…everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. – James 1:19-20
Make haste to listen. Be reluctant to speak. That means, I think, not that we should never speak, but rather when we do, our speech is enriched by much listening, making it meaningful. The opposite is reluctant to hear, hastening to speak, which is the style of the angry man.
Anger achieves nothing, at least in the way of the righteousness of God. Anger produces much speech, but it’s worthless speech, because, among other things, it hasn’t heard anything, and is, I suppose, shallow, misdirected, irrelevant, and by common appraisal, not worth listening to.
We live in a slow-hearing, quick speaking age. It’s the age of social media – the speech must pour forth like a river, lest the speaker run the risk of disappearing into the long-forgotten archives of 24 hours ago. And the speech is of necessity immediate, because you need to speak about something, and the only thing anyone pays attention to in our age is what’s grabbing our collective attention today. Speak tomorrow, and it’ll be irrelevant.
But immediate speech is connected with, as James suggests, angry speech. It’s angry because it’s reactionary – all too often our first reaction to a real or perceived threat (to our doctrine, our politics, our favorite author, etc.) is anger. How dare they speak that way? And before we’re done listening, we react and start speaking, not from ears that are filled with ready listening, but hearts that are enlivened with uninformed passion. Listening, even to something that stirs our emotions, then pondering it, swallowing those first words that come to mind, and “sleeping on it” gives passionate, reactive anger time to pass, allowing the mind to more clearly reason, making the subsequent speech less angry, more valuable in terms of substance, and therefore more useful, ideally useful in the sense that it may “achieve the righteousness of God.”
Immediate speech is angry because, well, let me say it this way, it’s angry because the logic is often so poor that for the speech to have any power, it needs to supplement with force of emotion what it lacks by force of reason. I was recently reminded of that proverbial pastor whose sermon notes contained the phrase, “weak point, speak louder.” Anger needs little logic, because the angry man can rarely be considered reasonable. Irrational and angry often go hand in hand. If you’re going to speak like a madman, better to shut up and wait till the insanity passes, so your words may be the words of a man in his right mind. The words of a madman, however literally we understand that title, “achieve” no “righteousness,” but are, to poach a line, “cast out and trodden under foot of men.”
Immediate speech is ill-informed too. There’s a reason James says “be quick to hear.” Everyone has an opinion; I’m convinced by at least two examples that most opinions are rather ill-informed.
Example #1 – Sexual ethics. Jump in the time machine and go back 30 years and ask any professing Christian if homosexuality is an offense in the eyes of God. I’m guessing the percentage of “ayes” runs 90% and higher. Ask that same question today, and that percentage is dropping every day. When I was a boy, I would never have imagined the church would have any debate over the virtue of gay sex. Everyone knew it was a vile thing. And the text of Scripture, it seemed backed that up rather plainly.
Yet here we are today, and one denomination after another, one Christian celebrity after another, is embracing the LGBT agenda as at least potentially God-honoring and Christ-exalting. My question is: How does this happen? There’s nothing more obvious in all the moral code than God’s prohibitions on all sex, save between a husband and a wife within the bonds of marriage. Yet professing Christians are losing the argument. Which must seem, to the Christians of the last generation, about as unthinkable as the idea that someday Christians might start embracing a round of golf as equivalent to baptism, or that communion might be served with beer and sausages. It just couldn’t happen.
Why? Here’s my hypothesis: We’ve been slow to hear and quick to speak. We heard people living a gay lifestyle say “I’m gay,” and said, “No you’re not, you just think you are,” or “you just choose to be.” We didn’t hear them say, “I have no desire to be married to a member of the opposite gender, none in the least.” Some Christians held “straightening out” seminars and counseling centers, and rather than listen, learn, and think, we spoke. Some just got angry – hellfire and brimstone preaching made a brief comeback as the portrayal of Sodom and Gomorrah was relived with HD clarity. Speech, speech, and more speech. But we didn’t listen, we didn’t think, and when we spoke, the sexual revolution found our speech angry, shallow, and entirely unhelpful. We appealed to the Supreme Court, pinning our hopes on a dear lady from Kentucky who had professed to be a believer for less than 3 years, and whose primary counsellor was Mike Huckabee. Shallow speech? Perhaps. At any rate, it didn’t “achieve righteousness.”
Example #2, the last presidential election. Don’t kill babies. Christians vote against abortion. Republicans are against abortion. Vote Republican. That’s easy; it doesn’t get any simpler. It’s always been that way. Until Donald Trump won the nomination. Then – my how the speech poured forth! Christians found themselves stuck in a moral quandary of epic proportions! Facebook doubtless owns an entire acre of servers filled with political speech just from the Christians. They started talking. Not listening, by and large, just talking, and talking fast, and talking as though the whole weight of God’s authority rested on their words. I read articles that were described as “gospel saturated” in favor of voting for Hillary Clinton, I read arguments that said implicitly and even explicitly, that a vote for Trump was an indication that said voter was not regenerate, and I read all the angry backlash – how could a believer vote for her and effectively (so the presumption goes) condone the wanton slaughter of the most defenseless? I read how a vote for Trump was the only way to save the babies, the only way to save the Court, and I even read one well-meaning article on a popular news site that found in him the fulfillment of 1 Thess. 4:16 in the KJV – “the trump of God.” No joke. I read a line of argument that our primary responsibility as Christians is to love God, like unto that is loving neighbor, your neighbor is an unborn child, therefore loving God is voting for Trump. Of course, the logic took a turn when the neighbor was a Muslim, and therefore voting Trump was hating your neighbor, thus hating God. And on and on it went.
And then the third party people – standing high on their self-constructed moral platform, proudly voting for someone who would “achieve” (if we could import that word here – it may be a stretch!) nothing, because there was no chance of this person winning. But – Jesus was doubtless more well pleased with them because they didn’t vote for baby butchery, bribery, corruption, misogyny, xenophobia, grabbing women, and who knows what other debaucheries ought to be listed, but rather, presumably, for someone with the purity and wisdom of Jesus Himself – for all corruption indeed rested in only two people in the nation.
Now I’m not wanting to condemn those who wrestled through these things – indeed I, like all of us did. But I am questioning turning the ill-formed thoughts and poorly constructed moral arguments into speech, which became conversation, which became, almost inevitably, tinged with anger, and at the end of the day, achieved no righteousness.
I think in retrospect we might find ourselves rather ashamed of our fear, anger, and use of shallow, immediate reasoning to try to anchor our voting strategies, whatever they were, in some sort of Biblical principle, when in fact we just didn’t listen, talked much, and found that, at the end of the day, nobody was listening, and it wasn’t worth listening to anyway.
The aftermath has been intriguing to watch – some jubilant, some despondent. Some feel perhaps like I felt 8 years ago – the world is over, sell what you can and buy Spam and bullets! Some feel that Divine judgment has been averted.
Here’s my point – This election was complicated, and as it unfolded, I’ve watched a lot of speech being poured out. And I say that as someone who can’t have a Facebook account or I’ll go to hell (my interpretation of John 5:44. This blog may also be my undoing, as my quest for the glory that comes from men is as unquenchable as it is shameful). But as I read the blogs and peeked over my wife’s Facebook (am I therefore a hypocrite? Probably!), it seems to me that so much of the Christian speech was rather shallow, immediate, and reactionary. Precious little is worth precious little. In all likelihood, I think we’ll look back and be ashamed at ourselves for our quickness to speak, considering the little righteousness it all achieved. I hope that doesn’t come off condescending, I’m trying to be objective. For my part, I never managed to formulate an opinion in favor of a candidate that I held dearly enough to test it in those shark-filled waters.
And thus, here’s my plea, or rather, so far as I can glean it, James’ plea, which is in fact the Holy Spirit’s plea. Speed up your hearing. Slow down your talking. I was chatting with Eric Anderson as we discussed one almost universally know Pastor’s thoughts on the events of the day, and Eric summarized it this way: He’s usually the last one to say anything, but when he speaks, he’s almost always the best.
Life is moving really fast. The conversation, it seems, happens at the speed of light. Last month it was homosexuality. Last week it was racism and Black Lives Matter. Yesterday it was the election. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Listen longer, speak slower, so when you do speak, it actually means something. Blog less – for heaven’s sake Christian blogs, especially those concerned with commenting on the daily infatuation of the news cycle, or the “discernment” guys that need a new, more shocking victim to keep your readership up, please blog less, because the incessant drive to crank out articles is producing material that may be incredibly relevant, being written so rapidly, but is unbelievably shallow, often angry, and is, at the end of the day, not worth, as someone once said, the digital paper it isn’t printed on. Think more, hear more, speak less, so that when you do, you might actually achieve righteousness.
I get it – people are interested in the hot topics of the day, and there’s an audience to be found if we address them while they’re still hot. But I often ask myself, especially when I’m about to exercise that most significant of all speech – the sermon – “could someone listen to this 20 years from now and find it just as useful then as now?” It’s not so much that I’m interested in the guy 20 years from now, but rather this: truth is timeless, and the best speech is filled with timeless truth. But truth takes time to mine up, polish, present, and apply. We can’t be sloppy with it, or we’ll find we’ve just wasted a lot of words. We needn’t be enslaved by the overpowering temptation to be the first to speak, and thus gather those itching ears looking to hear some new thing. God help us speed up our hearing, and slow down our speech.