The Apostle James writes (James 1:19 – 20), “…But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” James has two passages that I recommend for meditation when considering peace and anger; two passages which can guide and disciple us when we are confronted with the decision of whether to pursue peace or anger.
When we are tempted to indulge in anger, tempted to inflict anger on others (for that is what we do, it isn’t just that “I’m angry,” for anger is not self-contained but rather something we inflict on others), our choice is whether to be quick to hear or quick to anger. Situations in which we are tempted to propagate anger are by their nature situations that require a quick decision for they are highly-charged situations. When things are happening quickly an initial quick response is needed. If we choose to turn down the path of anger everything that unfolds from that point on will be quick – our actions, our words, and the damage we do will all happen quickly; the damage we do may take on a life of its own.
However, if we are quick to choose peace then what follows is a s-l-o-w-i-n-g down of our response - we are quick to hear, quick to listen; but then we are s-l-o-w to speak, and s-l-o-w (if the situation calls for it) to anger; for remember, there is righteous anger and there is unrighteous anger.
James writes, “…the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” When I read this statement I mentally strike the word “man” and insert the word “Bob”, in some of my Bibles I have lightly lined through the word “man” and written above it “Bob”. I need to be reminded that my anger does not produce the righteousness of God; in fact, my anger comes from my self-righteousness and not from God’s righteousness. We’ll pick this idea up later in James when we come to the second passage on peace and anger that lends itself to meditation.
As in all passages, the context of James 1:19 – 20 is critical for a fuller understanding of what James is writing. James begins his letter with, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” (1:2-4). Then we read, “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved (by passing the test), he will receive the crown of life…” (1:12a); trials provide part of the context of James 1:19 – 20. No one gets angry without a reason, people get angry when there is pressure, and trials bring pressure – the question is, “How do we choose to respond under pressure?” When we are under pressure we are often tempted to indulge in anger.
James writes (1:13 – 15), “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” When we are in the midst of trials we can be tempted in a number of ways; we can be tempted to fix the problem without submitting to God in the trial, we can be tempted to alleviate the pain of the trial through self-medication (which can take a number of forms), and we can be tempted to anger – our own lust, as James writes, can carry us away – our lust to be our own god, our lust for self-medication in various forms of pleasure, our lust for destructive anger.
We get “carried away” and we justify our actions and emotions and thinking. We are “enticed” by rationalizing that the trials we are in justifies our thinking, emotions, and behavior. Our fulfillment of our lust results in sin and our sin results in death – the death more often than not is not physical but spiritual – we bring death into our own lives and sadly bring death into the lives of others. Recall that Jesus linked anger to murder.
Then we come to verses 16 – 18, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” We are not to look to our self-will and lust for solutions in our trials, but we are to look to our heavenly Father who never changes, who is eternally trustworthy, and who gives us good and perfect gifts. We are to remember who we are, a kind of first fruits of His creatures.
After verses 16 – 18 we have verses 19 and 20 - we need to be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God. Let’s continue to pursue the context by reading what comes after verses 19 and 20: “Therefore, putting aside 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 merely hearers who delude themselves.”
We can become so accustomed to our way of doing things, and so accustomed to the world’s way of doing things, that we no longer see things the way God sees them. The words “filthiness” and “wickedness” may shock us when associated with “the anger of man”, but perhaps they are meant to shock us. Our lusts, including our lust of unrighteous anger, is filthiness and wickedness, and again, as Jesus says, it is akin to murder. I admit that when I consider the countless times I’ve displayed unrighteous anger, “the anger of Bob”, that I wish I had realized that what I chose to engage in was filthiness and wickedness. I am good at making excuses for my unrighteous anger – I imagine I’m the only one with that talent.
And then we have verse 26, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious (or spiritual, or a disciple, or following Jesus), and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” When we next consider what James has to say about peace and anger it will be in the context of his famous treatment of the tongue in Chapter Three. Until then, we have a taste of what is coming in his linkage of the tongue to following Jesus Christ. The heart and the tongue are inextricably connected, Jesus teaches that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles us, not what we eat. Our words communicate our hearts; if the eyes are the windows of the soul then the tongue is the mirror of the heart. A heart submitted to the Prince of Peace will speak words of peace (Colossians 3:15-17).
We live in a violent society, not just physically violent but verbally violent. Much music is violent, much “humor” is violent, much automobile driving is violent (aggressive), the way companies do business and politicians do politics is often violent – might makes right is the elixir of society. The pace of society has a rhythm of violence. It is little wonder that we are tempted to the violence of unrighteous anger, but it is no excuse to choose to follow that lust and sin.
And so I meditate on verses 19 and 20, knowing that should I choose to drink the cup of unrighteous anger, the anger of Bob, that I am drinking from the cup of the enemy and not the cup of my Lord Jesus. This passage has been something on which I’ve meditated prior to entering a tough situation; I have also meditated on it in the midst of a tough situation; and it is also one that has convicted me of sin after I’ve resorted to unrighteous anger. O how good to know that we can find forgiveness in our Lord Jesus when we have sinned, and how good to know that His grace will enable us to ask forgiveness of others to whom we have directed our unrighteous anger.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” Matthew 5:9.