What would it be like if a word that God speaks produced an action in my soul? If I could hear a word from the mind of God and then translate that word into a human act?
This thought struck me as I heard the reading from James this Sunday. “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” James 1:21
Be doers of the word. Not hearers only.
I wonder what this means for me. I wonder where I can find the conviction and clarity to hear God’s word in its particular meaning for my life. I wonder what it takes for me to hold fast to that word through intellectual conviction and conviction of the heart. And on that basis to make the word an impulse that gives rise to concrete action.
That seems to me to be the heart of this passage of James. To hear and then to do. To be a person whose mind and heart take hold of the Logos from God. Affirm it through faith. Assent to it intellectually. And then to confirm that assent through deliberate human action.
I labor this point because this dynamic seems so hard to do. To hear the word of God and then to do it.
I wonder what Scriptures can teach us about this dynamic of the word engendering action.
A few stories come to mind.
Joshua 1. Joshua stands at the River Jordan with the people. Moses has just died and Joshua has never led them before. The people are still spooked about the dangers that lie in the lands on the other side of the river. Amid the winds of this uncertainty and fear, God speaks:
“I command you: Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be dismayed. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
What we know from the rest of the story is that Joshua and the people listened. The word inspired them to act. They put that word into action. They moved through their fear and uncertainty and took the next step in faith. They – and we – would later look back upon that word as a touchstone. A rock upon which their actions were built.
There is another passage just like this.
Matthew 14. Jesus has sent his disciples out into the sea, alone. Jesus remained on the shore. In prayer. An intense storm kicks up. The disciples fight against it, through 3 watches of the night. In other words, until around 4am. At this time, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. The night, the storm, the waves, the wind, the uncertainty, and now this, a figure approaches who appears to be some kind of phantom. The disciples were terrified.
In their turmoil, in their terror, Jesus stands before them and speaks. In his word, we see powerfully illustrated this dynamic of the word moving the will to act. Jesus’ word engenders a human response.
Θαρσεῖτε, ἐγώ εἰμι · μὴ φοβεῖσθε. Courage. I AM. Do not fear.
Look at the parallelism between what Jesus says to these frightened disciples and what God says to Joshua and the people of Israel in the story we just saw. Three things. Courage. I am with you. Do not be dismayed / Do not fear. It’s so moving to see Jesus speak in a pure echo of the voice of the Father.
But also look at this. The verb “courage.” In the Greek, it’s Θαρσεῖτε. This is the imperative. Jesus is speaking a command. Be courageous. Have courage in you.
Put yourself in this scene. You’ve been battling a storm all night. Night surrounds. Uncertainty abounds. You are vulnerable. You have doubts that you will make it through. Now you see a phantom; in the next moment he is unmasked; it is the very man in whom you have such deep trust. It is Jesus. And he speaks a word of power. “Courage,” he says. “I AM.” I am one, in other words, with the great God revealed to Moses. The God of Abraham. The God of Isaac. I am here. Present. Do not fear.
Can there be any doubt that Jesus’ presence on the water, in the thick of the storm, would not have inspired the courage he commanded? Would he not have dispersed their swirling fears?
What Jesus says, in other words, produces a response in the hearers. Jesus says, “Courage” and courage arises in their hearts. He says “Do not fear,” and fears fall like leaves from a tree. The disciples moved from doubt and fear to faith and act. To an act of faith. Peter even stepped out of the boat and walked (for a few moments) toward Jesus.
Jesus spoke his word and the disciples listened in such way as to let that word pass into the realm of their actions.
I think of one more story about this fertile, existential kind of listening, this hearing that gives rise to doing.
Matthew 1. The story of Joseph.
A recently married carpenter. Not yet living with his betrothed. He discovers that she is pregnant. He is devastated. He has already been building a house for them to live in. His reputation stands to suffer and his heart is in mourning over the infidelity he assumes has occurred. He concludes the only honorable thing to do is to divorce Mary quietly. Such was his state of mind.
Then, in a dream, an angel appears to him. Tells him what, for some mysterious reason, Mary herself had not told him before: that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. That he would be an instrument of God’s saving, redeeming presence among the people. That he would fulfill the prophetic hopes of Israel. That Joseph should take this child and his mother into his home.
Become the father to a child no man had fathered.
Words so weighty from the Almighty. Who could hear them, let alone act on them?
He arose. And when he rose, he did what the angel commanded him. Thus the word of God, communicated to Joseph’s soul, passed into action. A word of light bore fruit in the act of a man. And so Joseph, like Mary, became mother to the word that was spoken to him. He brought that word into being.
And what about me? What I am to do about this dynamic of hearing and doing? I feel like I am hard of hearing. I don’t even know what’s true. I listen to the Scriptures with timid, distracted ears. My mind wanders. And what I hear I often lack the conviction to put into action.
God, have mercy on me. Teach me how to listen more deeply. To clear space in my heart, in my mind, to hear what you say. And when I hear it, give me the conviction to do some little thing to put into action what I hear.
Help me to hear as Joseph heard. Help me to act as he acted. Clear of mind. Strong of heart.