In today's world, there's no shortage of things that make us angry. What wisdom does James offer us in tense situations?
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Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
Believers in Christ have always lived in cultures that hated them. Christians are in the world, but not of the world.
In the world, walls of division are stark and strong. Disagreement is characterized as hatred. Opposing views are threatening and call for threats in return are spoken or written in harsh, caustic, and vile terms. Anger abounds; everywhere and constantly.
Assistant Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Steven Webster, states in a recent article that “Contemporary politics is, above all else, rage-inducing.” The turmoil of protests in 2020 and the events at the U.S. Capitol provide strong evidence that we live in a culture filled with anger.
God’s people, however, are “sojourners and exiles” and are called to "keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11-13)
Yet, too often we live and act in ways indistinguishable from the world. I recently heard a state legislator lament, “My inbox is filled with angry, bitter, vitriolic emails. And most of them are from people prefacing their comments with ‘I am a Christian.’ “
In today’s passage, James gives a command, the reason for the command, and the outcome he desires for his beloved brethren. He is providing an example of the kind of wisdom they need to be steadfast in amidst an antagonistic world.
The command James gives is three-fold: be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. It is the same wisdom King Solomon wrote for God’s people centuries ago,
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Proverbs 18:13)
Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 29:20)
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. (Proverbs 14:29)
Listening well leads to better understanding. Holding your tongue gives time for thoughtful response. And both of these working together contribute to controlling anger.
The reason for his command is to have God’s people control their anger. A key element of anger is a sense of being wronged. But a human-oriented sense of being wronged does not produce the righteousness of God. Anger is also contrary to honorable conduct. The righteousness of God is a first-priority goal of believers, so we are to control our anger by being quick to hear and slow to speak.
The outcome James desires, signaled by the word “Therefore,” is receiving that “which is able to save your souls,” or God’s implanted word. It is the “word of truth” by which God brought us forth as a kind of firstfruits. This word is the source of righteousness that is acceptable to God. It is the word that God wants His people to be “doers of.”
Humbly receiving and remembering God’s word and the salvation that is ours in Christ is essential to the steadfastness we need in an angry world. To make way for the word of God, James calls his readers to put away the filthiness and wickedness that are prevalent in a world alienated from God. James will write more about this later when he states that cursing and blessing are contrary to one another in a believer’s life.
In this present environment we would do well, however, to heed the words of at least one politician, Thomas Jefferson: “When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, count a hundred.” Good words for us all.
Rev. Del Farris is a State Capitol Minister in Denver, Colorado.