Yesterday, Cara started our series on James for the month of September. You can hear her message here (Sept. 1, 2019). Today I’m going to reflect on how a combination of anger and an unchecked tongue can poison a Christian life. James talks about the great danger of both anger and loose tongues. In the last part of the chapter (vv. 19-27), we can see what drives the poisoning.
Quick To Listen, Slow To Speak, Slow To Anger
James is very insightful to advise Christians to listen before speaking and having angry reactions to things. First off, listening is an essential part of growing and maturing. A simple cursory visit to social media sites and many news networks shows the effects of people who are definitely not slow to speak and slow to anger. The base impulses of humans are to react. Have you ever noticed that often those who have the strongest opinions on things are those who are least informed about the subject? It’s because they don’t listen to the whole story, don’t weigh the whole evidence, and don’t wrestle with the merits and deficiencies.
James advises Christians to do the exact opposite. He tells us to be eager (quick) to listen and learn. The result is that when we do speak, it is more informed, and less reactionary. Uninformed reactions produce nothing of positive lasting quality.
Reacting, even to painful circumstances, can only yield destruction. In order to make things better, well-thought out planning and consideration is required. Without the virtues of listening and learning, reactions bring death and destruction.
So where does anger fit into this? The psychological community has for some time now shown that anger is a secondary emotion. It is a mask that covers more vulnerable emotions. For James addressing the Christian, reacting in anger is contrary to the Gospel. “Human anger cannot produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Since anger is a secondary emotion, words and actions stemming from anger are rooted in an unexamined life. As even the pagan Greeks knew, self-awareness is a core pillar to the virtuous life and is summed up in the phrase “Know Thyself.” If anger is secondary, that means there is a deeper layer hidden by angry reactions and words. That deeper layer is a layer of vulnerability that many are not willing to acknowledge. Yet James calls us to just that. Believers are to examine themselves and know themselves. That is largely achieved by listening: listening to wise men, listening to those who know us, listening to our own inner dialogue, listening to God’s word.
Don’t Just Listen, Do the Word
This exhortation from James takes the discipline of listening into greater self-responsibility. It is not enough to be able to hear what the Bible instructs. It is important to let the content enter our thought patterns and change our minds and behaviors. This is where we find the evidence of the first point: quick to listen, slow to speak and anger. When we are actively “doing” the word (a.k.a. God’s perfect law), we will become more self-aware. We will begin to acknowledge the vulnerable emotions that we mask with anger. We will be able to take great strides in addressing more accurately and appropriately what causes us to feel those vulnerable and angry emotions. As can so accurately be said of anything that holds us back from greater union with God, “Identify and Crucify.” When we know what thought patterns, habits, actions, and attitudes prevent a union with God, we are better equipped to remove them from ourselves (crucify.).
James likens God’s word to a mirror. When we just listen, we’ll get a glimpse of what we look like, but it never sticks–so we forget what we look like. We forget our values. We forget our godliness. We forget our identity in Christ. When we do what the word instructs, we work ourselves free from all hindrances. (Holy Spirit has a huge integral role in this.). Doing the word is the best and most accurate way to become self-aware. The blessings from God come as a result of us realizing our identity in Christ through the active process of living by his word. This leads us to freedom from worldly hindrances and into the goodness of God.
Believers Who Don’t Guard Their Tongue Have a Worthless Belief System
One of the core factors for James in becoming like God and reflecting his goodness by living according to his word is related to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus taught that the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6:45). The issue of the tongue then becomes a litmus test for what is inside the heart. Does vile filth come out of a person’s mouth? Do they descend into a litany of vulgarities? Do they speak of other believers in condescension, yet match them in ungodly behavior?
According to James, anyone talking a great deal about the Bible and Biblical living, yet does not match that in their regular habits and words, holds a pretty worthless faith. They aren’t being redeemed, they’re being deceived. Oh how sad it is to be so close to the words of God’s salvation in mind, yet so far away in heart.
Between Jesus and James, real believers can be identified in both word and deed. How we act is a clear indicator of where our faith it. And so is how we speak. Examine both the words and deeds, and you reveal the soul of someone.
So James leaves each Christian with three challenges.
- We ought to listen and learn above all else. We ought to carry our knowledge and understanding with great humility. This means being careful when we have strong reactions to things. When we find ourselves angered, we are called to examine why something made us angry. As a secondary emotion, something else is going on deep inside that is important to uncover by examining ourselves.
- We ought to practice what we preach. It isn’t enough to “know” the word of God and the Gospel message. For it to do us any good, we must embody the teaching in our actions, thoughts, and attitudes. We are to live an examined life where the plumbline is the word of God.
- We ought to beware of the words coming out of our mouths. If we’re spilling out filth and constantly seeing the negative of things, we know what our hearts are filled with. For our redemption to be realized, that has to change. We have to start repenting and taking those thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). When our words and action consistently reflect the teachings of Jesus, then we will know that our redemption is taking root and we can progress into the likeness of Christ.
Anger and speech can and will poison a Christian. When we act out of anger, we are avoiding deeper truths about ourselves by wearing a mask of anger. That anger leads us away from godly character and transformation. Similarly, when we are not careful with our tongues, we allow unexamined thoughts and attitudes to flow through us. The mouth speaks from the fullness of the heart. If we’re speaking negatively towards people and God, our hearts are already full of barriers to union with God. If the negative fullness of our hearts and the reactions from the masking emotion of anger aren’t held in check and combatted, they will become a poison to our souls and to our salvation. We keep those in check by aligning our minds and actions to the teachings of God’s word. That will lead us to freedom from these poisons and fill our lives with blessings.
Thanks for reading this week’s Pastor Blog. I hope it helps you in this coming week to better experience our Lord’s