Updated: Sep 13, 2020
When someone asserts that another person is in denial, that usually means that the second person has a problem that she or he does not want to face. The classic example is the alcoholic. Even though there is chaos all around, the addictive cycle and the enjoyment of the bottle can make it difficult for the alcoholic to put down something so hurtful. If we can be in denial about something bad in our life, can we also believe that we are something that the evidence reveals we are not? James answers that question with an emphatic yes.
The NIV translates James 1:22–23 as follows: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Is it possible that many people are deceiving themselves about what it means to be a Christian? Is going to Church each week and listening to the Word of God enough? Does the Word of God have to change you in some way? Of course, Jesus told the parable of the sower; some seed fell on the path for birds, some fell on the rock and was scorched, and some fell among the thorns and was choked. However, some fell on the fertile soil and produced a great crop. If growth is not happening in the life of a church, are members of that church “deceiving themselves?” This is not to question the salvation of any person or to assert that churches that struggle to grow are not following Christ. It is simply a challenge. If you go to church week after week, month after month, and year after year and the spirit does not prompt you to do something different, you might be in denial of your commitment to follow Jesus. Since Jesus challenged the religious people of his day, how would he challenge the church today?
Many have said that all churches want to grow as long as the new people who come are just like those who are already attending. Maybe the doing that James addresses includes actively seeking individuals who are different. Churches today tend to celebrate missionaries who share the gospel with very different people in foreign countries, but struggle to see the value of sharing the gospel to people down the street because they are a little different. This is not an intentional struggle. Most would deny it but isn’t this what James was highlighting. So, what are the reasons for the ongoing struggle?
Change is uncomfortable! Doing something new requires focus and sustained effort. Change does not need to happen just because a new way of doing things comes along. The question to ask is this: Is what the church is doing effective at bringing people to Jesus and providing an opportunity for those people to embrace a Christ-oriented life? Here is an example. Bible study is something that should benefit members of the church. There is tremendous value in the disciplined study of the Word of God. If a person is reading it over and over again, and there is no internal or external change, something needs to change about how that person is reading it. Likewise, many church members are not reading it very much. LifeWay Research highlighted that 45 percent of people that attend church weekly read their Bible once a week or less. It is reasonable to assume that if a person is reading it once a week and is also attending church once a week, then the Bible reading is probably happening most often at church. Therefore, nothing is happening during the week. It is hard to change based on the influence of someone with whom a person spends very little time. Can anyone reasonably expect to be a doer of the word if she or he is not reading the word?
Being a doer of the word requires spiritual growth. Something that which brings change or growth is uncomfortable. Between salvation and glorification is sanctification. This sanctification process is when Christians allow Jesus to change them to be more like him and less like themselves. If Jesus showed up at your church and He wanted to go minister with you, would you avoid those who are different based on the color of their skin, their preferred style of music, or the part of the subculture that they embrace? If Jesus directly asked you to go minister to someone different than you, would you be resistant? Jesus has asked you to go into all the world, which includes your local mission field and be a doer of the word. It is not about how comfortable you are, or how much you like your church the way it is. It is about how lost they are. Don’t fool yourself.