Listen More, Talk Less, Calm Down

James 1:19-20

July 21, 2015 | Ray Pritchard

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We live in a time of information explosion.

I read recently that over 100 billion emails are sent each day. That’s more than ten times the population of the whole world. Each day 5000 new books are published. This year the number of text messages will exceed 6 trillion.

If we take the year Christ was born as our starting point, it took 1500 years for all the knowledge in the world to double. The next doubling took only 250 years. It doubled again in 150 years. By the end of World War II, knowledge doubled every 25 years. Today knowledge is doubling every 12 months.

No wonder we can’t keep up.

According to Stephen Davey, “If you happen to read the New York Times newspaper for one week, you will be exposed to more information than the average person, living in the 1800‘s, came across in their entire lifetime.” (From the message “Tutored by Truth.”)

We are being swamped by a tidal wave of information that pours in 24/7/365. The whole world is now “live” and in “real-time.” Stories change every few minutes, and the screen you’re watching may have an anchor reading a story with an image to the right, a sidebar to the left, with a screen crawl at the top and another at the bottom so that you’re following five different information sources at the same time on the same screen.

We are easily distracted

o wonder we are easily distracted. We look without seeing, we listen without hearing, and we speak without understanding. We are a wired up, tuned in, hyper-caffeinated generation. Some years ago Bob Moorehouse wrote an essay called The Paradox of Our Time. Here’s a brief excerpt:

We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life.
We’ve added years to life not life to years.

We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor.

We conquered outer space but not inner space.
We’ve done larger things, but not better things.

Every part of that seems very true, but I was especially drawn to this sentence: “We’ve conquered outer space but not inner space.” Everything we build is bigger, stronger, faster, and larger. We’ve come a long way in a short time. The engine of human progress hums right along. We send men to the moon, satellites into orbit, and radio waves to the stars. But inner space is another matter. We’re not even close to conquering that. The human heart seems as unruly as ever.

My Greatest Challenge

If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that the real battles of life are inside, not outside. My greatest challenge is the man in the mirror. When I say that the human heart is unruly, I’m not talking about yours.

I’m talking about mine.

What we are on the inside matters more than what happens on the outside. That’s where the little book of James becomes incredibly relevant. This epistle, written 2000 years ago to beleaguered, scattered, oppressed Jewish believers who were just barely hanging on to their faith, speaks with amazing clarity to life in the 21st-century. James wants us to discover the freedom that comes when we respond the right way to the pressures of life.

We look without seeing, we listen without hearing, and we speak without understanding

James 1:19-20 specifically answers the question, How do you respond properly when the heat is on, the pressure is building, and you are about to lose it? Pay close attention to his answer:

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

These verses appear simple, but putting them into practice is a daily challenge. Let’s focus on the three basic commands James gives us.

I. Listen More

“Be quick to hear” (James 1:19a).

Wisdom begins when we listen more and talk less. In context, this sort of listening starts by paying attention to what God has said in his Word. In the first century, believers didn’t have all the advantages we have. They didn’t have printed copies of the New Testament. For that matter, if James was indeed the first book of the New Testament, they couldn’t read Romans because it hadn’t been written yet. Likewise for all four gospels, the book of Acts, the rest of the epistles, and the book of Revelation. They didn’t have the Bible on a smartphone app so they could read it wherever they went. For the most part, hearing the Word meant meeting with other believers and listening to the Word being taught. It meant hearing, memorizing and then meditating on what you had heard.

Wisdom begins when we listen more and talk less

I sometimes think our modern technology has made it so easy to hear the Word that we hardly hear it at all. When I look at my iPhone, I see tons of apps, all of them brimming with information that flows in 24 hours a day. I have news apps, email apps, message apps, music apps, and video apps. We have enough online stimulation to keep us occupied round the clock. In the old days (maybe 10 years ago), when you got on an airplane, you might actually chat with the person sitting next to you. That rarely happens nowadays. At the gate and on the plane, you see people with their heads down, looking at their smartphones, or apparently talking to themselves (though they are actually on the phone).

A heinous crime paid an impossible debt

I wonder who is better off, the first-century believers who had almost no copies of the Word or 21st-century believers who have the Bible at our fingertips. No one would trade our technology for life 2000 years ago, but I will say this. Technology is useless (and even dangerous) if we are so busy and so distracted that we are not “quick to hear” what God is saying to us.

This principle applies in every area of life. Some people talk so much that they never hear what anyone else says. A few days ago Marlene and I read Proverbs 8 together. In that chapter wisdom is personified as a woman speaking to the reader:

Wisdom calls (v. 1).
She speaks noble things (v. 6).
Wisdom is better than gold or silver (vv. 10-11).
By wisdom kings reign (v. 15).
God blesses those who walk in wisdom (v. 32).
Wisdom gains favor from the Lord (v. 35).

But no one gains wisdom by chance. Wisdom says, “If you seek me, you will find me.” Are we too busy, too worried, too preoccupied, too distracted (a very modern problem) to seek the wisdom God offers in his Word?

No one gains wisdom by chance

The word translated “quick” was used in a slightly different form in John 20:4 to describe Peter outrunning John to the empty tomb. That’s a helpful picture. We ought to be “outrunning” ourselves to find out what God has to say to us. I have a friend who says that he and his wife have a simple morning rule: “No Bible, no breakfast.” I used to hear that said 40 years ago. Not so much nowadays. I like it as a personal habit to adopt.

We would all be better off if instead of checking Facebook first thing in the morning, we went running to the Word of God. I can’t make rules for you or for anyone else, but here’s a challenge to think about. Being “quick to hear” doesn’t happen by accident.

We have to plan to hear the Word.
We’re quick to do many things that don’t matter.
Are we quick to listen to the Word of God?

II. Talk Less

“Be slow to speak” (James 1:19b).

Ecclesiastes 5:2 says it this way: “God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” It’s hard to argue with that.

You’re not as smart as you think you are, and neither am I.
You’re not as clever as you think you are, and neither am I.
You’re not as wise as you think you are, and neither am I.

We’re not as smart as we think we are

There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. Most of us are better at the former and not so good at the latter. Proverbs 29:20 has a helpful word about this. “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Ogden Nash put this principle into a neat little rhyme: “To keep your marriage brimming, with love in the loving cup, whenever you’re wrong, admit it. Whenever you’re right, shut up.” It’s so easy to kill a marriage or a friendship with unkind words. How many times have we said something in anger only to regret it a thousand times later?

Let me pause to make an application that I would not have made (or even thought about) 25 years ago. Social media encourages quick feedback. Someone says something we don’t like so without thinking it through, we post a snappy reply, a snarky comment, a clever comeback or a mean-spirited innuendo. Sometimes we are so eager to post our comments that we hit Send and then start chuckling over our cleverness. Here’s a simple piece of advice when you are tempted to do that:

It’s easy to kill a marriage with unkind words

Slow down.
Think about it.

You can delete a foolish comment, but you can’t erase it from the Internet. Once you post it, the record floats in cyberspace forever.

You can’t erase a foolish comment completely

When James says “Be slow to speak,” he is thinking about our tendency to speak when we are angry and frustrated. I’m sure you’ve heard it said: Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret. How true it is. When I was a child, people used to say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s a nice, brave saying, and it works pretty well if you have no feelings. Words hurt far more than sticks and stones, and the wounds they leave take far longer to heal. Unkind words don’t break bones; they break hearts.

III. Calm Down

“Be slow to anger” (James 1:19c).

The translators handle this last command in a variety of ways:

“Slow to anger” (ESV).
“Slow to wrath” (ASV).
“Don’t get worked up into a rage so easily” (Voice).
“Slow to lose his temper” (Phillips).

James is not saying don’t get angry. That’s unrealistic. We’re all going to get angry from time to time. The word translated “anger” actually refers to a deep-seated rage. It doesn’t refer to a passing moment of displeasure which is soon gone and forgotten. No, James is speaking of that deep emotion which, when released, is like a volcano erupting. It spews red-hot lava all over the living room.

Anger is under our control

Anger is under our control. Sometimes we talk of “blowing up” as if it happened against our will. But that’s a cop-out. Anger is an emotion we control. Here’s the proof. Have you ever had an argument with your spouse and the phone rang right in the middle of the argument? You were raising your voice and getting red in the face and then, “Hello, how are you? I’m so glad you called. Goodbye.” You hang the phone up and go at it again. That’s because anger is an emotion you can control.

But notice the progression. If we are quick to hear, we will be slow to speak. But if we are slow to hear, we will doubtless be quick to speak. Quick speaking leads to quick anger. The angrier we get, the faster we speak, and the less we hear.

Quick speaking leads to quick anger

Not long ago I spoke to a group of men who serve the Lord in various leadership positions around the world. I talked to them about the character qualities of a godly man in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. When you study the 25 character qualities and put them in groups, you discover the single largest group involves a man and his anger. As I studied the two lists Paul made, I found 5 of the 25 character qualities unquestionably related to a man and his anger:

Not overbearing – Titus 1:7
Not quarrelsome – 1 Timothy 3:3
Not quick-tempered – Titus 1:7
Not violent – 1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7
Gentle – 1 Timothy 3:3

I reminded the men of Solomon’s wise counsel in Proverbs 16:32, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” But of course we don’t really believe it. Which would you rather be called, a patient man or a warrior? The world rewards the warriors while the patient men change diapers and take out the garbage. It’s not much of a contest.

Jesus didn’t come to make us nicer people. He came to make us new people

Solomon says it is better to control your temper than to “take a city.” We use that military imagery all the time in Christian circles. We talk about taking our cities for Christ and winning America back to God. That sort of talk can lead to some disastrous results:

“I took my city for Christ, but my wife left me.”
“I took my city for God, but my children no longer follow Jesus.”

Would you rather be called a warrior or a patient man?

I think James knew we would have an issue with this third command so he added a reason in verse 20: “For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” The CEV offers this practical warning: “If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done.” Did you ever know a person who was angry all the time? They get up angry, they shower angry, they eat breakfast angry, they go to work angry, they come home angry, they watch TV angry, and they go to bed angry. When they are happy, that makes them angry. Nothing pleases a person like that. Anger leads to jealousy, harsh words, and it can even lead to murder.

That sort of anger can never produce a life pleasing to God.
That sort of anger only destroys; it never builds up.
That sort of anger brings the smell of death with it.

Sorrow and Love Flow Mingled Down

In order to move away from bitterness, anger, and hurtful words, we need to take Ephesians 4:32 to heart:

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

We are to extend grace to others as God has extended grace to us. We who have been showered with God’s grace in Christ are to give to other undeserving sinners the same outpouring of grace. From God to us to others. Grace to us, grace to others. This is God’s plan. We do for others what God has done for us. We have been forgiven; we know what it is like. Now do the same for others. We are not left to wonder what it means to forgive those who have hurt us.

Grace to us, grace to others. This is God’s plan.

You cannot understand God’s love unless you go to the cross.
You cannot understand the cross unless you see in it God’s love.

Man’s murder became God’s sacrifice. A heinous crime paid an impossible debt. Through the death of an innocent man, we the guilty go free. If we had been there, the stench of death would have overwhelmed us, but the cross smelled good to the Father. The work of salvation was finally done:

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love or sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

We need the Lord Jesus living in us

Jesus didn’t come to make us nicer people. He came to make us new people. If you read this sermon and think, “I should try harder to listen more, speak less, and calm down,” that’s a good sentiment, but it misses the point. We need the Lord Jesus living in us. In one of his books, British Bible teacher F. B. Meyer talked about how Christ living in us makes all the difference in the moment of temptation. Meyer said that when he felt himself getting angry or irritable, he asked the Lord for the quality most needed at that moment:

Your patience, Lord Jesus.
Your kindness, Lord Jesus.
Your love, Lord Jesus.
Your courage, Lord Jesus.
Your wisdom, Lord Jesus.
Your joy, Lord Jesus.
Your compassion, Lord Jesus.

If we believe that in Jesus Christ dwells all the fullness of God (and we do), and if we believe Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (and we do), then we may believe that in our lives this week the fullness of Christ, the beauty of Christ, the grace of Christ, the mercy of Christ, the holiness of Christ, and the kindness of Christ may fill us and drive out the evil—the lust, greed, impatience, unbelief, critical spirit, and the angry intolerance that holds us back.

When we are living in Christ and Christ is living in us, then by God’s grace we will be . . .

Swift to hear,
Slow to speak, and
Slow to anger.

Come, Lord Jesus, transform us by the power of your Word so that your beauty may be seen in us. Do it, O Lord! Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?