“The average person suffers from three delusions…”
That got my attention.
“The average person suffers from three delusions,” writes Steven Sample in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, “(1) that he is a good driver, (2) that he has a good sense of humor, and (3) that he is a good listener. Most people, however, including many leaders, are terrible listeners; they actually think talking is more important than listening.”¹
Many centuries ago, James seems to have been keenly aware of this third delusion. In his pastoral wisdom and his knowledge of those he to whom was writing, it appears James was concerned they suffered from the delusion they were good listeners. Apparently, they were not. So James wrote to them,
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” James 1:19-20
It appears that the recipients of his letter weren’t caring for each other by humbly listening to each other in the midst of the trials they were enduring together. James is concerned for the effect this is having on them relationally and their witness as the church.
While it might appear that James has abruptly changed topics in verse 19 and transitioned from the theology of suffering he taught in 1:2-18, this would not be so. These commands have not been randomly chosen by James. He hasn’t gone off topic. These commands are vitally connected with all he has previously written. His instruction was critical for them in their trials (and us as well) so they won’t waste their trials but instead grow in godliness together and glorify God by their response to their trials. Actually all he has written to this point has been preparatory for these commands and what follows.
Having warned the original readers that temptation and sin are the most serious threat to their souls (v13-15), not the trials they are experiencing. James now exhorts them to turn from listening to the deceptive call of temptation and sin and give their full attention to caring for each other by listening to each other, and most important, listening and responding to God’s word. So these commands and what follows must not be divorced from all he has previously written. These commands form the critical conclusion to all he has said in written in the prior paragraphs. They must, “Know this…” And so must we.
This is James’s first reference to the tongue, but there will be many more. Actually he addresses the theme of our tongues and the nature and effect of our words in every chapter of his letter. If we have ears to hear, this letter will transform our view of the tongue, inform us about the purpose and potential of words for harm and good, and discover what our speech reveals about our heart. If Christians studied and applied all James teaches about the tongue, the content and tone of conversations both in person and on the internet would change immediately and dramatically. And untold damage is done to relationships, the church, and the advance of the gospel when these commands are ignored.
So please allow me to make a recommendation. Memorize these commands. They are easily memorized. I would encourage you to think and reflect on these three commands at the outset of the day, before every meeting or conversation you have each day, and before you send that e-mail. Work these wise commands into your life and they will change your life. And these three commands—“be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”—are particularly relevant in the midst of trials because in trials we are tempted to the opposite.
When we “meet trials of various kinds” (1:4), we have a tendency to be slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to anger. And whenever we are slow to listen and quick to speak there is an increasing danger that anger will be aroused and expressed. So we need to be on heightened alert in relation to our hearts and tongues in the midst of trials, lest we sin against each other and ultimately God with our tongues. So these commands are a wise and gracious gift from God to us, particularly when we are experiencing trials and suffering.
But the failure of the original readers to listen to each other is actually symptomatic of a deeper concern James has for them, a concern they aren’t humbly listening to God speak to them through his word. And it is this concern he addresses beginning in verse 21. And it is this concern I addressed in the sermon this past Sunday.
¹Steven Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, 21.