Be Quick to Listen
Martin Luther really hated the Book of James. He called it a “right strawy epistle… for it has no gospel in it.” And you can see his point. Jesus Christ, is mentioned only twice in the whole book. There is no mention of the cross. There nothing about Jesus dying on the cross to pay for our sins. There is no mention of baptism. Nowhere does James talk about grace. In James, there is no Christ, no grace, no atonement, no death on the cross, no baptism.
But I kind of like the Book of James. And not because I’m all about “works righteousness” or the idea that we have to earn our way in to God’s good graces. But I like it because I’m a good Presbyterian who believes that God’s love and grace is freely given and that we are to live in grateful response to that powerful love. And I think the Book of James helps with that.
James isn’t so much what Christ has done for us, but what we should be doing for Him. Or how at least how people who claim Christ should be behaving and acting.
Generally, when I preach on this passage, I zero in on that part about being a “doer of the Word of the Lord.” But I think this group gets that we’re not just supposed to read and study the Word, but go out and put it into action. Not that I won’t remind you (us!) again in the future, but this time I was drawn to some of the other words in this passage.
Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
That’s not how we live most of the time, is it? We’re more likely to be just the opposite—slow to listen, but quick to speak and quick to anger.
Dietrick Bohnoeffer was a German theologian during WWII. He was executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was hard core. If you don’t know about Bohnoeffer, you should look him up. In his book, Life Together, Bohnoeffer says:
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter.
Wow. Could our inability to listen be a spiritual problem? If we can’t listen to our brother or sister, we also lose our ability to listen to God? Yikes!
So we should be quick to listen, but slow to speak …and here’s the kicker…slow to anger. Why do you think James puts those two things together? Slow to speak and slow to anger? Because, when someone says or does something to make you angry, the longer you can keep silent, the more effective your reply will be. Think about that for awhile. You know it’s true. How many times have you immediately responded to a hurtful or conflicted situation—via your mouth or email or Tweet or Facebook post—and deeply regretted it later? Your kneejerk reaction made the situation worse, not better. And you know that if you had taken a deep breath, and paused and thought about what your next words should be, you could have had the opportunity to reconcile instead of rile.
But one of the biggest barriers many people have to being slow to anger is that some people just like being angry.
In his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Fredrick Buechner says,
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
Anger can be as dangerous and as detrimental as any drug or disease. And when we are quick to anger and quick to speak, we’re more likely to infect or affect the people around us as well.
But being slow to talk and slow to anger isn’t the only thing James has to say about our words. He goes on to say: If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
In other words,
if we think we are religious but are quick to point out other people’s failings
if we think we are religious but wield words as weapons to harm others
if we think we are religious but trade gossip in whispers behind people’s backs
if we think we are religious but use our speech to stir up trouble…
then our religion is worthless. Worthless. Wow. That’s harsh.
But as we said before, James is not about grace and atonement and salvation. He’s about how Christians (and really, everybody) should make the most of the lives we have been given on earth. And if we claim Christ, but use our words to do mean and hurtful things, then we’re wasting the opportunity to truly live as Christians.
Because hurt begats hurt. Hurt people hurt people. As Christians, our call is to stop the circle of hurt. And it starts with being quick to listen. It’s amazing what can happen when people who feel angry or hurt or wronged feel that someone has really listened to them.
I’m going to issue a challenge to all of you. Go 24 hours without saying anything hurtful or negative to anybody or about anybody. Just 24 hours. And here’s the thing. If you find you can’t do that, you need to admit that you have a problem. If someone can’t go 24 hours without a drink, we know that they most likely have an addiction problem. Same with folks who can’t go 24 hours without a cigarette. If you can’t go 24 hours without speaking words in anger, then you have a problem.
And the first step you can take in fixing that problem is to spend more time listening and less time talking. More time listening and not thinking about what you’re going to say next. More time listening and not mentally going over your to-do list in your head. More time listening and not texting or checking emails when someone is talking. More time putting your religion to good use and not wasting it.
I think James is on to something. Being quick to listen and slow to talk and slow to anger will improve our own lives and the lives of people around us. That sounds like good news to me, even if Luther didn’t see it as Gospel-worthy.