Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. (James 1:19-20, NLT)
One of the characteristics of the Book of James is its simplicity. It can be read and understood without much of a trained eye. The challenge, however, is actually putting these simple words into practice. The nineteenth verse of chapter one begins a lengthy section where James unpacks the relationship between our beliefs and actions. His argument made plain can be summarized like this: What you do is the truth, everything else is just talk.
He opens this practical section by providing his readers with a way to manage their anger. I would imagine that then, like today, there was a place for righteous anger or righteous indignation. This is the kind of anger that is expressed toward societal injustices and directed at broken systems and corrupt leaders. Sometimes anger sparks a fire that will seek to reverse patterns and practices of injustice, like the civil rights movement.
But James is not talking about righteous anger. He’s addressing and prohibiting the thoughtless, unrestrained temper that often leads to rash, harmful and irretrievable words. His suggested solution to managing our tempers is simply stated.
First, be we are to be quick to listen. Before reacting, we should seek to fully understand the person(s) and the situation. We cannot have clarity about the truth of any situation until we have understanding.
Second, be are to be slow to speak. In other words, we should seek to understand before we press to be understood. What would happen relationally if we chose to let our first response to an insult or accusation be formed as a question? All that speaking without any measure of understanding accomplishes is escalation. From there, it is simply nothing more than a race to the bottom. Proverbs 17:27 says, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit has understanding.”
Third, be slow to get angry. James doesn’t say, “don’t ever get angry.” He says that before you can become angry, you need to make sure you have listened with understanding and that you have good clarity on the situation. Chances are that any anger that may remain after closely listening and carefully speaking is manageable and will reduce the risk of permanent damage.
Verse 20 gives the reason for why this is important. Human anger does not produce Christlikeness. As we begin Holy Week, compare Peter’s reaction to the arrest in the garden to Jesus response. Peter picked up a sword and cut off Malchus’ ear. Jesus picked up the cross and willingly carried it to Calvary. Peter’s anger was driven by fear and pride. Jesus was driven by humility and love. Perhaps that’s the real key that allows us to pursue understanding and pause our quick retorts.