Few maxims are as well-known as “actions speak louder than words.” It is one of the most widely acclaimed principles of proper ethical conduct for any realm of life. As one might expect, it is even woven into several of the ancient fables of Aesop (c. 620-564 BC), including that of “The Boasting Traveler”:
A certain man who visited foreign lands could talk of little when he returned to his home except the wonderful adventures he had met with and the great deeds he had done abroad. One of the feats he told about was a leap he had made in a city called Rhodes. That leap was so great, he said, that no other man could leap anywhere near the distance. A great many persons in Rhodes had seen him do it and would prove that what he told was true. “No need of witnesses,” said one of the hearers. “Suppose this city is Rhodes. Now show us how far you can jump.”
Yes, actions speak louder than words.
The maxim, of course, is biblical. As the Apostle John simply stated, “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). The apostle Paul communicated this same principle at the outset of his great discourse on Christian love: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). James, the half-brother of Jesus, stated it most starkly: “Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17).
Yet as widely-acclaimed and biblical as this maxim is, there is one realm where it is often overlooked. “Action”—or what can be better called “obedience”—is all too often neglected in the study of Scripture. We profess our interpretations, sometimes very passionately. But sadly, such assertions regularly speak louder than our obedience. Once again, James described the problem vividly:
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:22-25)
With respect to the average reader, this neglect can be caused by a host of factors. In some cases, especially in those where the reader works hard at exegesis, it is tempting to treat “interpretation” as synonymous with “application.”
In other cases, the reader settles for a kind of superficial application—a kind that produces just enough change to give him confidence that he is a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” but not enough to require the high price of placing his whole self under the text’s full authority. Other factors could be cited, but all told, true obedience is hard work. Its costs are enormous. In fact, it can be confidently stated that it is easier to apply sound principles of interpretation to a text than it is to apply the results of that interpretation to one’s own life. It is easier to be more industrious in the study of a text than in its application.