Nodding the head does not row the boat

 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:19-27

There’s an Irish proverb that says, “Nodding the head does not row the boat.” I don’t know much about Ireland or how that proverb got its start: Did Irish oarsmen sit in the boats for morning meetings to discuss where to go and how to get there before they set out each day? Did some guys just kick back for awhile even after the meeting ended, drinking their coffee, filling in the blanks and pondering the notes on their handouts instead of rowing? I don’t know, but if you think about a boat like a church pew, then maybe it makes more sense.


James describes two kinds of listening. There is the kind of listening that compels activity, and then there is a lackadaisical kind of listening.

Maybe the latter listener is lackadaisical because he talks too much, is holding onto anger, or remains unrepentant regarding a particular sin (Jas. 1:19-21). Each of these problems reflects a spirit of pride that, through deception, blocks truth from making any sort of real difference in a person’s life. Whatever the reason, James says we should get rid of it.

We need to do something besides sitting and listening.

A fun fact about writing devotions, Bible study curriculum, and articles is there are times I’ll reread something I wrote months or years ago that causes me to think, “Hey, I should probably do that.” My blog and Word documents are more like an album of selfies than an actual mirror, but it serves to illustrate the same principle we find in James 1:23-25. The point is it’s not a one time thing.

We must keep on listening and keep on becoming doers of God’s Word.

It is not enough to give God’s Word a quick look, fill in a few blanks while nodding our heads, and then go on with life as usual without remembering or applying what we learned. Neither is the pinnacle of righteousness summed up in moral living. That’s why James picked controlling the tongue and looking after orphans and widows as evidence of the active listener and compelled doer of the Word. Outward religion without inner control and genuine compassion is a sign of lackadaisical listening.

And lackadaisical listening will never get you where God wants you to go.

Humbly accept the word planted in you, believer (Jas. 1:21b). You might think of it this way – God has given you the oars you need. Don’t let them just sit there. Pick them up and keep rowing.

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