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Hearing and Doing by Kim Reisman

Scripture focus:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. (James 1:22-25, NRSV)


Though we rest our faith solidly on God’s gift of grace, in our Scripture for this month, James rightly points out the importance of the way we conduct our lives. Last month, we discussed the concept of bearing fruit because of our relationship with God – fruit that takes the form of action in our lives, the visible ways we live out our faith. The details of that action will vary for each of us, but because we are Christians, there are several foundational elements that should ground the activity of our lives and be common to all of us. Those foundational elements are often referred to as the cardinal virtues. They are wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, faith, hope, and love.

This month, I want to focus on justice. Our world is experiencing a crisis of justice. All over the world, people are hurt or killed because of the color of their skin, the type of religion they practice, or simply because they’re women. People are denied work or even abandoned because they’re old. Children are neglected, poor people are ignored, many of us live with a deep distrust of those who are different from ourselves.

Isaiah understood our situation. Israel was experiencing a similar crisis of justice that prompted Isaiah to cry out:

No wonder we are in darkness when we expected light. No wonder we are walking in the gloom. No wonder we grope like blind people and stumble along. Even at brightest noontime, we fall down as though it were dark … We look for justice, but it is nowhere to be found…Truth falls dead in the streets, and fairness has been outlawed. Yes, truth is gone, and anyone who tries to live a godly life is soon attacked. (Isaiah 59:9-11, 14-15, NLT)

In its classic sense, justice is simply giving each person his or her due. This is the understanding of justice that our modern ideas come from. It begins with the individual and has a very legalistic emphasis. Biblical justice, on the other hand, is much more complex. It connects with how we relate to others, what we value, and the priorities we set. Justice undergirds our faith, not because it’s an important virtue of civil society, but because it is an attribute of God. That’s why it must ground our actions as we live out our faith, because to ignore the cry of those suffering injustice is to ignore the cry of God.

Where classical justice is individualistic and legalistic, biblical justice is relational and intimately connected to righteousness. Righteousness focuses on the power of God that sets things right and heals relationships, communities, nations, and the world:

Thus says the Lord: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come, and My righteousness to be revealed.” (Isaiah 56:1, NKJV)

Classical justice focuses solely on external factors such as how individuals exist within society. Righteousness goes a step further and adds an internal dimension which emphasizes our relationship with God.

To live in ways that people can see that we understand the true meaning of righteousness, we must always begin with ourselves. The social dimension of righteousness only becomes a reality when people take personal righteousness seriously. When we commit ourselves to certain values and become doers of the Word rather than just hearers, those values emanate outward from us to the world and the power of God’s righteousness works not only in us but also through us – to heal relationships, communities, and the world.

The prophet Amos had an amazing vision where justice will “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24, NRSV) The virtue of justice isn’t meant to be a trickle but an ever-flowing steam. It’s not meant to occur in short bursts but to roll down continuously.

The rolling waters of justice depend on our commitment to personal righteousness. We become the ever-flowing stream when we live out the Ten Commandments, when we treat others the way we want them to treat us, when we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s when we become the ever-flowing stream, that God’s righteousness can be seen in our world.

Personal righteousness is at the heart of Amos’s vision of justice. It’s at the heart of following Jesus and growing in our knowledge of God. Proverbs 21:3 says, “The Lord is more pleased when we do what is just and right that when we give him sacrifices.” (NLT) In secular society we often speak about ‘getting justice,’ but the Bible talks about ‘doing justice.’ We ‘do justice’ when we work to set things right or maintain what is already right. That type of activity involves both our personal and our communal lives and enables us to be not only hearers of the Word, but doers also.

As you pray and fast this month, I encourage you to reflect on your understanding of justice. Are you more interesting in getting justice or doing justice? I pray that your pattern of prayer and fasting would lead you to watch for opportunities to do justice and that you would take advantage of those opportunities to act.