The benefit of a bridge is often taken for granted. Consider the state of Michigan—two masses of land separated by enormous lakes (which some would even venture to call “great”). The Mackinac Bridge connects these two land masses and enables people to travel between them. Without the bridge, to get around Lake Michigan would require swimming, boating, or driving the hours-long trip around. The connecting bridge is simple and often over-looked, but it would be hard to overstate its consequence.
There is meant to be a similar connection in the Christian life between the sadly distant realms of hearing and doing. Christians often struggle to take what we read or hear and put it into practice. Why? Because many of us are missing the bridge that links hearing and doing.
I've always loved James 1:22–25 and the distinction James draws between being a "doer" of the Word and a "hearer only." This illustration comes in the midst of the larger section of 1:19–27 that addresses our relationship to God’s Word. James explains that we are to have a disposition of meekness (1:21) as we hear the Word. But it is not enough to receive the Word of God with meekness.
The doing of the Word completes the hearing of the Word.
Receiving requires acting
But this is where most of us falter. We are skilled consumers of information. It's what we do almost all day every day, and Sundays are an extension of this routine. We are expert listeners to sermons. We know how to tune in and out as relevance fluctuates. But information flows into our heads and rarely, if ever, moves us into action (unless of course, by action, we mean clicking like and sharing on social media).
In order to be faithful doers of the Word, we need to think more deeply about the biblical nature of ethical instruction and how to cross the bridge from hearing to doing. Recognizing the bridge that connects our listening and acting will help those of us who read the Bible daily, listen to sermons weekly (or more), and even those who preach on a regular basis move from hearing to acting.
We need first to understand why it’s so hard to pass from hearing to doing. Many answers could be given to this question, but fundamentally we must grasp the Augustinian reality that our motivations, or “loves,” move us to action. Biographer Peter Brown summarizes Augustine’s understanding of human action in this way:
"Delight" is the only possible source of action, nothing else can move the will. Therefore, a man can act only if he can mobilize his feelings, only if he is "affected" by an object of delight.1
When the human will remains inert and deprived of “delight,” a person will remain a “hearer only.” Obviously, as the Creator and Designer of human nature, God understands “delight” as the necessary bridge between hearing and doing, and the God-breathed New Testament reflects this reality.
Anyone who has read the Bible realizes that there are moral demands placed upon us. In other words, there are actions that we must take and principles we must apply because the Bible says so. However, we often fail to move from understanding to implementing these ethical requirements because we are not tuned into the way the Bible motivates action. We try to jump from hearing to doing without an awareness of the biblical bridge that connects them.
Dr. J. De Waal Dryden describes what differentiates ethical systems: "Where ethical systems diverge is in how they contextualize and motivate moral actions."2 Many cultures and religions have similar ethical requirements, but what distinguishes these systems is the reason why these requirements should be lived-out. A Hindu or Muslim may perform some of the same actions as a believer in Christ, but the motivational core behind those actions will be different.
However, we can’t reduce Christian ethics to a simple matter of motivation. One may have the best intentions and still behave immorally. We often struggle to put our faith into practice because we are not aware of the why behind the what. Dryden is again helpful:
What gives the NT its particular significance as an ethical system is how it contextualizes and motivates virtues of love, fidelity, compassion, humility, and righteousness by grounding them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.3
So, what does this mean for the common Christian practices of reading and preaching the Bible?
First, the daily Bible reader must actively search out the why behind the commands in the text. For example, the book of James begins with the command to count it all joy as we enter various trials (1:2). At face value, this command seems ludicrous, if not impossible. But as the passage continues, James builds the motivational structure that makes this action possible, even desirable. Testing cultivates the virtue of steadfastness, and steadfastness ultimately leads to wholeness and maturity (1:3–4). The reader cannot casually pass over this promise. James motivates the endurance by giving the result of God’s work: wholeness and maturity. To hope in wholeness and maturity crosses the bridge from simply hearing that we should find joy in trials, to actively seeking it out and allowing steadfastness to do its work.
Second, those who preach the Bible must not only read with an eye toward the why, but highlight the motivational core of the text as they preach. Faithful preaching cannot be done without persuasion.
We must persuade people that Jesus is better, and that obedience is worth it
God has built the proper motivations into the text, and faithful preaching will find those motivations, draw attention to them, and press them on listeners with a holy passion.
Find the Bridges
Bridges come in all forms and sizes. From the Mackinac Bridge, which spans five miles across the Great Lakes, to the wooden bridge over the creek near your house. We must be faithful to recognize the motivational bridges throughout the Scriptures. Only then can we successfully move from only hearing to faithfully doing.
1. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 154–55.
2. J. De Waal Dryden, A Hermeneutic of Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 54.
3. Dryden, 54.