Digging in Deeper: James 1:19-20

“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 could all use just a little bit more listening lately, couldn’t we? And yet, here I am speaking…well, writing anyway. But I tend to write like I talk (as perhaps the audio gives away), so I guess I’m speaking. I’ve actually had the opportunity lately to be a part of a few different conversations on recent events. I’m grateful for that. I’ve learned much and also had reaffirmed some things I thought to be true beforehand. May I share some of that with you?

I think what James writes here is incredibly important for a time like we are in. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. That’s hard, though, isn’t it? It’s hard for a number of reasons too.

So much of the controversy swirling around us is the result of a lack of understanding. And much of this lack of understanding comes from the fact that we don’t want to listen to each other. We assume on what the other is thinking and feeling and react to that.

Listening in a way that will give space for understanding requires a couple of important things. First, it requires silence. Simply put, if you’re talking, you’re not listening. There was a staged conversation involving a popular white, conservative radio host and popular black, liberal radio host the other day. I didn’t get to listen to it personally, but it sounds like it was little more than an exercise in talking past each other.

Both men were already thoroughly convinced in what they believed and came to the conversation prepared not to learn, but to make their point for the sake of their respective audiences. Those kinds of conversations aren’t worth anyone’s time. They only reinforce what already is. If you find yourself in a conversation on race or some other equally challenging issue with someone with whom you don’t agree and your only reaction is to say, “That’s what I thought,” then you aren’t really listening.

The second thing listening requires is humility. We must have the humility to assume that on disputed, non-salvific issues, our perspective and position may not be the right one. It requires the humility to assume that our experiences haven’t been shared by others, that we haven’t shared theirs, and that because of this, neither of us has all the necessary information to completely understand why the other thinks and believes the way he does. If you assume you know why the other person thinks or feels the way they do, you won’t listen. You won’t really even hear.

We must be quick, James says, to listen. To really listen, not just to hear in order to make our next point. We must open not just our ears, but our hearts so that we can hear what the other person is saying—really saying. We must listen carefully to hear why they are saying it too. What kinds of experiences have they had or have they seen through the eyes of someone close to them that have resulted in their feeling the way they do? If we were in their shoes, would we have reacted any differently or come to any different conclusions than they have developed? We may not come away convinced of a differing viewpoint, but if we can come away understanding more fully why others feel the way they do, we will have listened and that matters.

James also says we should be slow to speak. The reason for this is obvious and we’ve already talked about it. But this is challenging still. For instance, some people are verbal processors. I sat in a meeting recently and one of the attendees was a verbal processor. This person said a whole lot of things and I think the meeting was really helpful in that regard. But not many other people got to speak, including some who genuinely wanted to speak. When we are talking, we necessarily aren’t listening.

There’s another reason that being slow to speak matters. Quick words are often not as thoughtful and carefully offered as slow words. And, in a culture primed to jump all over even words that are carefully spoken when they don’t check off all the right cultural boxes (on either the left or the right), being slow to speak is all the more important.

We saw this recently when New Orleans Saints’ quarterback, Drew Brees, expressed some of his views in an interview. He was quickly and aggressively sacked by much of the media and even some of his own teammates. He was made to apologize, not necessarily because he recognized the lack of understanding and empathy his words demonstrated (even though they were clearly heartfelt and offered a position with which many white people agreed…which was exactly where their lack of understanding and empathy shined the brightest), but because the cultural gatekeepers had pounced and weren’t going to let up until he did. It was not a conversation in which anyone learned anything.

James offers one more piece to this trio. And this one is important, because it covers for failures on the first two. We must be slow to anger. Anger is the currency in which we trade these days. Everyone is angry. And if you aren’t angry, people get angry at you for not being angry. People are so angry that in a credibility-destroying move, a former director of the CDC made a public statement that taking part in protests warrants violating all wise social-distancing measures…but explicitly said that gatherings for other things like for worship aren’t okay. Hundreds of other medical experts and politicians have signed off on similar statements. This is an opinion of politics and worldview, not sound medical science. It is a statement driven by anger.

People are angry over the death of George Floyd. They should be too. It was a gross injustice and another mark of evidence of the systemic problem of police brutality and otherwise unfair treatment of black people, especially black men. It further justified the suspicion and mistrust of a community already riddled with it. No wonder there is anger and lots of it.

And anger over injustice is good and right. The Scriptures regularly speak of God’s anger over human injustice and sin. If He gets angry about it, we can too. In fact, we should. We should join in God’s righteous anger expressed through God’s righteous character. If we fail in that righteous character, though, we will cease to accomplish anything of value. In the rioting and looting and destruction of property that so many of the protests have spawned, we have not seen the righteous anger of God, we have seen the uncontrolled, sinful anger of people. People have been quick to anger—even if understandably so—and nothing but chaos has been the result. No good has or will come of this kind anger and we cannot give it justification or space. The simple reason for this James offers in the very next verse: “Human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” It never has; it never will.

So, what do we do with all of this? How do we resolve this situation? With patience. Changes of this kind and extent are not going to be quick or easy. We’re not tackling small issues here. We’re facing off against entrenched cultural habits and deep-seated sins. Sins that many don’t even recognize are in their hearts. And we’re doing so against the tide of a culture that wants to solve the issue, but doesn’t have the worldview resources to manage any kind of a meaningful solution. What’s more, it is more and more convinced that we don’t either. We’re dealing with two separate problems, both of which are tall orders. They are also primarily spiritual issues. If we try and tackle them with non-spiritual means, we don’t stand a chance.

We’ve got to start somewhere, though, so let’s begin with what James has to say here. Let’s listen first, hold our tongues until we’ve thought long and hard about our words, and set aside anger that is unrighteous and selfish. Let us remember that while anger is the right response to injustice and sin, anger is powerful stuff and we need to use it with the greatest of caution. We need to rigorously hold it up against the character of God and only move as He directs us (remembering that He will never direct us to actions that are intentionally harmful to other people). Too much depends on our getting this right. Let’s get to it.

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