Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow is the tempo for the Foxtrot. A tempo or rhythm is meant to produce harmony of movement and performance on the dance floor. What then is the tempo for spiritual harmony? James here presents us with a new rhythm designed to produce God’s righteousness and peace in the life of believers in Jesus Christ. The spiritual rhythm of quick, slow, slow, is a Holy Spirit rhythm between believer and believer and for the believer when living out the gospel to a disbelieving world. James is building on Old Testament wisdom and applying it to the contemporary church i.e. ‘Whoever derides their neighbour has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue;’ Proverbs 11:12 and, ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.’ Proverbs 15:1
James’ words are not just good advice that can be taken or left without significant consequence. They are fundamental to living according to God’s righteousness. ‘Righteousness’ here means conducting one’s own life by the will of God, according to his standards. It is a matter of obedience. God’s standards apply to all believers, note James’ use of the word everyone, but they especially apply to those with Christian leadership responsibilities.
Failure to both listen and speak appropriately can quickly cause substantial, even life long harm. There are multiple examples of people who have given up on their faith or church attendance where they have felt they have not been understood or they have been put down or been subject to another believer’s temper. Life long friendship can be fractured in one quick short tempered exchange. Enquirers after Christ have given up their search for Jesus because they have only been spoken at and not heard. Witnesses to falling out between believers have rejected Christ because Christians are, ‘no different to anybody else.’ Churches have split and died because church leaders have failed to communicate with the grace God has provided. James describes the inability to listen and speak wisely and with the love of Jesus as, ‘moral filth’. v21 It really is something that all Christians should take seriously and not just pass off as, “how that person is”. We should make the practice of listening carefully, carefulness in speech and self control over anger priorities for church leadership.
Quick to listen – Firstly one should be quick to listen to the word of God through the scriptures. It is there he speaks the most frequently, completely and clearly. His words give birth to and shape the believer. Listening is not necessarily what comes naturally as our first instinct, especially when tensions are high and we are in conflict. Listening is far more than hearing the opening statement by someone, it is a careful process that usually requires clarification. For quality listening to take place we have to control our own speech. We may need to repeat the process of listening to more fully understand. We may have to put aside our initial assumptions. Listening carefully is a fundamental aspect of a church’s safeguarding culture. Countless vulnerable people, in our churches as well as in wider society, of all forms, have remained silent because they have not believed they will be heard appropriately.
Slow to speak – The evangelical church (I use the term in its widest sense) is based on a culture of preaching. The risk in being quick to preach is that it can prevent wise reflection taking place first. Being quick to listen has the effect of delaying our speech. Humility helps us consider who in any particular situation is the best person to speak. Once more this a fundamental principle of safeguarding, to not go beyond our expertise in a case of serious need. Being slow to speak and even taking the time to consult wise Christians, may well aid us in bringing God’s righteousness and mercy to bear on a situation which otherwise would have produced bad rather than good.
Human anger – as meant by James v20 is, “quick tempered, selfish, showing a lack in trust in God and a lack of love for others. Even when directed against wrongdoing anger cannot change another person’s heart. Thus, it does not produce the righteousness of God.” (ESV Global Study Bible)
Have you observed yourself when speaking and listening and asked, ‘Has that produced the righteousness of God?’
Do you pray for your church leaders that they will listen and speak wisely, formed by the word of God?
I’m Listening – Chris McClarney