Summary: James asks his readers, us included, to listen to God and to each other carefully, and to put the word of God into practice.
The story is told of American President Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvellous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I’m sure she had it coming."
I once opened a meeting in prayer and referred to those words ‘everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (1:19).
Afterwards a man approached me and said, “Warner if we were all to do that we wouldn’t achieve much would we.” As it happened I didn’t have a quick answer. I was very slow to speak! In fact I don’t think I said anything in reply, but when I thought about it later it seemed clear to me that if we were all quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry we would actually achieve far more for the kingdom of God. We would hear and understand God better, we would hear and understand one another better, and we would be better equipped to do God’s will.
James precedes this by saying, ‘my dear brothers [and sisters], take note of this’ (1:19). In other words, this is important! James says, ‘Nota Bene’, NB; and whereas it goes against the grain of our generation where people are encouraged to express themselves, and everyone’s opinions and beliefs are supposedly equal, this was accepted biblical wisdom: ‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry’.
For example Proverbs 13:3, “Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives; those who open wide their lips come to ruin”; and Proverbs 29:20, “Do you see someone who is hasty in speech? There is more hope for a fool than for anyone like that”; and Ecclesiastes 7:9, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.”
You’ve probably it said many times before, but as a friend often reminds me: the truth is always worth repeating! God gave us two ears & one mouth. Could that mean that proportionally we are made to be able to listen twice as much as we speak? Certainly there have been times when that thought has helped me to not only bite my tongue (without drawing blood!), but also to focus on the person speaking to me as if for that moment he or she is the most important person in the world; and I guess if God has put them in front of me then at that moment they are my priority: Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
James continues, “For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (1:20), and later says, “If anyone considers himself religious and does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (1:26). More often than not anger shows itself or reveals itself through words said and through actions too.
Unlike me, Jesus was consistently able to get angry without sinning. In John’s gospel we read that Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem, and upon seeing it was being used as a farm shop and a crooked foreign exchange bureau (John 2: 13-17) he got angry! However we also read in the letter to the Hebrews (4:14-16) that although Jesus was ‘tempted in every way, just as we are – yet [he] was without sin’. Too often, in our anger, we sin because we speak too quickly, or we don’t listen properly. Perhaps we speak or email without thinking an issue through.
I remember a situation where I was so cross with someone because I felt they had let me down, and I got my response badly wrong. I telephoned them and left a message on their answerphone – a message that was not thought out, and I then sent them an email pouring out my frustrations. Again, it was not thought out, and it was not ‘speaking the truth in love’ (see Ephesians 4:15); and so my anger was running contrary to the righteous life that God desires. What I should have done is listened – to myself, to God, and to the situation, and then slowly prepared to speak the truth in love in a constructive way.
Verse 21: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” To ‘get rid’ is to throw away a soiled garment, to dispose of clothing that is deeply stained; and since James is referring to anger, the filth and evil he speaks of is the malice and hatred that can fester deep in a person’s heart.