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.
2020 will be closing in just a few short weeks. Can you believe it?! Who knows what 2021 will hold in store, or the next decade for that matter? God does, but we as humans do not. The past year has run the gamut of experiences and emotions for many people. What emotions would you highlight from the past year? In asking that question, feel free to refer not only to yourself, but to emotions that seem to have been on display at large. There are negative emotions, like fear, stress, frustration, worry or anxiety, feelings of hopelessness or plain old anger. People marched in streets and protested, and in the same year many people stayed in more than they may ever have before. Certainly it has been a year of friction, disagreements, and those things relative. Positively, perhaps there has also been great moments of happiness, closeness, clarity, joy, peace, and love. While life is full of uncertainty, we can always relate to our God who is never uncertain, who always remains in control.
Unfortunately, in many varieties anger was on display this past year. Today, we want to look more specifically at James 1:19-20 and ponder these two verses in regards to how we handle ourselves with anger and how Scripture speaks into that. James begins v. 19 with the phrase, “So then.” The New King James translates a form of the word “oida” here, which speaks of being informed of certain knowledge. Given our context, we must look backwards to see that we have been speaking about God and His nature, especially as it relates to trials, temptations and gifts from above. It seems that a theme has formed through the first half of chapter one, which is that God is pure in His motives, giving freely and without ulterior plans in mind. Unlike man, who wavers and sins and fails time and time again to understand the meaning of the circumstances of life, God is faithful and true and holy. Keep this in the front of your thoughts as we look at James 1:19-20, because on the basis of God’s character, we are called to fall in line.
James addresses, “my beloved brethren,” in this verse. You will notice that he begins his letter in v. 2 saying, “my brethren,” and will call the “brethren” to not be deceived in v. 16. Upon searching, the term comes up 15 times in the book of James in the NKJV. Why do you think that might be? Look at the times that it shows up and it appears that it comes when he is lovingly putting his verbal arm around them and exhorting them of truth they need to hear. The letter is directed very much to the believing brethren and speaks towards how they ought to live before God and among each other. John, in the books of 1 and 3 John, speaks in familial terms to the believers he has worked with as well, often calling them “beloved.” Both authors are drawing upon the connection believers share in the spiritual family of God.
The command portion of this verse is important to recognize as such. It is not a suggestion or a piece of advice, but a call with a subsequent reminder of why it is important. We might think of this verse in its converse; when people are angry they are typically slow to hear, quick to speak and quick to wrath in an effort to produce their desired results. Generally, those results may be to inflict pain of some sort or to gain control, but sometimes people may actually believe that anger somehow will bring another person around to being sensible and godly. This has certainly happened many times over in the church at large. If godliness is living with an awareness of God, it would be farfetched to say that our anger and lashing out ever results in people feeling closer to God. Yes, Jesus went into the Temple and drove out the moneychangers with visible anger, but His anger was appropriate; while we can certainly have appropriate anger, the greatest concern the Bible would press upon is how we handle it. Even in James 1:19-20, the verse is speaking not about being angry, but how one deals with others. Notice that the verse is giving us insight, too, in showing us that if the goal is to produce righteousness, this will not be accomplished through the manipulation tactic of anger. We may invariably create other people who simply fear consequences for having experienced our own wrath, but this does not produce repentance, only posturing. We must be very, very careful that we are not commandeering situations with the use of volatile anger or perhaps the opposite, some form of passive aggression by punishing another with silence or veiled resistance. However anger may come out of us (clamming up, blowing up, messing up), it may all still share some commonality as found in the unwillingness to listen, say or not say what we ought, and alter ourselves to the harm of another person.
“Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” We might consider the scope of the audience in view here when it says “every man.” Brethren and men are both masculine terms, but in all likelihood are speaking to both males and females in a masculine address. Is this referring to every person out there, or to believers more specifically? Well, contextually James is speaking to believers with the knowledge that if they are believers then they are under the authority of God. Is it wise for all people to handle their anger better? Of course it is, and no one would be remiss for applying such a biblical principle as self-control in areas such as anger. Nevertheless, given the context, it is more likely speaking to every believing person as it assumes biblical authority over their lives as well as a general direction they all must move towards: the righteousness of God.
Let’s break down these terms briefly starting with “swift to hear.” The word for “swift” refers to being hasty or fast, and is sometimes translated with the idea of fleeing. What do angry people tend to think about the most? Their own anger, and not often the other side. Often one of the greatest failures of those who rush to judgment is their aversion to seeking to hear someone out or to check out the one-sided stories of others. “Hearing” is not simply acknowledging that someone else is making noise; it’s listening with an attempt to understand. If you want to win someone over to the Lord, one of the biggest hurdles you must realize is the art of listening. People listen to others when they feel heard themselves, but when they don’t feel like their voice matters, the conversation begins breaking down. If the goal is producing the righteousness of God, there must be a willingness to listen in an attempt to establish mutual communication. I have often found, on an evangelistic note, that though I may want to talk about the Gospel message, it’s also important for me to hear what a person already believes before moving into what I believe. Showing the respect of listening has far greater potential for opening up the door of being heard. Contention is often resolved on the same premise.
“Slow to speak,” refers to a slowness often tied to mental or spiritual slowness in understanding; here it is speaking to self-control over what we say. Imagine telling a joke and the person you’re telling it to starts laughing five minutes after the punchline; they are slow to understand. Life is full of time-sensitive responses, but sometimes being time-sensitive means letting the clock tick a little more before talking. Quickness and slowness are both strategic in James 1:19; quick where we should be quick and slow where it is appropriate. Slowness to speak may mean thinking about our words, or it may also mean not shelling out unsolicited advice. Here, especially, it is referring to answering a matter prematurely because of judgment and anger. Speaking refers to expressing our opinions or emotions, and it is important to pause and consider before responding rashly. Remember, James gives us the goal in v. 20, and that’s important because without living with that goal in mind, we very well may be slaves to our anger because our goal is our sense of justice rather than God’s glory. Imagine if people took more to the streets for God’s glory than for their own angst!
“Slow to wrath,” once again speaks of being slow and controlled in the wrath that could come out. What will it accomplish, and will I regret it? Will I be obedient to God in what I do? “Wrath” is speaking of strong displeasure displayed in the emotions; you might think of the emotional volcanic eruption or implosion for that matter. Whatever display may be shown, is the end result a desire for the other person to love God more? Obviously, it’s a rarely a question asked when we choose to follow through on most forms of anger. Anger, if handled appropriately, should move us to take action that will result in the proliferation of the righteousness of God. There certainly have been people over the years who were moved by anger towards sin and injustice that sought to make things right and bring more accessibility to the Gospel. Anger that leads both us and those we unleash it upon away from God is never a righteous form of anger, nor is it God-focused. In fact, it very well may be alerting us to the diminishing focus we have on God when anger becomes more of a motif of our lives.
Now, why should we follow these commands? James begins v. 20 with, “for,” and in this we are seeing the reasoning behind v. 19 and the goal of putting this into practice. We have already looked at the word “wrath” so let’s look at the latter part of the verse. “Produce” is speaking of accomplishing or achieving something as a result of effort. The wrath of man, which takes quite a bit of energy, does not achieve the righteousness of God. “Righteousness” as used here is “the quality or character of upright behavior” (BDAG, Bibleworks). Character that is in line with who? God. Godly character is not brought about by sinful anger. Perhaps this is a good time to consider Romans 2:4, which says, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” Notice that Paul points primarily to positive qualities, especially kindness, as the means by which God leads His children to repentance. We might assume that “the anger of God leads us to repentance,” but anger does not produce change, only fear. Biblically speaking, the wrath of God is best thought of in a punitive sense, not a redemptive one. When someone recognizes their sin and how dark and ugly it is, how unworthy of God’s love they are and that they deserve punishment for their sin, they are often in for quite a surprise when grasping the Gospel. God, who rightly could condemn and destroy us, offers forgiveness and grace and reconciliation with Him. The kindness of God breaks a penitent heart with great effect, but anger in itself only follows through on what is already expected. Our goal is to help others and ourselves in growing to be more like the Lord, not like people attending a spiritual masquerade. Be more concerned about the heart of others, be they a child, parent, friend or enemy, fellow believer, etc., because while we may succeed in intimidating others into our agendas for them, our goal must be higher and greater. As much as you can, work to not manipulate others into behavioral compliance but be deeply concerned about their soul.
Today’s verses offer us a challenge: consider how we listen to others, the slowness in which we speak and the long fuse we must develop if we are to be winsome towards the Gospel and the goal of building others up in Christ.
Thank you for your time and may God bless you as you ponder His word.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.