“Know this, my beloved brothers; let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” James 1:19-20
“But the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” James 3:17
I am a journalist by trade. I made my living as a professional writer for many years. As a writer I understand the beauty and impact of words. As a follower of Christ, I recognize the weight and life-giving, and life-depleting, power of words. Words are essential to communicate, to encourage, to speak truth, to understand. Lately, I’ve become weary of words. In this strange season there are so.many.words. So many people sharing their opinions or observations on what’s happening in the broken world around us. Some words are beneficial. Some are just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
I was scrolling through social media recently and my heart was so overcome by all the words. The long posts with mostly well-intentioned stories or encouragement or honest expressions of shock or fear, or sometimes verbal tirades of anger and vengeance and ignorance. It’s a lot. I should’ve just immediately hopped off the Facebook and read a good book, and I did, for a time. I prayed. Talking to the King much about the state of the world. I don’t want to be like the overly optimistic Count Rostov in War and Peace who pretends all is well as his house slowly falls apart. I kept asking God what to do. How can I be a peacemaker? How can I be an accurate ambassador of the love of God? How can I point people to Jesus, the one who rescues and redeems this broken world?
These words from James kept coming back up in my Spirit. James lived in an incredibly volatile world. We think our world is violent and depraved and irrational and deplorable. The Roman world, and in particular the world of the early Jewish believers most Biblical historians believe James is writing to, is exponentially more violent and depraved and overwhelmed with persecution and misunderstanding. Historically, most experts agree James was written to encourage Jewish believers who had just experienced the first church diaspora after the stoning of Stephen. They endured the violent, murderous persecution of the Jewish religious officials under the leadership of the Sanhedrin. After Stephen’s stoning in Acts 8 we read about the church scattering from Jerusalem throughout Judea and Samaria.
James knew the violence and hatred these Jewish believers were going to face. He was giving them clear direction on how to behave as followers of Christ in a difficult circumstance where they were likely to be criticized and condemned. Thus, his first mandate to “count it all joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.” The joy is not in the circumstance itself, but in the growing and maturing that will come because of the difficulty. James doesn’t just leave us with exhortation to watch what God is doing in our souls and spirits during hard times, he also gives us, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, practical counsel in handling opposition. This counsel, wrapped up in the love of Christ, is invaluable in diffusing hatred and bringing life and peace.
Be quick to listen. When I was so frustrated with all the words on social media and stepped away for a bit, I kept asking the Lord if those words were beneficial. Was I missing something? Most of the time it seems as if all those words hurt rather than heal. He kept whispering to me, “Michele, people need to be heard.”
And they do. I do. I want to be heard. One of my biggest pet peeves is for someone to continually lose eye contact while I’m speaking to them. They aren’t listening to a word I’m saying because they are constantly distracted by something in the room, their phone, a noise from outside. My husband is the world’s worst at distractions. I often have to gently remind him how much it genuinely hurts when he doesn’t pay attention when I’m talking.
Listening is one of the most beautiful and profound ways you can show someone you love them. Not only listening to their words, but to their nonverbal communication. Because not being heard has always been such a frustration for me, the Lord, through His Holy Spirit, has turned that inside out in my life. I work extra hard to make sure I really listen to people around me. Admittedly, I’m not always very good at it. Listening intentionally should be hard work if you do it well. But I’ve found that listening well is loving well, and love covers a multitude of sins. Misunderstandings, presumptions, and assumptions are often at the root of conflict, and, the vast majority of the time it’s because we didn’t take time to listen without bias, without judgment.
Slow to speak. As much as I love words, I have found as I get older, that I weigh my words very, very carefully. I’m not as flippant as I once was. I’m more cautious. Which makes me guilty of sometimes not addressing a situation in a timely manner. But I’m learning I’d rather be guilty of too much quietness, than speak rashly. And that’s where James’s words from chapter 3 are so essential and so often overlooked.
Even though we should be slow to speak, there will come a time when you need to speak. When that time comes, be sure you seek to speak with the wisdom that comes from above. James tells us in James 1:5 to ask God for wisdom. Then he tells us in chapter 3 what godly wisdom looks like. I’m slowly learning that before I speak on any subject, as a wife, mom, friend, teacher, I need to go back to James 3 and check myself.
Are my motives pure?
Will my words bring peace or spark conflict?
Am I presenting my words with gentleness and compassion?
Have I heard all sides of the issues? Am I listening with my mind, heart, and soul and sifting those through the Holy Spirit and the Word? Am I being reasonable?
Am I remembering to be merciful? Am I listening with grace-filled ears?
Am I asking the Lord to clear out any bias that might distract me from being impartial?
Am I sincerely looking for an opportunity to love like Jesus through this conflict? Am I being honest with God, honest with myself, and honest with those around me?
James does a beautiful job connecting wisdom and listening. Not just listening to others, but listening to the Holy Spirit. If we want to speak truth that will be heard and make an eternal impact in a troubling, divisive, potentially destructive circumstance, we need to start by listening. Truly listening. When it comes to controversial issues, the ultimate goal is not to continue sharing our words, but to point others to the Word. The Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word that changes everything. The love that changes everything. Only He is the One who can bring peace and restore hope. If we want others to listen as we speak about our eternal hope, we must first seek to listen. Listening well is loving well.