In v. 19, James lists three characteristics of the mature Christian: quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. These are the first of several “spiritual litmus tests” James lays out for us to strive toward if we are to learn to live as God would have us live.
Remember the background of the book of James. It is most likely the first New Testament scripture written, around 45 A.D., just a few years after Jesus time on earth. The book of James is most likely a sermon that was copied and distributed to the growing church. The church did not yet have the doctrinal writings of Paul or even the written gospels. James is chock full not of doctrine or philosophy, but mostly of how Christians should live and act.
Therefore, there is a lot in the book about relationships—how we should treat each other.
After dealing briefly in the opening verses with how to respond to trials and temptations (verses 1-18), he turns to a really basic issue in human relationships for the child of God: “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”
Christians must be quick to hear (19)
The phrase is better translated “let everyone be quick to listen.” That is decidedly not a quality of modern-day western culture. We tend not to listen, but to formulate our next point in conversations. All we need to do is to watch Bill O’Reilly or Nancy Grace or Chris Matthews to see this in the extreme. The format of such talking-heads fare is not to engage in productive conversation, but rather is to interrupt, make one’s own points rather than responding to questions and arguments, a kind of faux debate, with each speaker relentlessly pursuing his or her own agenda and mostly ignoring the opportunity for meaningful exchange of information.
But while that is symptomatic, it is the extreme. For an everyday example, I need to look no further than my own household. One of the questions I tend to hear from my wife with a certain measure of frequency is “Were you listening?” Sometimes, I, a consummate multi-tasker, have to answer in the negative.
For James, the immediate context of “let everyone be quick to listen” is to listen to the “word of truth” (verse 18). He goes on to tell them, “This you know, my beloved brethren” (19). The gospel and the salvation of His people were well understood by the young church. God, through James, wants His people to listen and internalize the truth they have heard.
James is making the point that there are characteristics Christians should have because we were brought forth to become children of God by the will of God, characteristics that should be seen in the behavior and manner of life of the Christian. First among these characteristics in this passage is that the Christian must be quick to listen. Notice that he relates this listening not just to the word that brought us forth (verse 18) and “implanted” in us (verse 21), but also in connection with human relationships by the list of three qualities: quick to listen (to the word and in human interactions), slow to speak, and slow to anger (both of these refer to human interactions).
We can conclude this because James specifically identifies “anger” here as “the anger of man” in (verse 20).
Being “quick to listen” is not a new theme. Jesus constantly rebuked the religious leaders of his day for their unwillingness to “hear” (i.e., listen to) him. They heard the truth with their ears, but Jesus’ point was that they had never learned to listen with their hearts. Likewise, a major theme of the book of Proverbs is that the willingness to hear instruction from God and parents is the path to wisdom (For example, see Proverbs 1:5,8; 4:1,10; 23:19). By linking this characteristic to being slow to speak and slow to anger, James makes the point that being quick to hear also is a Godly quality in human interactions.
Christians must be slow to speak (19)
In making this point, the text is directly addressing a characteristic Christians should show in interacting with other people. It is a call for us to be cautious, to think before speaking.
I think all of us can think of embarrassing examples in our past when we were too quick to speak, and it got us in trouble. We didn’t have all the facts, or it just came out wrong, or we didn’t stop to think that what we were about to say was gossip or something said from anger or self-centeredness. Once again, we can turn to the book of Proverbs and find this is not a new theme for the children of God. For example, “he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). And Proverbs 17:27-28 advises us: “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.”
I find truth in another proverbial saying, but it is not found in scripture: “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact (a quotation from George Eliot, 19th century English novelist). I fondly remember my father quoting that in response to my own teenage propensity to state my opinions about . . . well, about almost everything.
So the simple lesson of being “slow to speak” is this: God wants us to learn to consider carefully our words before we share them out loud. That calls on us to exhibit other qualities of a maturing Christian: humility, patience, self-control, and concern for others.
James makes an important point. Our words have the power to build people up or tear them down. And once the words are spoken, we can’t take them back.
Christians must be slow to anger (19, 20)
James contrasts human anger with a characteristic of God in verse 20: “for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
Once again, I imagine all of us can think of examples from our past when an angry outburst did not exactly achieve the righteousness of God. There is an often-quoted story about Winston Churchill and his quick temper when arguing with Lady Astor, who expressed the desire to become the first female Member of Parliament. Churchill led the opposition to her election. On one occasion, the two engaged in a protracted angry debate, and she finally told him “Winston, if I were married to you, I’d put poison in your tea.” Equally angry and frustrated, Churchill responded, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it!” It’s a humorous example, to be sure. But it illustrates one of the points I believe James is trying to make. Nothing in that exchange accomplished any good, and certainly, whether the two were serious or not, neither was a statement arising from righteousness.
Don’t misunderstand James here. He is not saying that all anger is always wrong. Jesus expressed righteous anger, and righteous anger is not the problem. The problem is that sometimes we don’t see clearly the difference between righteous anger and our pride and self-centeredness. When pride and self-centeredness are the motives, then we can be sure we are expressing unrighteous anger, the kind of anger that injures rather than correcting or edifying. As James says, it “does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
Let’s be even more personal. Whenever I give way to improper anger, I do not achieve the righteousness that I profess as a Christian. Once more, we find this is not a new concept for the people of God. Proverbs 29:11 tells us “A fool always loses his temper, but a wise man holds it back.”
Some Strategies for Becoming
Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, and Slow to Anger
So how, on a practical level, does the Christian in our culture deal with the issue of being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger?
First, we must try to choose our words carefully before we react. Solomon wrote, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27). Restraint is a godly quality and therefore a discipline that is especially important in our conversations and our interactions with others.
Another excellent bit of advice I attribute to my father is that not all battles are worth fighting, not all arguments worth pursuing, and not all points are worth voicing. For the Christian, that means we should choose God’s greater purposes rather settling for small (and often harmful and bitter) victories. Many words said in anger are zingers that can bring short-term gain, but long-term pain.
It also can sometimes be a good idea to choose to hold our tongue until we have received godly counsel. I don’t know everything about everything. In fact, it’s probably more accurate that I don’t know a whole lot about many things. It has never hurt me to get a second opinion before deciding about an issue or responding to a problem.
Another strategy is that we can choose to pray about the response before speaking off the top of our head. Solomon wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). The Spirit of God, Who dwells in every authentic Christian, will give us wisdom in every situation if we open ourselves to His direction. All we need to do is quit arguing, quit strategizing, and ask Him. And by acknowledging Him in all my ways, I also effectively eliminate pride and self-centeredness in my response.
I also find it valuable to choose to think about my decision or response for a day or two, in combination with seeking the Holy Spirit’s direction. Many wise people have chosen to spend a day considering all of the alternatives, implications, and costs of a decision before committing themselves prematurely. Solomon wrote, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5). I apply that not just to business decisions, but also to avoid hasty reactions (which often are ill-considered and uninformed overreactions) and poor decisions made prematurely.
Finally, remember this principle from Proverbs 12:18: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Perhaps that is the most important lesson of all relating to the advice we receive from James in this passage. I can choose to contribute to adversity, make my argument, and win the short-term battle, or I can be a healer of relationships and in doing so demonstrate one of the righteous qualities of God’s character in me.