According to Pew Research Center, Americans are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last two decades. We see this in myriad ways – politics, social issues, and everyday life. And although this is certainly not a new revelation, it is one that is daily reinforced in my own personal relationships – most recently as it relates to new state laws banning and restricting abortion.
My hope as a Christian and engaged American citizen is to highlight some biblical instruction and encouragement amidst this culturally hostile and conflict-ridden climate. Thankfully, much of Scripture speaks to how we ought to behave and interact with one another, providing us with the ultimate example of holy and acceptable living in Jesus.
The Bible tells us that it is not enough to profess Christ, we must also actually act on our faith and obey His Word. Looking at the Epistle of James, we find a blueprint for what it means to live out faith. Addressing Christians everywhere, James focuses on what it means to do the Word and really behave like a Christ-follower. At the beginning of the book, he provides very practical and actionable wisdom in the following verse:
James 1:19-20 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger
My hope in exploring this three-part verse is to discover what it truly means to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Only then can we discern how this ought to inform and change the way we love and live alongside one another.
Quick To Hear
The first part of this scriptural formula is to remain quick to hear. My interpretation of this command is a reference to the practice of listening and particularly the practice of listening before we speak. One of the most powerful takeaways I have gleaned from difficult and emotionally-charged conversations is the importance of careful and high-quality listening.
Listening is an art that strengthens connections and builds trust. By listening to others, we put aside our own agendas and give our full attention to someone else. As relational creatures, this is a real gift – to be heard and affirmed.
In my experience, listening demonstrates respect, primarily when the topics at hand are deeply rooted in personal values. The book of Proverbs is chock-full of warnings against foolishness and exhortations of wisdom in this area. Below are a couple of examples:
Proverbs 18:2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18:13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.
Jesus ministered to many by carefully, deeply, and attentively listening. The true Counselor draws the needy in with a listening ear. By studying the life of Christ and His Word, we can learn to become better listeners.
Slow To Speak
The second part of James’ plea to Christians is the habit of being slow to speak. Much like the previous urge to be quick to hear, this second part of the equation harps on the virtue of waiting. James emphasizes the value of delayed response. Likewise, Proverbs 10:19 says,
Proverbs 10:19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
And Ecclesiastes 5:2 reads,
Ecclesiastes 5:2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
There is great wisdom in holding our tongue. Waiting allows us to let our typically wrong impulses pass. We can then think more critically about how to take the next step and respond with compassion and grace. To be conformed to the image of Christ means to let our words be few. Let us pray the prayer of the psalmist:
Psalm 141:3 Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!
Slow To Anger
Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Building upon the idea of remaining slow to speak, James implores us to also be slow to anger. It is commonly known and understood that words are powerful. They hold much weight and have the capacity to do great good and grave evil. Proverbs says that rash words are like the thrusts of a sword, but gracious words bring healing. It is therefore imperative that we not only watch our words, but also our tempers.
Jesus did this well, for example, when he rebuked Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant and when he taught:
Matthew 5:38-39 You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
We know from Scripture that God, by nature, is slow to anger. It is often followed by the statement that He is also abounding in steadfast love. This truth should bring us to our knees to respond with praise and thanksgiving. My prayer is that we would be humbled by God’s mercy – knowing that we deserved his wrath and anger because of our sin. But, by the blood of His Son, He has been gracious to us so we should also extend grace to others.
Circling back to the here and now, James 1:19 can be applied to challenging conversations with our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. When we engage in discussions for example, about the recent news on abortion, we must heed James’ words.
I believe members on both sides of an issue like the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate genuinely think they know what is certainly good and right. Instead of starting with an effort to convince or persuade others of our own beliefs, we ought to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger – even and most especially when we are in total disagreement.
For me, one big takeaway from studying James is the idea that we do not have to feel compassion to be compassionate. Being compassionate and open-minded are not mutually exclusive. We can be receptive without jeopardizing our own convictions. We can stand firm and advocate for our point of view without hatred or malice. We can can simultaneously express ourselves and respect others.
Father, help us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger for the honor and glory of our Savior.