19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; 20 for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:19-21)
I have always loved the practical wisdom of James 1:19-20–be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Today I noticed more of the context of these verses. Why is James emphasizing these three practical actions? Because without them, we cannot fully experience God’s good gifts (1:17), display a godly character (1:18), receive God’s Word (1:21), or avoid the devastating consequences of sin (1:21). These three actions are at the core of the Christian walk.
First, I must be quick to hear. I have to learn to listen…to God’s Word first and foremost and also to the wise counsel and input of others. And James‘ idea of listening is not simply recognizing sound waves with our ears, but rather hearing, taking matters to heart, and responding. When I ask my children to listen, I am not merely wanting them to acknowledge that I am speaking (though that is a good first step!) but rather I want them to consider my words, trust my heart, and act on what they hear.
It is interesting that the book of Proverbs uses the Hebrew word, shama (hear or listen), thirty times.
- A wise man will hear and increase in learning… (1:5).
- Hear, my son, and receive my sayings, and the years of your life will be many (4:10).
- The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel (shama) is wise (12:15).
- One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination (28:9).
Trouble begins when we stop listening. How many teens head down the path of destruction…how many marriages grow cold, distant, and downright hostile…how many churches split or become havens of backbiting and gossip…because no one is listening. Humbly accept the word planted in you… (1:21, NIV). Listening requires humility and a willingness to respond. As Jesus said many times over, He who has ears, let him hear.
Second, I must be slow to speak. Obviously the two go together. In order to hear more, I have to talk less. Again, the Proverbs emphasize the wisdom of controlling one’s tongue. A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (17:27-28). James will make a similar exhortation in chapter 3 when he talks about the importance of controlling one’s tongue as an aspect of Christian maturity and love.
Third, I must be slow to anger. A quick-tempered man does foolish things… (Proverbs 14:17). What is the typical progression in broken relationships? I stop listening. I start talking. And I grow more and more angry, resentful, and/or bitter every day. This kind of life does not produce the righteousness of God. Instead it leads to a hardened heart, a lack of inner joy, a critical spirit, and an overflow of wickedness.
God calls me to be a man with open ears, a controlled mouth, and a forgiving spirit. From this foundation, I can build a life that pleases Him.