Be Quick to Listen

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Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. James 1:19

It is always dangerous to take anyone’s words out of context. In this case, one might pull this statement from the book of James and post it by Instagram to Facebook without attribution in order to get the attention of everyone. Add the formula, “If you agree, then share,” and you have the makings of viral secular wisdom. Yet to see this statement as if it had no heavenly dimension robs it of a great deal of its value.

That is a problem we can easily remedy. This statement lies toward the end of a group of admonitions to people living in a complicated world—a world rather like ours. James wrote to people who were being challenged by a secular culture. The emperor claimed to be a god, and the imperative to worship him was gathering force, but the culture in general was skeptical about the spirit world. It was an era when Roman citizens in backwaters along the eastern end of the Mediterranean thought themselves too sophisticated to indulge in worship of anything but intellect and beauty.

The Christians who read this letter of James were faced with the same behaviors we find so maddening and difficult in the contemporary USA. People of faith in James’s day were just as thoroughly scorned as people of faith today. Romans laughed at Roman gods behind the backs of the priests, and they even laughed at the emperor’s presumption when he was not in earshot. They certainly would laugh at an upstart religion that looked a lot like a Jewish cult with no more credibility than the Kabbalah. These Romans could comply with the demand to bow and pray before the emperor’s statue with no qualm of conscience whatsoever, because reverence toward the emperor did not conflict with any other object of reverence; they worshiped nothing.

This is the context of the words, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James’s readers needed to build good relationships with their fellow Christians, to be sure, but they likewise needed to be able to live in the culture without provoking unnecessary conflict. A willingness to listen before speaking and a will to refuse to be angered over trivial things was just as important to the original readers of the letter from James as it is for us today.

Here are some questions for further thought:

  • Recently a US senator stated that First Amendment protection of free exercise of religion applies only to words and deeds in a worship setting; free exercise does not apply when someone is working in a business, teaching school or consulting with a doctor. How would James advise you to respond when someone says such a thing to you face to face?
  • Someone recently wrote a long post on First Things in which the author said, “Christians must not speak of a tax code, marriage ordinance, or welfare policy as Christian no matter how much, or even how rightly, they desire its enactment or preservation.” Christians who find the basis for their morality in biblical teaching may want to talk about the basis of their advocacy for specific legislation. Does James offer any wisdom for a person engaged in such a campaign?
  • Kim Davis, the county clerk for Rowan country in Kentucky, is currently refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone, because she refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. When you talk with people face to face or online about the integrity of her position, how would James counsel you to conduct yourself?

I spoke earlier of the context that preceded James’s statement in verse 1:19. Maybe it would be easier to answer these questions if you consider the context that follows the verse. After this admonition, James said, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20 ESV). Think about this. Maybe righteous indignation is not so righteous after all. You argue about cultural problems with people, because you believe you are expected to be salt and light, but it is hard to argue with a smile on your face when you are confronted either with utterly illogical thought processes or worse, venomous rejection of your faith as a foundation for your moral position. How do you face such attitudes peacefully? You learn self-control, because your emotional outburst does not express God’s righteousness at work. In fact, anger expressed in advocacy for Christian perspective in law-making is usually counter-productive.

Keep reading. “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21 ESV). Now at last the foundation for the admonition comes to light. It is about the “implanted word.” What might that be? That is the Christ in you, the living Word indwelling the temple of your body. Because Christ dwells within you, you have an obligation to let him reign there. Recognize that no matter what goes on in the world around you, you are safe in God’s care, because of Christ. Let your words be worthy of the indwelling Word within you. Be meek. Be a listener. Love your opponent the way Christ loves him. Don’t think that you serve Christ’s purpose by being in a rage when people do not respect him or reject laws in keeping with his teaching. You serve Christ’s purpose by being like Christ, listening first, valuing even the people who turn away from your righteous advocacy, just as the rich young ruler turned away when Christ expected of him more than he chose to give.

Now you can read James’s statement in the right context. Rewrite this statement as a prayer, and take some time to listen to the One to whom you speak your prayer before you take on your opponent in the culture wars.

Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. James 1:19 ESV

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World this fall.

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