“My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We’ve all experienced some version of this before: Something has happened that, while not necessarily bad, is capable of being understood in a negative light. You hear about it in bits and pieces from someone who is sharing it with you third hand, and after hearing only half of the story, get ferociously angry. And in your mind, this is a righteous anger. God is offended at this and you with Him. You say or do some things that cannot be taken back. But, once that initial wave of rage has subsided a bit, you learn a bit more about the situation from someone who has firsthand knowledge and discover that your initial reaction was wrong. This wasn’t something worth getting angry about at all, and now you’re stuck with egg on your face. Oops.
That’s an awful feeling, isn’t it? It’s embarrassing. You feel guilty for the things you said and did in your anger. You feel dread over the need to go back now and make apologies to the people you’ve hurt. There are perhaps relationships that need to be restored. There may be relationships that will not be restored. And you look to so many people like one of those senseless hotheads who turn to anger before they spend a second or two actually thinking through the issues.
This isn’t just a personal phenomenon either. This is a culture-wide problem. We live in a rage society; especially on social media. It is so easy to let our fingers fly for a few seconds when we’ve heard or read something that seems ridiculous to us. And the “send” button is just right there. Too often we click it before giving even a second’s worth of thought to the wisdom of our words. Lives have been shattered as a result of that far too many times. Relationships have been wrecked. Whole communities have been savaged.
This rage culture, however, is not just limited to the internet. Angry protests and sit-ins happen far too frequently, staffed by poorly informed people who are mostly just looking for an outlet for emotions that are largely unrelated to the topic at hand. In many ways various media outlets and political figures count on this. They understand that anger leads to action or copy sales, and so work to leverage it for their own benefit.
And, to a certain extent, they are right. Angry people can be convinced to do things that not angry people won’t. Anger often results in action. But, something happening is not always better than nothing happening. This is particularly true when the something is not in line with the righteousness of God. Unfortunately, our anger-motivated movement doesn’t often—or ever—accomplish that.
So, what do we do instead? Well, we could try what James suggests here. Instead of listening in part and reacting quickly, we should aim to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. The reason is borne out not only through James’ true words here, but through a vast library of experience. Human anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God.
When someone is speaking, we need to not worry about what we might say in response (and that goes double if the response is going to be snarky). We need to worry only about listening entirely to what they are saying. We need to work to understand what their argument is and why they are making it before we give a second’s worth of thought to reacting to it. Only when we understand is it safe to begin speaking. Sometimes that takes a while.
And then, once we begin speaking, it should only be to ask some further questions to help lead both us and them to a greater, deeper understanding of the topic at hand and our respective feelings about it.
This is, at last, the point at which we start to discern if anger is going to be the right emotional response to whatever we have heard. The reason is that by this time we have presumably had time to think through the matter carefully and held it up against the character of God. We have had time to determine if this is something God would be angry about. If He would get angry about it, we can safely get angry about it. But even then, our anger must be measured carefully to the situation and not go beyond its carefully laid parameters. That’s how God’s anger and response always works.
Imagine what our world would be like if just the Jesus followers followed this path. Imagine what it would be like if just the professed Jesus followers who were active in local churches did it. The transformative impact would be profound indeed. All it takes is being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Let’s be this kind of people.