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March 17, 1997

The Danger of Empty Familiarity

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Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. JAMES 1:22
Empty familiarity doesn’t describe a social handicap or a physical deformity; it’s an innocuous-sounding phrase that describes a spiritual disaster. And it’s rampant in our culture.
We all know that we live in an information-heavy society. We hear and read about everything—the good, the bad, and even the ugly. In fact, we take in so much information that we can become familiar with all the right facts and terminology but not really understand what we are talking about. For example, we can talk about the stock market, computers, or sports simply by picking up on the jargon used in those fields. We think we’re engaging in intelligent conversation even as we mask our utter ignorance of the topic at hand.
This kind of pretense also applies to spiritual matters. We learn the language of the spiritual dimension, but we don’t necessarily put it into practice. For example, we can learn the language of prayer and all the proper names for the different kinds of prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, petition, intercession, etc.—but never actually get down on our knees to engage in prayer.
We can learn all about forgiveness—when to forgive, why to forgive, even how to forgive—but in the heat of a controversy we might hold a grudge, try to get even, and stubbornly refuse to forgive. That is empty familiarity. We know the language, but we fail to experience the reality.
James says we must apply truth to our daily lives. We must become “doers” of what we have learned. Perhaps this should become the standard for the authentic expression of faith in today’s marketplace: not that we know the right spiritual jargon, but that we can deliver spiritual reality; not that we can weave God-talk into a conversation, but that we can inject the person of Jesus Christ into the busyness of the workday.

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