“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19–20)
I wonder what James would have done with social media. I mean, here’s a tool that allows people to expose the innermost condition of their hearts before a worldwide audience in the blink of an eye. Luke 6:45 says that our mouth speaks from “the abundance of the heart.” It is no big leap to understand that our timeline or Twitter feed reflects that of which our heart is full. This is abundantly clear in the online firestorm produced by the presidential race and the recent election results. I believe what James says is extremely relevant to the current debate.
“Swift to hear” doesn’t mean “listen poorly”.
“Swift” refers to readiness to hear, in contrast with slowness to respond or react in the “slow to speak” statement. In fact, elsewhere, the Bible warns against responding without truly listening: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” (Proverbs 18:13) It’s actually shameful and foolish to listen (or read) poorly and respond before understanding clearly what others are saying.
Only a few days ago the media was exposed for being mistaken (best-case scenario) or downright misleading (worst-case scenario) in their reporting in the run-up to the election. You would imagine this would produce a heightened sense of caution when receiving any new information from the media. If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, nothing has really changed. People on both sides of the issues are posting and linking inflammatory information as if their lives depended on it, and much of it can be debunked with a simple search on Google.
We need to be ready to listen, and listen fully and carefully, before we respond or repeat what we see or hear (on the internet or in person).
You have the right to remain silent.
Had James written these verses today, he could have said, “be slow to post or tweet.” What James doesn’t say is that you shouldn’t talk at all, but that we should take time to consider what we say before saying it. You have the right to remain silent while you consider what to say. After all, even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent, right? (Prov. 17:28) But when you speak, everything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. Hasn’t Trump’s “locker room talk” demonstrated this? Aren’t there a bunch of celebrities awkwardly explaining why they aren’t leaving the country as promised?
More than ever, it is important to choose your words wisely. This is an even greater responsibility for the Christian, since your words don’t just reflect on you, but should reflect Jesus Christ. If we practice slowness to speak, we will consider what we have heard wisely, and then consider what we will say just as wisely. What we say exposes the condition of our heart.
when you speak, be righteous.
It’s interesting that James includes the “slow to wrath” statement. The idea of people going ballistic isn’t new, but in his day they couldn’t do it online. I can’t get into all of it here, but anger is tied into our internal sense of justice: we perceive imbalance in the circumstances to which we are exposed, so we try and judge them in the court of our heart, and many times we execute judgment on injustice (perceived or real). If that process is swift in our heart, we will respond externally in anger before we have determined if our justice system aligns with God’s justice system. We will mouth off in “righteous” indignation online, exposing the unrighteousness of our own heart to the world in a split-second decision.
Even when we are slow to wrath, we have to be sure that our response lines up with God’s will for that situation. Why? Because our anger cannot produce the righteousness that God requires. No matter how worked up I get over genuinely unjust things, my anger will not produce God’s justice. And even when I’m righteously angry—angry at the same things that anger God—my atitudes and actions have to reflect God’s desire for me in the circumstances. Angry ranting on social media cannot produce the righteousness God requires.
While this post isn’t directly one of the topics I planned to write about following my “The Fountain and the Broken Cisterns” post a few months ago, I think I can safely tie it to the concepts of the Jeremiah 2 passage from that post. How does this subject reflect a “broken cistern” for Christians? James goes on to encourage us to be doers of the Word, not hearers only (James 1.22). When we ignore biblical teaching, we will both listen and respond as unbelievers do. Thus we turn our backs on the fountains of living water, and turn to broken cisterns. When we resort to our wrath, we are ignoring God’s righteousness and turning to broken cisterns of vengeance and spite.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s be ready to hear people out, to be slow to respond verbally or online, and slow to anger. May the innermost condition of our hearts, wherever it is exposed, reflect an abundance of God’s love and righteousness.