Can the very word of God be clearly taught and joyfully received, yet absolutely useless? Yes. Absolutely yes.
Let me illustrate with a typical church member. I’ll call him Todd. Todd attends a solid church with solid biblical teaching. He always takes notes in Sunday morning Bible study. And every day, at 7:30 am, Todd reads a chapter in the Bible while his finger traces every word. A couple years ago, he started memorizing key verses, which he thinks is a very encouraging development.
But Todd might as well be reading celebrity gossip, like Tanya, another member at the church. Tanya is not devoted to the Scriptures like Todd, but rather spends her time reading into the latest pop culture news. But when Todd and Tanya are not reading, they are pretty much indistinguishable in behavior, priorities, and decision making. Neither commits embarrassing sins and neither is committed to radical obedience to Jesus. Todd’s sermon attendance, Bible study, and Scripture memory are useless.
I am being deliberately provocative. In reality, Todd is much better off than Tanya, because God’s powerful Word is present in Todd’s mind (2 Timothy 3:16).
But then again, God’s Word is currently a coiled spring that Todd is content to keep carefully restrained. James discussed this problem in James 1:22-25:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
Some people have a strained relationship with their bathroom mirror. This is because mirrors are more candid about how we look than our friends are. Who would like a friend who always greets you by saying, “Hi! How was your week? Still haven’t worked on that double chin, eh?”
Like a mirror, God’s Word announces what we look like and how we should change. Strangely, many believers listen intently, recognize the truth about themselves—they even feel “conviction”—and do nothing. Just as we might feel regret or conviction seeing our double chin 365 times, but do nothing.
However, James wrote that blessing and freedom don’t come from conviction, but action. For some, the mirror is a useful reminder to use a smaller plate and go for a long walk. After a decade of ignoring my saggy chin, I became a “doer of the mirror.” And the mirror triggered action that led to blessing (health) and freedom (from poor stewardship of my body).
The mirror of God’s Word is not cruel, but kind; if we will hear and obey God’s word, we reap blessings and freedom.
“But Philip!” you say, “You fixed your face and found peace. God’s Word is a different kind of mirror; it makes us look too ugly. The last time I listened to God’s word and truly repented of my anger, I was convicted of lust the next day and selfishness the week after! And that makes me angry! It didn’t feel at all like blessing and freedom. That’s why I end up keeping God’s Word at arm’s length.”
Friend, do you know why I don’t have a metal detector to find buried forgotten valuables? It’s a terrible hobby. The rewards aren’t worth the effort. Every time it beeps, you have to put down the gizmo, pick up your shovel, dig for 15 minutes, and get your hands filthy. All to find a nail or lost button. The occasional lost earring (which I don’t need) isn’t worth the effort.
However! If you were to tell me that a squirrel robbed a coin collector and buried gold all over my front yard, I would have a metal detector. Moreover, I would always have dirt under my fingernails, a smile on my face, and a tale of victory.
You are right. The mirror of God’s Word does point out flaw after flaw. But in each case, the work required results in pure gold. In fact, this is the primary process God uses to unearth our sins, bless us with the joy of a transformed and fruitful life, and free us from our chains. If we can persistently “receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21) we will continue to find gold, and God will continue to refine us like gold.
A month ago, my lovely wife had no interest whatsoever in weeding. But in the last few weeks she has spent hours and hours weeding beds and prying weeds from between patio pavers. If I asked, “Do you like weeding now?” she’d still say no, but the satisfaction of a pristine patio has overshadowed the grunt work and dirty fingernails.
If you will accept God’s word with meekness, then the joy and freedom of a transformed life will eventually transform your view of the work involved. Eventually, you will mature until you are excited to discover a new weed! “Just wait until I dig that bad boy out! Another freedom!” And you will learn that when the Word convicts, it is an excellent opportunity to dig for gold.