James 1:19-21 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
Have you ever needed to tell someone you loved, something for their good, knowing it would be really hard for them to hear it? How do you go about it in such a way that is both winsome and compelling? James’s whole letter is filled with this kind of thing and he seems to have settled in on an approach. Have you noticed his pattern? More or less, five times in 18 verses, James has commanded or shared something he knew would be challenging with the same four-part process.
First, James made sure to get his readers’ attention by issuing a fairly provocative, but substanceless command/statement. “Count it all joy,” “If any of you lacks wisdom,” “Let the lowly [and rich] brother boast…,” Blessed is the man …,” and “Do not be deceived.” To this point in this letter, James introduced every new clause this way. He gave his readers just enough to grab their attention, but not enough to know where he was going.
Next, James frequently used a term of endearment to make sure his readers knew that his primary motivation was love. James referred to them as “My brothers,” “brother,” and “my beloved brothers” so far in this letter. It was important to James for his readers to know that he cares deeply for them.
James then followed up his attention-grabbing intro and love-reiteration with the real substance of his challenging new thought. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” “If any…lack wisdom, let him ask God…in faith, with no doubting,” “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation,” “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial,” and “do not be deceived…every god and perfect gift is from above.” Again, James’s knew that he was calling his readers to some very challenging areas of obedience.
Finally, then, James made sure to help his readers see why obedience was both right and good (as it always is). “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness…that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing,” “God gives [wisdom] generously to all without reproach,” “the rich man [will] fade away in the midst of his pursuits,” “The man who remains steadfast under trial…will receive the crown of life,” and “do not be deceived…[for those who are not are] a kind of firstfruits of [God’s] creatures.” That’s a lot of incentive to do the hard things he’s called them to. James’s point is that the fruit of obedience is exponentially more valuable than disobedience, so obey!
Our passage for this morning is no exception. He has an attention grabber, a term of endearment, a hard command, and a powerful incentive. That’s James’s familiar formula and that is the structure for this morning’s sermon. The main point of all of it is that God requires righteousness from His people, no matter our circumstances. Hardship is never justification for wickedness. But more importantly still, James helps us see that God always provides for His people what He requires from His people. Obviously, there’s a lot here. Let’s pray and then make our way through it, in order that we might live as God intends.
If you have something important to say and you want to make sure the people you need to say it to are paying attention, what do you do (especially if you’ve already said some important things and have more to say after this)? (More so as a youth pastor) I’ve tried to do so with a dramatic sermon title (“The Ridiculousness of Christmas” was one of my favorites). News outlets often attempt to do so by using images and headlines that make it seem like you are likely to die in swift and dramatic fashion. I love watching the sincere, but overly dramatic ways in which kids describe a game they want you to play. My mom used to get my attention by using my first and middle names, “David Jason!,” and my dad by calling me “Son.” You get the idea.
I suppose there are a number of ways to get and keep people’s attention, but as I mentioned earlier, James settled on a particular form of attention-grabbing. He introduced new and important topics (or a new angle on an old one) by making a fairly provocative, but immediately substanceless command or statement. This time is no exception. Before throwing down another significant challenge, James attempted to regrab his readers’ attention by commanding them to “19 Know this…”.
That works, doesn’t it? It gets your attention. I use it regularly myself. While preaching, you’ve probably heard me say something like, “Now listen to this” or “Now this is important,” dozens of times. If your boss walked into your office or the doctor into the waiting room or mechanic into the lobby and said, “Suzy, you need to know something…,” that’d probably get you to tune in. The question, of course, is what I or Suzy’s boss, doctor, or mechanic, or James wants known, but the introduction itself is a really effective way of getting you to tune in.
TERM OF ENDEARMENT
That leads to the second stage of James’s four-part process—his term of endearment.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers…
One of the more common platitudes we’ve all heard is, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” There is, of course, something to that (there isn’t much doubt that we’d all rather hear hard things from people who care about us), but I think that from a truth-receiving perspective it’s mostly bunk. That is, it mostly results from an undervaluing of truth and an overvaluing of our feelings.
If you break your arm, worrying how much your Dr. cares about you is kind of silly. What you do need to be concerned with is whether or not he knows how to skillfully reset your arm. The same with your auto mechanic, plumber, and even with your evangelist. It’s far more important that someone shares the true gospel with you than it is that they do so with a great deal of affection. It is the truth that sets us free, not the disposition of the person sharing it. (Paul seems to teach exactly this in Philippians 1:15-18.)
Philippians 1:15-18 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
And this is true with other Christians when they come to us with a hard message. On the truth-receiving end, we need to be far more concerned with whether what we are being told is true, than how it’s being told to us.
At the same time, however, on the truth-delivering end, we must never be indifferent to our truth-delivering motives or disposition as Christians. For our soul’s sake and theirs, we must fight for a right heart to go with our right message. It is usually easier for someone else to hear and trust hard things from us when they know we love them. And it is always most honoring to God when His people speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). The things James said are true regardless of his motives for saying them or his disposition toward his readers, but James did love them and he knew this was not optional. He did want what was best for them. He did care about how his words would land on them and how they would respond. And so he made sure his readers knew how he viewed them: as his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
Grace, before we move on to James’s actual hard truths (which will give us a few more helpful instructions on how to give and receive hard truths), would you consider all of this from two really practical angles—as one who needs truth and as one who needs to share truth?
How to Receive Truth
On the truth-receiving end, we will be a much healthier church as we continue to learn a few lessons:
- God’s Word is the only definitive source of moral truth. If we are to rightly receive moral truth, it will be because we know our Bible’s well enough to know it when we hear it.
- Just because someone shares truth in a harsh way, doesn’t make them wrong; and just because someone shares in a kind way, doesn’t make them right. Who among us would refuse a 10 carat diamond because it came in Green Bay Packer’s wrapping paper? And who among us would receive anthrax because it came wrapped in a $100 bill?
- We are fallible and so we ought to be humble. Just because we don’t see something right away doesn’t mean it isn’t true. We ought to be careful in our consideration and prayer when someone shares something hard with us before we dismiss it.
- Everyone who comes to us with truth ought to leave (regardless of their motivation coming in or their delivery), impressed by the humble and glad-hearted way we received it.
How to Share Truth
Likewise, on the truth-giving end, we will be a much healthier aw we all learn a few more lessons:
- God’s Word is the only definitive source of moral truth. People don’t need our opinions as to how they ought to think, feel, or behave. They need God’s commands and promises.
- We are fallible and so we ought to be humble. We might think we are seeing something in someone that needs to be addressed, but only God has perfect sight.
- We ought to be willing to walk with people in the hard truth we share with them.
- And, as James modeled, for the sake of our own souls, and in obedience to Christ’s command (Matthew 22), we ought to cultivate love for anyone we share the truth of God’s Word with. This is true within Grace Church, with our unbelieving neighbors, and even with those who would do us harm for naming the name of Jesus.
So, before getting to the hard-to-swallow point, James grabbed his readers’ attention and made sure they knew he loved them. What, then, was the heart of the matter this time? What was he after for his troubled readers?
It seems (from the first 18 verses) that James’s readers were (understandably) struggling significantly in their hardships (their trials, their ignorance, their lowliness, and their temptations). It also seems that in response to all of this, they were struggling with anger and acting out. As a result, they insisted on their own way with one another and gave into their sinful desires. Therefore, James commanded them…
19 … let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger… [and then he continued his command in v.21] 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness …
In these two verses are four commands. They are really good words. They are critically important principles of godliness and healthy Christian community. Let’s quickly consider each.
Be Quick to Hear
Regardless of our circumstances, regardless of our struggles, regardless of how certain we are that we are in the right, regardless of who we are speaking with or what we are speaking about, our first inclination toward others in giving or receiving truth, ought to be to listen. For most of us, our flesh’s first inclination is to talk. The first inclination of James’s readers was to talk. But James corrects us and them with a straight-forward command, “Be quick to hear.”
This is true regardless of which side of things you are on. If you feel the need to share truth with someone, the most God and them-honoring way you can do so is to say something like, “I’d like to talk to you about the way your kids are behaving, but before I do, I’d like to know if you have any thoughts on the matter.” Or, “I think it’d be good if we were to discuss the way you spoke at the last meeting, and I’d like to hear from you first to make sure I understand your perspective.”
On the other end, if someone comes to share with you, listen first and carefully. Make sure your aim is to really hear (for understanding), not just “listen”. There’s a big difference between taking in sounds and recognizing words, and truly trying to understand. James’s command to “be quick to hear” is a command to listen for understanding.
In both cases, the goal ought always to make sure you understand the other person’s perspective in a way that they easily sign off on before you attempt to speak yourself. “I think this is what you are saying, is that accurate?” And in both cases, it’s good to remember that there is almost always something worth hearing, some measure of truth, even in the accusations of the most ill-intentioned and spiritually immature person.
Be Slow to Speak
James’s next command is that his readers be slow to speak. In order to obey the first command (be quick to hear), we must obey the second (be slow to speak). You can’t listen well if you’re already talking or already readying your reply. When someone shares with you, obeying James’s command means that if you speak at all (before the person has had the chance to communicate all they intended to share, and you’re both sure you understand it), it ought to be to ask clarifying questions, not push back, correct, or refute.
For someone like me, that’s hard enough, but this is more than just that. James wasn’t merely commanding his readers to be slow to speak at the beginning of a conversation. He was giving them a general principle—one that I’m even worse at heeding—that we should always be slow to speak. We are a people with the best news in the world, and since we must share it, we must talk. And yet, it is almost always a better to listen, think, and pray more than you talk. Proverbs 17:27 says it this way, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge.”
I’ll never forget the time I was at a conference and a long-time missionary to the Middle-East was asked, if you had one hour to share with the most hardened hater of Jesus, what would you say. His reply was that he’d listen for 55 minutes in order to know what to say in the last 5. That’s the heart of James’s command (and Prov. 17:27).
Be Slow to Anger
James’s third command is that his readers ought to be slow to anger. You’ll notice that he didn’t write, “Do not be angry.” In this way it’s similar to Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin.” Anger is not inherently sinful or bad. The Bible repeatedly describes God as having His anger kindled (Deuteronomy 9:8; Exodus 15:7; Numbers 11:1-2; Job 4:9; Ezekiel 7:8).
Truly, there are things that ought to anger us, things for which it is a sin not to be angry—blasphemy, injustice, taking advantage of the vulnerable, etc.. Anger isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’re often angry about the wrong things and we often do the wrong things in our anger.
One of the clearest biblical examples of getting anger wrong is found in Genesis 34-35 when Jacob and Leah’s daughter, Dinah, was raped by a Canaanite prince named Shechem. When Jacob was made aware of this his anger ought to have burned hot, but it didn’t. He doesn’t seem to have been nearly angry enough. On the other hand, when Jacob’s sons, Dinah’s brothers heard of it, they were filled with anger but sinfully acted on it by killing every male in the city, plundering the city, and carrying away all their wives and children. Jacob sinned by lacking righteous anger and his sons sinned by lacking a righteous response to their anger.
It is not easy to know when our anger or our planned response to our anger are righteous. Therefore, James commanded his readers to be slow to anger. If we are to obey James, therefore, when we feel anger welling up inside of us, we must take control of it before it takes control of us. We must examine it to discern its source. Where it is rooted in selfishness or pride or lies (for instance), we must turn it away and refuse to allow it to mature or bear fruit. But where we find it to be rooted in righteousness, we must then be careful to act on it in ways God has prescribed (not any way our flesh might wish).
Put Away all Filthiness and Rampant Wickedness
Finally, James commanded his readers to “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness”.
Filthiness refers to any kind of moral impurity. The word translated “wickedness” also refers to sin in general, but it has a more intentional or premediated connotation—sins James’s readers had chosen to foster. And the term “rampant” could also be translated “remaining”. That is, sin that remained in the hearts and lives of James’s readers even after their conversion.
The word picture in this verse (that isn’t very clear in the translation) is that of a person peeling off his clothes after rolling around in the mud. James’s charge to his readers was to take off all of their lingering sin and sinful desires and to walk in total moral cleanliness.
Grace, let’s settle firmly on the fact that there is no amount of sin that God’s people are allowed to tolerate in ourselves. There is no acceptable degree of filth or wickedness that we can entertain in our hearts. Our total debt is paid in Jesus, and we will not (by God’s design) be fully sanctified until we die or Jesus returns, but we are still charged to “put away” every ounce of sin that we find in us. God has made us holy for holiness, not to make some measure of unholiness acceptable. Let us therefore, in the Spirit’s power and because we are already holy, take off all filthiness and rampant wickedness.
Of course, doing all of this is hard under ideal circumstances. It’s harder still when life is already hard; which is where James’s readers found themselves. They certainly knew James was right, and they no doubt wanted to want what he commanded, but it must have felt to them as if they were struggling to bench press 100lbs and James just added another 45 to each side. For that reason it’s a sweet gift that James’s formula includes a powerful incentive (actually, two of them). See if you can pick them out as I read the passage one last time.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
James names two powerful incentives for obeying his command; one negative and one positive. The negative incentive concerns the consequences of failing to obey: it does not produce the righteousness that God requires. This is just a clearer way of saying what James has already said: God requires righteousness from His righteous people. James will unpack this later when he says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). For now, simply hang onto the fact that James was incentivizing his readers to pursue the specific righteousness he commanded by helping them to see that it wasn’t a matter of mere preference—God required it of his readers and all followers of Jesus.
The positive incentive James offers for obedience is assurance of salvation. More on this in just a minute, but I want you to notice here that there is a connection between our holiness and the salvation of our souls. Grace, please make sure you understand that relationship. Make sure you can explain (at least to yourself) how walking in sin or walking in righteousness relates to whether or not you are a Christian, your assurance of salvation, and the maturity and health of your faith. At the least, glad-hearted obedience to God’s commands is a powerful witness to the authenticity of our faith.
MORE POWERFUL POWER
In this passage, James called his readers to be sanctified—particularly in the way they interacted with others in times of hardship. That’s often difficult. As we’ve seen many times before, and again today, God-honoring obedience to commands like this doesn’t ultimately come greater self-control or will power. Instead, it comes from a greater desire for righteousness than sin. Grace, we will love to walk in righteousness only once we come to love righteousness. But the million-dollar question is how do we come to actually love righteousness?
It’s great to know that it’s almost always better to eat kale than a Snickers, but I don’t seem to have a lot of control over my tastebuds. How do I learn to like kale?
James gives us the beginning of the answer to this question. He pulls back the curtain even further to reveal the source of changing taste buds. If it’s not already obvious to you, that’s a big deal.
James subtly reveals that a genuine appetite for righteousness will begin to develop in the people of God, when we “receive with meekness the implanted word”. This is so remarkably significant, Grace, that it’s hard to put into words. What we need, if we are to truly walk in holiness, is a new appetite. Our appetite was for sin; it must now be for the things of God. And James tells us here where that new appetite comes from.
It comes from the transforming work of the “implanted word”. We need to hear and receive the gospel in faith if we are to be reconciled to God. But James, in yet another impressively understated way, helps us see that the gospel, the word of truth, that we hear and believe when we first come to faith in Jesus, doesn’t just burn up at conversion. Rather, it implants in us and continues to work on us. The gospel is both the spark that lights the initial fire of our salvation and the fuel that keeps it burning. It is the power that both saves and sanctifies us.
Do you want to obey and honor God by becoming a better listener, a better speaker, less angry, less filthy, and less rampantly wicked, as James commands here? If so, come to know the superior value of being slow to listen and speak, of being patient, and of being clean and righteous. And do so in the knowledge that if you don’t, you lack the righteousness that pleases God and if you do, you show evidence of genuine salvation. But above all, do all of that in the knowledge that this too is God’s gift to you, continually being worked out in all of His people through the time-released effect of His embedded Word.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
James speaks so simply here about the fulfillment of this awesome promise in Ezekiel for all who hope in Jesus. But don’t let the unassuming manner in which he states it cause you to miss its staggering glory. We must humbly receive the taste bud-transforming work God does through the implanted word (just like we needed to when we first believed the gospel), but when we do, it will always continue the saving/sanctifying work of God in us. It will always bring about the very change in appetite that produces the righteousness that God requires. Awesome!