A wise saying is something that paints the truth with a clarity that cannot be missed but is also stated with a freshness that grabs our attention. There are books and websites devoted to collections of wise sayings. Listen to a few.
The greatest use of a life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.–Anonymous
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.–Anonymous
- The last great freedom of man is the freedom to choose his attitude under any given set of circumstances.–Victor Frankl, Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
- We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain kind. –C.S. Lewis
This morning we come upon one of those wise sayings. It is a sentence that if grasped and applied will transform our lives and change every relationship. The words were originally addressed to people who were going through tough times. To these people James said, “everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” What good advice! It is advice that applies not only to the tough times of life but also to daily living.
Let’s look at the three parts of the command. These commands are written in Greek in a way that means we are to keep on knowing and keep on being (quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to become angry). In other words the principle given here is not something we learn one day and move on. It is something we must continually practice.
Be Quick to Hear The command involves listening and hearing. Have you ever had the experience with your children (or spouse, or co-worker) where you knew they were quiet while you were talking but they were not listening? It happens all the time (often when the Pastor is talking!). True hearing involves registering what is said and paying attention to it.
As you read through the book of Proverbs (a book filled with wise sayings) we see this same advice,
- Pr 12:15 “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.”
- Pr. 15:31 “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise”
When we fail to listen, several things happen:
- We become unteachable. If we refuse to listen we will end up having to learn everything the hard way . . . by making painful mistakes. This is especially true when it comes to the Word of God. If we will not listen to what God is telling us we will end up in sin and misery. How many have said, “I wish I has listened to my parents or to my teachers?”
- We draw faulty conclusions. We are prone to draw conclusions about people or situations without all the information. Often those conclusions are wrong and unfair.
- We miss out on the treasure of other people. People are fascinating and everyone has a story that impacts the way they live their lives. Everyone has learned something valuable in their journey. If we take the time to listen we will gain a depth of understanding which can be found no other way.
Listening involves hearing not only what is said, but also how something is said. This is sometimes called, “active listening”. It is listening with both your ears and your eyes. I have learned that in a counseling situation I learn can get more accurate information from non-verbal communication than from the words that are said. The tear in the eye, the shaking of a head, the clenched fist, the tight lips, the wandering eyes or that look of surprise that says something has just registered with a person, communicates a great deal. If we are not paying attention to what is happening non-verbally we are not really listening.
Let’s face it, sometimes we consciously try to communicate non-verbally. Often it is when someone is droning on and on about something. We look away (as if to say, “my mind is elsewhere or . . .I’m on information overload”), we glance at our watch (as if to say, “how long have you been talking?”), we fidget in our seat (saying, “I would really like to get out of here”), we take a step back (saying “you are invading my space”) or we move toward the door (trying to say “it is time for one of us to leave . . .I don’t care which of us it is”). Think about how frustrated we are when people don’t pick up on these things. The point is that listening involves not just our ears but also our eyes.
To listen effectively we need to clarifying questions. Questions like, “Are you saying . . .?“ or “Would you define what you mean when you say . . . ?” or even “What did you do next?” Questions are part of the listening process.
Personally, I think most of us understand that we should listen. The question is: “Why do we so often fail to listen?” I have a few suggestions.
- We are impatient. We are unwilling to take the necessary time to listen. (Think of the husband who is trying to listen to his wife during a commercial of a sporting event or a husband trying to talk to his wife (it happens!) during a movie).
- We want the spotlight. We want to be the center of attention.
- We do not respect others. Sometimes we don’t listen because we don’t feel the other person has anything of value to say. Sometimes adults are guilty of not listening to children (or vise versa) because we have concluded the other person has nothing to add to our understanding. Sometimes adults fail to listen to senior citizens because we believe they have lost touch with reality.
- We want to impress others. We want so desperately to prove how smart, qualified, and witty we are that we fail to listen.
- We HAVE to be right. Sometimes we don’t listen because we really don’t care about the truth. It’s that idea of “don’t confuse me with the facts”. Our desire is to get a person agree with our opinion.
The person who is a good listener will often have many friends because a person who listens is a rare treasure.
Slow to Speak. Being a good listener and being slow to speak go hand in hand. We cannot listen if we are already talking. We will always learn more if we keep silent. We will never say the “wrong thing” if we remain silent. We have all said things that hurt another or made a situation worse. We may say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean what I said” but the words have already done damage. Think about kids playing baseball in the yard and someone hits the ball through a window. You may not have meant to hit the ball through the window but the glass is still broken.
We gain instruction once again from Proverbs,
Pr. 13:3 He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.
Pr. 10:19 When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.
Pr. 18:13 He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.
Pr. 17:27 A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.
Pr 17:28 “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”
Pr. 29:20 Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
Jesus told us that we will give an account on the last day for every careless word. (Mt. 12:36). That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Before we speak we should always make sure we understand the issue, we are saying what is appropriate, and we are saying what is helpful.
The point is clear: words should be used carefully. Words have the power to build up or destroy; to enlighten or exasperate; to build bridges or blow them up. Words can lead people in the right direction or can lead them in the wrong direction. Words can scar people for life. Think about people who have spent their lives haunted because they have come to believe others who told them they were stupid, chubby, ugly, untalented, or worthless. Our words matter. We should be careful in how we use them.
Now this is not to say that we should never speak up. We do need to speak up when wrong is being done. We need to speak up and tell people about Christ lest they perish eternally. We must confront the faulty reasoning of the world. However, we should respond thoughtfully and carefully. Peter tells us,
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 1 Peter 3:15-16
Slow to Become Angry If we will listen carefully and thoroughly and speak cautiously, we will find it much easier to keep our cool. Angry words generally are words that we later regret. Listen to Solomon again,
- Pr. 14:29 A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly.
- Pr 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
- Pr 22:24-25 Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.
- Pr 16:32 Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.
In Ephesians 4:27 Paul tells us that anger gives the Devil a foothold in our lives.
There are times we should be angry. We are to be angry at injustice and sin. Jesus was angry at the money changers because of the way they compromised the temple (and thus God’s honor) Paul tells us to “be angry, but don’t sin.” We call this righteous anger. Author Jerry Bridges gives two characteristics of righteous anger,
Righteous anger arises from an accurate perception of true evil – that is a violation of God’s moral law. It focuses on God and His will, not on me and my will. Second, righteous anger is always self-controlled. It never causes one to lose his temper or retaliate in some vengeful way… The fact that we may be reacting to another person’s real sin does not necessarily make our anger righteous. We are likely more concerned with the negative impact of the sinful actions on us than we are that it is a violation of God’s law.
Most of our anger is NOT righteous anger. Common anger is destructive because,
- It generally makes matters worse instead of better. I have discovered that I have much better success with people when I speak with kindness and understanding rather than with anger. When we become angry we challenge the other person to a contest of strength.
- Anger inflicts wounds that take a long time to heal. Even after time has healed the wounds, the scars from angry words remain.
- Anger can lead to long term feelings of resentment, bitterness, an unwillingness to forgive, and can create a sour spirit. Anger can poison our lives and undermine our relationships.
- Anger separates people and creates a barrier between us and the peace of God.
Anger is generally a reaction. Too often it is an impulsive reaction. James calls us to think and listen before we react so we don’t react destructively.
A Good Reason
James explains why we should follow this advice. “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” In other words, losing our temper, being harsh, nursing a grudge, failing to listen . . . are all things that short-circuit our spiritual growth.
This of course is the opposite of the way the world thinks. The world encourages us to gain an advantage through intimidation. Raise your voice. Be sarcastic. Use physical force. Threaten to sue. Engage in public humiliation. Think about how many times you hear people brag about how they “told someone off”.
The Bible wants us to see that such tactics may win a battle, but they often cause you to lose the war. I was reading just this week that one of the causes of World War II was the fact that the victors in World War I sought to use the victory to humiliate Germany. The resentment led to World War II.
The tactics of the world undermine our Christian witness. The Christian who is red-faced, and pointing at others with a clenched fist communicates that they don’t really believe the message of love they say they proclaim. The Christian who fails to listen to the heartache or questions of another show that they really are not concerned with the person, they are only concerned about getting “converts”.
James continues and gives us a strategy. He says, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
The phrase, “get rid of all moral filth” conveys the picture of a person taking off soiled clothes. Many homes have what is called a “mud room”. The whole purpose of the room is to have a place where you can get rid of the dirt before you come into the home. James is telling us that before we can move forward in our faith we have to deal with the behaviors that have stained our soul and our lives.
It is not enough to nod as we listen to these words, it’s not enough to admire their wisdom; it’s not enough to underline them, memorize them, or put them on a plaque on our wall. James says we need to take action. We need to aggressively work to change our behavior. We need to stop destructive behavior. We need to work at listening, we need to work at choosing our words and we must be controlled in our anger.
In addition, James tells us to humbly let God bring about real change in our lives. Let’s draw an analogy. If you have a physical problem you might go to a surgeon to correct that problem. The surgeon can do what you cannot do by yourself. When you are wheeled in to surgery you are trusting the surgeon to fix you.
In some respects James is telling us to do the same thing. We must recognize the seriousness of the problem. We must seek God’s help in overcoming our self-centeredness, our indifference, and our aggressive ways with others. We must trust God to change our heart. The first step is to trust God to forgive us and make us new through the work of Christ. However, this surrender is not a one-time thing. We must continually renew this trust in the ability of God to change us.
Continue the analogy with me. Once the surgery is finished and the problem is repaired you will be given instructions for how to heal fully. You may be given exercises or told to limit your activity for a certain period of time. Some of those instructions may seem counterintuitive such as when you are told to exercise your knee and you discover that doing so hurts. Your job is to humbly submit to the instructions of the surgeon. Your job is to follow the instructions. If you do, you will heal fully. If you don’t follow the instruction you will may be cured of the problem but you will risk complications or have to live with limitations.
In a similar vein, God gives us a new heart when we come to Christ, and then gives us instructions on how to live that life in the pages of the Bible. If we want to be truly transformed we need to not only trust the work of the surgeon (the Holy Spirit). . . we must humbly follow the directions He gives us in the Bible.
This counsel from James is life-changing. I encourage you to memorize these verses. Review them daily. Commit yourself to putting into practice these principles. Make it a point to listen carefully to others. You may want to do what one of Rick’s friends did and spend one day focused on simply listening. You will be surprised at what you learn.
Determine to SEE other people. Observe their non-verbal messages. Try to see their perspective. Learn their stories. Try to understand their struggles. See their point of view. Resist jumping to premature conclusions.
Apply these truths in your relationship with God. Make time during your prayer time to listen. Listen to His Word and listen to the whispers and promptings of God’s Spirit. Instead of trying to intimidate God (that even sounds stupid, doesn’t it?) humbly submit to His commands. Instead of fighting God . . . trust Him. Agree to try things His way.
If we heed this counsel from James we will grow in our relationship with God. We will have stronger relationships with each other. We will enjoy life more fully because we will start to see beyond the narrow focus of our own little world.
If we take the advice of James we will most likely sleep better. We’ll smile more. But most of all we will represent our blessed Savior more effectively and as a consequence we will be used by God as an agent of His grace.