Scripture: James, chapters 1-5
James 1:19-27 (NASB):
You know this, my beloved brothers and sisters. Now everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for a man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not just hearers who deceive themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who has looked intently at the perfect law, the law of freedom, and has continued in it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an active doer, this person will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, yet does not bridle his own tongue but deceives his own heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Wow, what if everyone lived by that standard! Sadly, the world does not operate that way. In fact, current society seems to operate by the opposite standard: slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger. The internet – and, in particular, social media – have contributed to an epidemic of anger and bitterness that grips every part of our culture.
I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us in a world that is wracked and polluted by selfish, sinful choices. But it should surprise us that followers of Jesus are caught up in the anger and bitterness of our culture! Quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger is directed to US. The reason, James tells us, is simple: a man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God. Our anger does not make us more like Jesus.
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not just hearers who deceive themselves.
What is the “word” that James challenges us to “do”? It is Scripture – the written Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and proven true across the centuries by those who take it seriously. And the first thing the Word reminds us is that apart from God, “there is no one righteous – no, not one” (Romans 3:10). On our own, we are not righteous, and cannot be. That’s why we can’t trust ourselves, can’t trust our anger or our tongues. Quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
The connection between slow to speak and slow to anger and the call to be doers of the word may not be obvious at first. I believe James clarifies it for us with the last two verses in this passage. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, yet does not bridle his own tongue but deceives his own heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Our anger and our quickness to attack often stems from our desire to justify ourselves by pointing out the faults and failures of others. We point to our own actions and compare ourselves to others, rather than to the standard of God’s holiness. Such religion is worthless.
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Two parts – an active part, to visit orphans and widows in their distress; and a more “spiritual” part, to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James joins two seemingly disparate subjects to form his definition of pure and undefiled religion. As I reflect on this passage, it seems that the modern Church is missing the importance of joining these together. One segment of the Church focuses on “compassionate ministry” or “social religion” – emphasizing caring for those who are marginalized. Another segment emphasizes the more “spiritual” aspect – keeping oneself unstained by the world.
We are not given the option of choosing one or the other. God calls us to do both. It’s bad enough for us to neglect one of these two foundational elements of our faith; it’s worse yet to allow anger to take hold. No matter how much we may try to convince ourselves otherwise, man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God. Any “religion” that allows us to ignore God’s Word – whether in regard to compassionate ministry or personal holiness – is worthless. To believe otherwise is to be deceived.
Father, thank You for reminding us that following Jesus is not a matter of “either” loving others or being holy. You clearly call us to love You with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. Thank You for showing us that loving You and loving others is exactly what James is talking about in this passage.
Guard our hearts against the anger and bitterness that has consumed so much of our world. As we read that every good and perfect gift comes from You, remind us that we should receive each day as a gift from You – and receive it with joy. Help us to reflect Your love and grace to others – even in the midst of the anger and bitterness we see around us. Amen.