our reading of Scripture, in our prayer life, in our church attendance, or in any other area of spiritual growth. We should always continue to work toward increased growth in our walk with the Lord, but there will never be a time when we don’t continue to need His divine help.
Recognizing our dependence upon God, let us be in the habit of praying before, during, and after our times of Bible study, asking the Lord to speak to us through the text, to open our minds to what it’s saying to us, to show us how to meditate on it properly and to apply it effectively to our lives. As we come to worship with our church family, we should also ask God to help us listen well to what is preached, to bless the preacher as well as all who will hear him preach, and to remove any distractions that might hinder someone from hearing God speak to them through His Word.
There once was a man who traveled to different places selling individual books from the Bible. One night, as he was passing through a forest in Sicily, he was stopped by a robber who demanded that he burn all the books that he had–the books of the Bible. After starting the fire, the traveling salesman asked if he might be allowed to read a small portion from each book before surrendering them to the flames. The thief agreed to the request.
The man began to read passages such as Psalm 23, the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and 1 Corinthians 13. After each excerpt was read, the outlaw exclaimed, “That’s a good book! We won’t burn that. Give it to me.” None of the books were burned, but all were taken by the thief. Some years later, the robber appeared again, but now as an ordained Christian minister. God used the Bible to transform this robber into a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m fully convinced that God’s Word is living, active, and powerful. Through His Word, God transforms lives and accomplishes eternal salvation. What all of us must do, therefore, is listen to God’s Word, and hear God speaking to us through it.
1. Why should people be expected to listen to the message of the Bible?
2. What are some things that might hinder us from hearing God speak to us through His Word?
3. In what ways do we still need the gospel if we’re already Christians?
4. Why is it sinful to disregard God’s Word?
5. What are some ways that we can continue to grow in our love and devotion to God’s Word?
1. Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 231. 2. Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations (Rockville: Assurance Publishers, 1982), 192. 3. Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 164. 4. Westminster Larger Catechism (1647) in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 4, 1600–1693, compiled with introductions by James T. Dennison (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 341. 5. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, 26.
Rev. Brian G. Najapfour is the pastor of Dutton Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Anna and James. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.