19 Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man [one] be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20 for the anger of man [someone] does not work the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls."
In the preceding passage James encourages his readers not to be deceived as they go through trials. They are to remember that all good gifts come from their heavenly Father who can be counted on to be true to Himself. There is "no variation or shadow due to change" in God. As we wrestle with the various temptations and difficulties in our lives, we can trust in the character of our good and giving Father to enable us to grow more and more able to receive and be complete in His love for us.
Now James tells his readers that to "count it all joy"(1:2) when they face their various trials they must be "quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." Let's look at these in reverse order. James says that in trials we are to be slow to anger. Certainly it is in the pressure of difficulty that we are most tempted to be angry. And I have noticed that it is when I am in the midst of a trial that I am tempted to believe I have a "right" to be angry. I may speak and act out of this anger and rationalize to myself that it is okay because of the difficult circumstances I am currently in. I allow the heat of my anger to spur me forward and it is only later when I have cooled down that I see the damage my thoughtless words and deeds have wrought.
The reason for being slow to anger is given in the following verse: "for the anger of man [human beings] does not work the righteousness of God." He is saying that God is the One who is truly "up to" righteousness--setting all things right, such as our relationships with Him and each other. At the beginning of the letter, James tells us that God's intention for us is that we become "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing". This is what God's righteousness means. God chose to create us to be able to have a perfect love relationship with Him and this is what He is working to bring about. And amazingly even his anger has no other aim or end in view! All God’s actions and reactions push towards the same good end for us.
However we can never count on our anger to perfectly contribute to this process. Why not? Well, I think the answer in most situations is obvious. My anger tempts me to think and so act only for myself and my immediate situation. For the most part, I do not act out of a trust in my heavenly Father when I am angry and so, at least in part, it seems to always involve negative, sinful consequences, ones that lead people away from God and a true picture of God and his ultimate purposes.
But, are there times when our anger is in some sense "righteous"--when we see injustice or sin and we are angry about it? Yes, in fact we may find we are growing more angry at the sin around us. But when we go and act out of our anger, let the anger itself--especially in the moment--move and motivate us to respond, we cannot count on it to work the righteousness of God because, especially in a cloud of anger, we cannot see and know all that God is doing in each situation and so contribute to what God is doing even about things that do indeed anger God. God actions, even those which express His anger, are always perfectly aimed at bringing about righteousness and stopping unrighteousness because it is perfectly coordinated with God’s love and wisdom. But when our actions are based on our anger they will be out of synch with God’s action even if God is righteously angry about the same things that are making us angry. For ours will not be moved and informed by the perfect righteousness and wisdom and goodness of God.
This doesn't mean we should never be angry or that anger in and of itself is bad. James is not saying do not be angry, but be slow to anger. Acting in anger should not be our first response. If we do become angry then we need to choose to be "quick to hear, slow to speak" and this then will enable us to be slow to respond and act even if we are somehow provoked to anger. We are to work through our anger in “slow motion,” as it were, and let it be seasoned and purified by trust in God and God’s wisdom, patience and long-suffering.
We are to be slow to speak. The only way I can see doing this is to be occupied with something else that enables us to wait before we say anything. That is where the phrase "quick to hear" comes in. The reason we are slow to speak is that we are busy listening. But listening to what? There are plenty of voices to listen to as we journey through life. Is James just suggesting how to be a good conversationalist? No. He is telling his readers that what will help them go through trials is counting on God, in trust, rather than trusting in themselves of something or someone around them. This trust is what should inform and motivate any action subsequent to our anger.
We are to be quick to hear the word of truth that James spoke of in the preceding verse. We are to be quick to hear all the wonderful news of the triune God--all the things James has been talking about already. Be quick to hear that God is a generous Giver, who gives to all generously and without reproach (v.5), who gives the crown of life (v.12), who gives all the good and perfect gifts and has no variation or shadow in Him due to change (v. 7). Turn to hear that God made you of His own will to be the crown of His creation (v. 18).
Hearing, remembering, trusting in our heavenly Father is what will enable us to know what to say or how to act. When we are struggling we want answers, or maybe even more we want the struggles to go away. We get frustrated, angry and sometimes desperate for a way to get back in control of the situation. But listening to and remembering the word of God before we react is the only faithful way forward.
Yesterday I was at the hospital with a friend from my Bible study. Her husband is in critical condition because of falling when he was drunk over the weekend. He is an alcoholic. Her son, meanwhile, was recently in a tubing accident. His arm was caught in the tow-rope rope as he fell off the tube. and was dragged through the water. He will be having skin graft surgery next week. Plus this friend had sold her house last week and so needs to move out in a month. I thought of this passage as we went to the hospital to see and pray with her. I wanted so much to have something to say that would make it all right or make it all make sense. I wanted to offer her the perfect plan that would guarantee that the suffering would stop and never return. I was struggling with feeling useless.
As we sat down to pray together, I asked God to give me something to say. And what He gave me was reminders of who He is. We thanked Him that He is the REDEEMER, and that all He does is to bring about true righteousness, peace, and joy. We praised Him that He is infinitely good and generous--not necessarily because we saw this in her circumstances, but because we saw that in Him, and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We see God can bring life out of hopeless circumstances because we see Him bring life out of death in His Son. As we listened again to who God is, we were all able to let go of the need to be in control. We felt that we could trust Him again and that we didn't need to know how this would all work out. God gave me again the freedom and joy to walk with my friend in Christ and that this was indeed enough.
Of course, she and I and others involved will continually need to be quick to hear. This is a continuous, even daily, action that isn't taken care of by one "mountaintop" moment. Over and over we need to look deeply into the heart of God so that we can again rest there. James is loving his flock by reminding them of these truths so their trust in God can grow. It is only after we again know and trust in the goodness of God that we can make plans or interact with one another.
When we are talking to another then, we should listen to them and also to God at the same time. Then we can hear the truth from Him and about Him in the midst of whatever truth or falsehood we are hearing from another. And we can hear from Him what we are to say next to the one with whom we are interacting based on the truth of what we know of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That’s what we are to do in a positive direction. But there is a negative action as well.
"Therefore", James goes on to say," put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." There are 2 actions in this sentence, "put away" and "receive". Both are active words, they happen only by the active choosing of the person. "Filthiness and rank growth of wickedness" are anything that we are tempted to hold on to instead of trust in the triune God. Notice the word "growth" here. It takes us back up to v. 15, where James talks about the development of sin towards death.
We have all noticed, I am sure, how easy it is to have a resentment or a misperception grow until our perception of a situation is very distorted and we have added fresh pain to the trial by words or actions that have come out of that resentment or misperception. We are to put all of that away and to receive God's word. Then out of that will come things that bear witness to who God is and what God intends and perhaps even to what God is doing in each situation. It will show forth God’s righteousness.
Notice that we are receiving "the implanted word". This word has already been planted in us, we are "pregnant" with it so to speak. But we are to receive it, make room for it, welcome it in our lives. We do not have to plant this word in us. That is God's work. But we do need to receive it--which means, live as if it is true. We are to live now out of trust in God, as His children. God has already grabbed hold of us. Now we grab a hold of Him. We affirm the truth that we are His beloved children, created because He wanted us, and that He is the giver of all good and perfect gifts, who gives generously and without reproach. To receive this implanted word is to be quick to hear the great good news of our Heavenly Father. This word, James says, "is able to save your souls." This living word of God is able to make us healed and whole, perfect and complete. What a wonderful, amazing truth! And our trials do not thwart God's work. As we hand over each question and struggle, we can be confident that God is bringing about His righteousness.
Sometimes it seems when I am struggling or attempting to help another person who is experiencing trials I wonder how hearing or speaking again of our gracious heavenly Father will help. But it always does because Jesus Himself, the Living Word, is the One implanted in us and by His Spirit our little words become living words in our hearts to refresh us and enable us more fully to find our true home in Him.
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