The unbridled tongue

One of the readings from this morning’s service had particular resonance for me: James I 17-27.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

In a broad sense it can be seen as a companion to Mark VII 1-23, where Jesus warns the Pharisees that adherence to human tradition is no substitute for a repentant heart and teachable attitude.  In specifics though, there’s two things James mentions which apply to me in particular.  The first is the verse about being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  In the abstract I think we’d all like to be seen as the sort of person who can take a slap to the face and, instead of letting anger dictate our actions, examine it coolly and come up with the most optimal situation-changing response.

I can tell you right now though, that’s not me.  And I’ll be honest, I haven’t tried all that hard to alter this nature; didn’t really see a need to do so.  I can react to emergency situations without losing my head, but when I get angry there is no question that I let that anger govern my course, and frequently say hurtful things I ought not to.  In my callow youth I would even take a perverse sort of pride in how quickly I could reduce an opponent to tears.  Winning the argument was really only accomplished when you’d broken their spirit.  As an adult,  however, one comes to understand that being the last man standing is not much of a win when it sacrifices a friendship or relationship.

As the verse tells us, man’s anger rarely results in the kind of righteous action that God desires.  Or to be blunt, acting in your anger is probably going to make a hash of things and relationships, so it’s better to try and rein that in, so that you’re not reacting rashly out of raw emotion, but instead out of a cool, realistic appraisal.  Ideally, that’s the kind of person I’d like to be.  I understand we’re all going to get angry; even God experiences anger, as the Bible notes on several occasions.  So logically speaking, getting ticked off is not—in and of itself—a sin.  Where it becomes problematic is how we decide to react to that anger; does it overwhelm us and cause us to descend into evil thoughts and deeds?  Or does it motivate us to take righteous constructive action?

The second-last verse in that reading is also, I think, particularly appropriate for bloggers.  As one grows accustomed to running his/her mouth (or keyboard), and receiving accolades for doing so, it can reinforce pride and a certain sense of rhetorical or logical infallibility.  And whether or not one is a blogger, I am sure every human being on the planet can identify with this particular caution.  Sometimes the things we say (whether gossip or harsh words) can undo all of the good works and good examples we have set so far.  Sometimes it is far too easy to hurt feelings and draw rhetorical blood in the heat of the moment; but the wise will recognise that God is not calling us to win every argument.  What we are called to instead is to live our lives as if our religion mattered; to hear the Word and to act.

I would like to be a man that is quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.

Today’s hymn selected from the service is “From all that dwell below the skies”, written in 1719 by the prolific English hymnwriter Isaac Watts, set to the tune of “Lasst uns erfreuen”.

Category: Fidei Defensor
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One Response
  1. Nathan B. says:

    Although I am no longer religious, I think that this passage from James is one of the more influential passages I grew up on. It’s worth pondering and internalizing–particularly, as you say, for bloggers.