Jamaican singer and songwriter Bob Marley once said, “If you get down and quarrel every day, you’re saying prayers to the devil, I say.” I wonder what Marley, who died in 1981, would say today about the state of affairs in our society? Now things like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets would be alien to him. But like anyone, it wouldn’t take him long to read over people’s comments on these platforms to realize how angry we have become as a society. Not only are people angry but we have become aggressive in our conversations seeking to pull others down, use sarcasm as a weapon, and to stir up others to join our voice crusade. Sometimes it feels like a free for all where we toss words and phrases around like hand grenades seeking to destroy as much as we can with the simple press of a computer click. It has gotten ugly at times; very ugly.
Now everyone gets angry at times. It is a real human emotion. And there are things in our world that we should get angry about. The problem it seems, however, is that we have lost our ability to talk to one another about the things that anger us without taking that anger out on others. Our language has become toxic and communication has crumbled under its weight.
In the scriptures, James in the letter that bears his name, writes about this communication breakdown among individuals. Even in the first century, individuals became hot under the collar and used words to inflict pain on others. In James 1: 19 we read these words of advice: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” It didn’t take James many words to sum up our shortcomings and offer some genuine guidance on communicating with others, but especially those we disagree with.
James first states that we should be “quick to listen.” Listening is indeed where true communication takes place. When we listen to others, we demonstrate respect to individuals even when we disagree with them. Listening involves attention hearing of what the person is saying and allowing it to move beyond our ears into our hearts and minds. What happens so often, however, is that we do listen, but while others are sharing their thoughts, our minds are already engaged in what our response will be. Their words simply get lost and we prepare our defense. We are working on our best comeback and counterpoint rather than truly hearing the other person. If true listening doesn’t occur, then we might as well give up on having real conversations. Listening takes discipline and intentionality. Thus, James says we should be quick to listen.
Following up on this, James then contends that we should be slow to speak. James realized, as we all do, how easier it is to shoot off at the mouth than to truly listen to another person. What happens is that we end up with a shooting match or shouting match where nobody hears one another. We tend to talk over one another, outdo one another with our clever use of words, or silence the other person with a barrage of comments that come out like machine gun fire. When you throw anger into the mix then it is often all out war. This is why so many people are suffering from battle fatigue and as the saying goes, “war is hell.” Perhaps this what Marley was suggesting that when we quarrel every day, it is like praying to the devil. The devil loves war whether it is with weapons of metal or weapons of words.
Finally, James says we should be slow to anger. Society today has a short fuse. We tend to go off quickly and explode in anger in the blink of an eye. Rather than process things or try to come to an understanding of things, we immediately light the fuse and let our anger explode. Social media is like adding fuel to the fire because we don’t have to see the damage that is done. The Chinese philosopher Confucius would once say, “When anger rises, think of the consequences.” The problem is that we don’t often think of what will happen after we light the fuse.
The question becomes then how in the world do we implement James’s words in our lives? Well, first we cannot do it alone. None of us can control our anger by ourselves and by our own strength. If we try to manage our own anger with our own resources, we will inevitably be disappointed and find ourselves blowing up over and over again. Rather, it is only by God’s Spirit that we can live is such a way that our anger does not rule over us. It requires a daily surrender whereby we allow God’s Spirit to be the guiding force in our lives. Anger is not a sin—it is what you do with it that becomes sin.
There is no answer to our sin other than God’s grace. Only God’s grace can free us from those things that enslave us in this world. Only God’s grace can lead us to live lives that glorify God and demonstrate God’s love to all people; even those we disagree with. When we see every person as someone created in the image of God it will cause us to pause and think before we get into a war of words. As followers of Jesus we must set an example by choosing to use our words with deliberate prayer and thought, as agents of healing, rather than pain. I wish I got it right all the time, but I do not. I am often very guilty of the things that James warned about. But I pray every day that God will give me his Spirit so that my words say more about my relationship to Jesus so that with whomever I find myself in conversation with, my words will be the ones that Jesus chooses me to use.