We mentioned before that James is very practical, like Proverbs. If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you might know that Proverbs is my absolute favorite book of the O.T., and as such I spent a lot of time in that book in March and April of last year. As we noted back then, anger is one of the big topics in that book, and Solomon extols the virtue of careful listening too many times to easily count, and both of those themes are echoed in today’s passage.
In fact, just applying vs. 19 would save most dysfunctional marriages and make every decent marriage 100% better. All of us need to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. As the old saying goes, that’s why God gave you two ears and one mouth.
Vs. 20 has a good reason for us to be extra careful of spouting off in anger before we’ve given a fair hearing to whoever’s pushed our buttons: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” Does this mean that all anger is bad? No, but I’d guesstimate that about 90% of it is. Most of the time, we’re not angry because of real injustice done to others, but because someone has hurt us, and most of the time it’s not even an issue of them hurting us but just showing disrespect for us. Our ego was bruised, and we lash out at them. Or a lot of times we misdirect our anger: We’re angry at X, but Y just happens to be a convenient target.
That’s how we as humans tend to get angry. It’s not that anger is bad per se (contra Buddhism): The Psalmist says that God “displays his wrath every day.” He’s extremely angry at sin in any form, because A) It dishonors him, B) It offends his perfect holiness, and C) It hurts and destroys people as well.
But since the Fall of our first parents, sin has tainted every part of our human experience, including anger. What we think is righteous anger is usually only self-righteous seeking of vengeance, and we forget that vengeance belongs to the Father, not us. Notice that James is careful to say that human anger doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. The Father’s anger is always righteous, and we’re safest when we’re fighting for his cause using his means, not fighting our own pet causes or to reclaim our own honor. Anytime I’m not fighting his battles his way, my anger is suspect at best.
However, in context these verses seem to be more directly addressing our vertical relationship more than our horizontal ones. Certainly, of all the people to whom we need to listen more than to speak to, God would have to top the list. Anytime we come into his presence, Solomon’s counsel is sound:
Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
Now, can vss. 19-20 apply in our horizontal relationships, i.e. our spouse, our family, our co-workers, our friends, etc.? Certainly. But the reason I (and others) think that the main context for vss. 19-20 is in the vertical more than the horizontal is because of vs. 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.” We need to follow Mary’s example: When Jesus was teaching, that wasn’t the time to be cleaning the house. That was the time to sit at his feet and listen quietly until he was done. I don’t know about you, but I find it really hard—in this multimedia world which has banished silence—to sit down and just listen to what my Lord has to say to me.
And I need to lose the anger as well. Why would I get angry at hearing God’s word? Why would that be an instinctual reaction? Because my sinful nature hates his correction. It’s a natural rebel against his instructions, which are only pure and good and right and just. He’s never going to tell me to do something which is ultimately harmful for me. Contra the Enemy’s lie (which he told our first parents), he’s not withholding anything good from me.
So in all my personal relationships, but especially in the most personal and most intimate one of all, I need to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. I know, easy to say and write, but harder to do. But it’s necessary.
Father God, I really need to listen more than talk. Help me to follow Job’s example, putting my hand over my mouth and letting your word sink deeper into my heart and mind, changing me. Please.