James, the brother of Jesus, shares some difficult teaching with these words.
“My dear brothers take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, so to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1:19-20
James begins his letter speaking of trials. He calls on his readers to consider it pure joy when they face trials. He talks about how going through these trials in faith will bring about perseverance so that reader may become mature, complete, and not lack anything. James is not saying his readers will not face trials because they are believers in Jesus Christ. He does tell them their perseverance in faith will make them complete and mature. Even though we are reading his words 2.000 years later, the message is the same for us.
Right now (May 2020) we are enduring trials that are requiring us to persevere. I suppose we do have the choice not to persevere, but where would that leave us? Not mature, not complete, and not well. We are challenged by separation, isolation, disappointment, illness, the potential of illness, fear, financial distress, social and physical distancing, disruption of our routines, and so much more.
We are living in the time of a 24/7 news cycle designed not only to inform us, but for the news corporations profits. This requires each of them to make their news presentations the most intriguing and interesting. Too often the result is sensationalism. All of this adds to the fear and thoughts of threat to our way of life. This situation has the potential to induce more fear, less listening, less logical thought. It also leads to heightened sensitivity and reactivity not only to what we hear but, perhaps more importantly, increased reactivity to who we hear it from. This is where we might need to be reminded of what James is teaching us in this first chapter of his letter.
James has much to teach us.
James teaches we are to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.“
This is not easy. James tells us that without these guidelines we will not experience “the righteous life that God desires.” God’s Word is filled with promises. This one might be written in a reverse language kind of way. We hear what we will miss out on if we do not follow these instructions.
The “righteous life” that James speaks of is not to be read as self-righteous. We are not to take this as permission to be the one with all of the answers and to make sure everyone else knows it. The righteous life is one that is pleasing to God. It is one that keeps us walking the path that brings about our transformation by grace into the person God created us to be and to fulfill the purpose that God created us for. We are, through the way we live our life, to glorify God. We are to live as Jesus taught us, as the Holy Spirit who dwells within every believer teaches us, and as God the Father created us to live. This is not in a self-righteous manner, but a righteous life, pleasing to God.
Part of how we are to do this is found in the words of James in the first chapter. Specifically, in verse 19 we are told directly, without much chance for misunderstanding, to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
If you have spent anytime in the last couple of months watching press conferences or interacting on social media, you have experienced ample examples of people following the exact opposite of the directions found here in James. I am certainly not saying that I haven’t done any of these. I am as guilty as many others are. This article is perhaps an attempt to make myself focus on God’s Word myself. It is time to slow responding. Quick responses clicked out on the keyboard are not helpful.
How do we do better?
So what are we to do? How do we improve our discourse? Should we even engage in conversation on controversial topics? What is the Christian thing to do?
I am not going to say whether people should engage in controversial conversations or not. I am a firm believer in the fundamental importance of the 1st Amendment in all of its glorious freedoms. As a result, I would never suggest that we stop talking about the difficult issues we are facing right now. That would be contrary to founding concepts of the United States. It would be contrary to the commitment lived out by all that have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
However, I do believe we can and should converse in a way that follows what James is teaching us. There is a saying that you may have heard before: “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen twice as much as you speak.” Please don’t say, “Well, we have 10 fingers and two so I can speak through typing five times as much as I am willing to listen.”
My Suggestions (You are welcome to take them with a grain of salt.)
In between listening and speaking, (and trying to avoid becoming angry):
- Perhaps we need to spend time. Spend time thinking.
- We should take time to think charitably about those we are desperately wanting to respond to perhaps more hastily than is wise.
- Remember that we each come to a situation or a conversation with our own specific experiences. These experiences may be our profession, education, health history, relationships to those who have had pertinent experience, and much, much more.
- Assume the best of the intentions or motivations of the other person. Do not jump to conclusions (those are almost always unfavorable and often inaccurate) about why the other person is saying what they are. Do not ascribe your assumptions to them.
- Be charitable.
- Check your sources.
- Be prepared to accept that you just might be wrong.
- Pray before responding, if you even need to respond. But always pray.
These are just some ideas I have. Again, I am speaking to myself as much as anyone else. We have more challenging times ahead. Who knows how long we will be socially/physically distancing. It is my prayer that we can emerge from this cocoon of separation more grateful for everyone in our lives, even those who think differently than we do.
If we take James’s teachings to heart, we will not only grow closer to Jesus, but to each other. Love your neighbor even when you can’t be with them. I know I am going to work to do better.