James’s three-pronged advice appears, at first glance, to help improve human relationships. It certainly would improve them, were we to apply it to how we deal with others. Not a few sermons and classes take this approach. But attention to context places us on a different plane.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; James 1.19.
In the previous verse, James focused on God’s word of truth as the means by which we were given spiritual life. The new birth comes by his word, the gospel, 1 Peter 1.23; see Ephesians 5.26. He comes back to that word in verse 21, as the instrument of God’s salvation. So the context establishes that James does not have in mind human relationships, but God’s work to save us.
So James wants us to know what we should do with God’s word.
First, we must hear it, and that right speedily.
Hearing means heeding and obeying God’s word. From the beginning of time, the Lord has sent his servants to tell people to pay attention to what he says. James wrote to saints. While we tell non-Christians that the first step to salvation is to hear the Word, James is telling us that Christians ought to hear it as well. Listening to God is as much a condition to salvation for disciples as it is for those outside of Christ.
We must continue to be guided by God’s word, transformed by it, enlivened by it. If salvation is past, present, and future, the Word, as his instrument to save, must be ever welcomed in our hearts and practiced in our bodies, v. 21.
Second, we must be slow to speak it.
If the Christians’ task is to proclaim the word of God, why must we be slow to speak it? After all, we must “always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about” our hope, 1 Peter 3.15.
James is all about practicing our faith. Before we open our mouths, we ought to be sure that our lives are demonstrating the Good News and that no inconsistency appears to those who hear.
We ought to not only know what we’re talking about, 2 Timothy 2.15, but be sure we are living the truth and showing the love of God. The imitation of Christ serves as a powerful illustration of the necessary words of salvation.
Third, we must not let our self-righteous ego crowd it out of our lives.
Anger expresses the human ego’s disappointments, frustrations, resentments, and bitterness. When anger explodes in the heart, it reduces God’s word to shattered fragments that can no longer effect the transformation he desires.
Because of that, his righteousness cannot be produced in us, nor will it be extended to others. From the angry heart come angry words, and not words of salvation. Anger is a killer, not a giver of life. Thus, it has no place in a disciple’s soul.
These are actions we should know about and put into place. They will ensure that we continue to be enlivened by God’s Spirit and saved by his Word.