Digging in Deeper: James 1:19

“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)

Have you noticed lately that everyone seems angry? No matter what the issue nowadays, it feels a bit like anger is the only tool in our toolboxes anymore. You pick what the situation may be. Someone is arrested and things don’t go as smoothly as they normally do. Anger. The markets drop like a stone. Anger. Covid infection rates go up…or down. Anger. Schools wrestle with what will be the best approaches this year to keep students safe while fostering a genuine learning environment. Anger. The Olympics are starting. Anger. Congress acts. Anger. Congress doesn’t act. Anger. The line is longer than usual at the grocery store. Anger. Anger, anger, anger. What’s wrong with us? This morning I don’t have any recent media reviews for you. Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we are so angry as a people. I’d like to share some thoughts if you’ll have them.

When encountering someone who is consumed with anger, the first thing to do is to attempt to discern the reason for the anger. Anger always has a reason. There’s always a spark that ignites the blaze. The trouble is, what we sometimes think is the spark isn’t really the spark at all. Oh, it may be the proximate cause to the blaze, but this is only because it happened to land on a pile of kindling that had been soaked in diesel fuel. The real source of the anger is not the spark, but whatever caused the fire to be laid in the first place. Well, if our culture is angry nowadays – and it is – then there is a reason for that anger. Identifying the source may not immediately solve the problem, but it will help guide us in the direction of steps that have the potential to make a difference if we’ll take them.

Okay, then, let’s ask the question: Why are we so angry of late? There would seem to be no shortage of things to blame. Covid sits perhaps on the top of the pile. We were cooped up inside and cut off from normal life for a long time. That would make anybody a bit jumpy and sensitive. And yet, our collective rage was burning before the pandemic was unleashed on us. Well, maybe we’re angry about politics. After all, it seems like all the right and the left do nowadays is yell at each other. We’ve listened to their diatribes and tantrums long enough that we’re starting to play them out in our own lives. How about social problems. In spite of being just a few years past the end of the term of our first African American president, race relations in the country are not in a particularly good place – at least that’s what we are told. And, the mass rioting ostensibly done in the name of the heinous injustice of racism over the past few years would seem to back up the claim.

Can I suggest something else, though? All of those things and more like them are not, I believe, the cause of our anger. I think the roots lie much deeper than that. I submit to you that a significant part of the reason for our rage is information. Information? Wouldn’t information make anger issues better? After all, when you have all the facts about something, you’re not nearly as likely to be angry about it as you are otherwise. Well, that may be true, but not in this case. Let me explain.

Social media and the modern media cycle leave us absolutely bombarded with news all the time. When something of even the remotest significance happens on the other side of the world, we know about it almost instantly. All it takes is one person to upload a picture of it to Facebook or Instagram, or to make an observation about it on Twitter, and the whole world knows. Now, in one sense, that’s not a bad thing. From the standpoint of followers of Jesus, learning quickly about struggles our brothers and sisters in the faith are having on the other side of the globe gives us an incredible opportunity to join in the work God is doing in and around them by praying for them. It doesn’t seem like that should be making us angry. Well, it’s not.

The anger lies not in the specific stories, but in the general nature of the vast majority of the stories we hear and our proximity to those stories. Let’s say you hear a story about a family in Poland facing losing their home because of the pandemic. They didn’t do anything wrong themselves. They did everything they could, but lost their father to the virus, mom lost her job because the restaurant she was working at had to shut down, and the government wouldn’t pony up to give them some help to keep paying their mortgage until they’re back on their feet (I’m assuming for the moment a belief the government should have such a role).

How are you going to react to this story? Given the injustice of it, it’s probably going to make you a little angry on behalf of this poor family. That’s not a bad thing. Stories about injustice should make us angry. That’s part of God’s character being reflected in ours thanks to our being created in His image. Well, that may be how you react to the story, but what can you actually do about the story? Yes, you can pray (not really because I’m making the story up as I sit here writing), but what else can you do about it? What can you do to alleviate the immediate felt needs at play? What’s more, if someone isn’t a follower of Jesus and doesn’t have that kind of an outlet available to them at all, the trouble here is only increased. What can we do then? Practically speaking, nothing. Not a single thing. It is a story of a deep injustice about which you cannot do a single thing.

Now, if you were to hear one story like that, you’d be upset about it for a while, but you’d move on and get back to focusing on your own circle of influence, making an impact there in the name of the kingdom of God. But let’s say you quickly hear about another story of injustice. And another. And another. In fact, as you scroll through your news feed, you are greeted by one story of injustice after another, apparently without end. When we heard about the first injustice, we got angry, but because we couldn’t do anything, we put that anger down at the bottom of our anger well and went on with life. No big deal. When we heard about the next story, we did the same thing with the same effect. The same goes with the next story. Eventually, though, that anger well inside of us starts to fill up. We don’t have an outlet for that anger and so it just sits there waiting to be expressed. As long as we can keep it in our well, things are fine. But as that well gradually fills to the brim and even goes a bit beyond that because of the remarkable surface adhesion properties of water, eventually, one of those anger drops isn’t going to stay in the well. It’s going to spill out. It’s going to spill out and it’s pretty likely to take a whole lot of those other anger drops with it. And the thing is: there’s no telling when this point will come. Maybe it happens at an appropriate time when we can express all this anger in healthy and reasonable ways with someone who will listen carefully and help us process through it. But maybe it comes when someone cuts in front of us at the grocery store and is suddenly treated to a whole flood of anger that doesn’t have anything to do with their rudeness and everything to do with a whole bunch of situations over which we don’t have any control.

Most of our news nowadays isn’t local. Used to be, local news was about the only thing most people got. If something went wrong at the local school board, you could show up, speak your peace, and be done with it. If a local family was struggling with some unmet need, you could quietly give them a gift to help them make it over the next hump. If a person in town offended you, you could go to their house, express your hurt, and work through it with them face-to-face. Local news is news you can do something about. But most of our news isn’t local anymore. Most people could name more Senators or Congressional Representatives than they could name members of the local town council or school board. They know the names and intimate histories of celebrities they’ll never meet, but not the names of their neighbors.

Well, injustices happen on the local level. You know that. I know that. But injustices on the local level are things we can do something about. When all we hear about are injustices on the state, national, or international level, we’re stuck endlessly dripping anger drops in our anger wells. Most folks today have been living on a steady enough diet of national and international news that their anger wells are all filled up. There’s no room for anything else. But the news keeps coming.

Most people have the sense not to let that anger spill out too heavily at home because then we have to live with the repercussions of it. That’s not universally true, mind you. Some folks do let that anger out at home, and it causes all kinds of terrible problems. Domestic abuse is a real thing and a serious threat to far too many women and children and even some men. Most folks, though, avoid that. Social media, on the other hand, is perceived as a safe place to let it out. We can vent our spleens there and never have to look another person in the face about it. We can unleash a foul torrent of rage without a single thought as to who might be on the receiving end of this flood, whose feelings might be hurt, whose reputations might be ruined, whose lives might be forever impacted. There’s no courage to speak our minds with boldness (if less frequently with wisdom) quite like the apparent anonymity of digital courage.

The results are very much what we are seeing all around us: A whole lot of people who are angry all the time, and are always made even angrier by the next injustice. Anger begets rage which begets more anger and the deadly cycle continues. We must break this cycle or we will pay the price for it. In far too many ways, we are paying the price for it.

So, what do we do? We start by heeding the words of James here. We must – not should, but must – learn to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We have reached the point that instead of listening and thinking before reacting, the anger bubbling inside of us from the weight of injustice we are confronted with all the time leads us to react quickly and unthinkingly whenever we are provoked in even the slightest amount. Yet human anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God. Anger may occasionally lead to actions that generate a solution to a problem, but it is never a solution in and of itself.

Here, then, are a few suggestions that just may make a difference in the world around us. It may not seem like it at the beginning. Sitting quietly while everyone around you screams doesn’t really seem to reduce the volume at all. But if we do these consistently, and if people around us begin to take notice of the change these work in us such that they join in the effort, eventually things will start to look differently.

First, listen longer. Don’t ever offer a “quick take” reaction to anything. Even when someone asks you for one, learn say, “Let me think on that first.” Angry words held for the sake of wisdom will never be missed by the people who never heard them.

Second, spend less time on social media and watching mainstream news outlets. Just turn them off. Your life won’t be any poorer for it. In fact, it will likely be a great deal richer. There is a researched-backed connection between the amount of time someone spends on social media and the amount of anxiety and depression they experience. Don’t be a statistic; be different.

Third, invest more in rediscovering your own community. Get involved in serving where you live. Join a local civic organization. Serve on a charitable board. Have your neighbors over for dinner. Organize a fun community event. Subscribe to and read the local papers. Learn what the needs are in your proverbial backyard, find out who around you is committed to meeting them, and join in their efforts. If there isn’t anyone, start something new. When the primary injustices you encounter are all local, you don’t have to simply be bothered by them, you can help to solve them.

Fourth, don’t turn to anger with people who don’t agree with you on this or that issue. Instead, turn to curiosity. Anger never solved any problems. Diatribes don’t solve problems either. If you finish making your point and you feel like you should do a mic drop, you probably didn’t accomplish anything positive or meaningful. Get to know personally people whose opinions you don’t share…even those whose opinions you hate…and make friends out of them.

Fifth, get involved in a church community that is active in serving others. This is where the real power for transformational change lies. And this not just in the world around you, but in you. And when you’ve made positive changes in yourself (with the Spirit’s help), you’ve made the most direct contribution you can possibly make to seeing the world become a little brighter a place than it was before.

None of these things by themselves will shut off our culture’s wide open anger valve, but if they’ll close your own spigot a bit, you will have done something that matters. Here’s to a day…and perhaps a whole season…that is a little less angry than it was before.

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