Be Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger

When the Senate reconvened on January 6, following the militant takeover of the U.S. Capitol, the Chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, opened the session by praying, “Lord of our lives and sovereign of our beloved nation, we deplore the desecration of the United States Capitol building, the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life, and the quagmire of dysfunction that threaten our democracy.  These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue….” 

Indeed, there is power toward life or toward death in the human tongue—in politics and in all realms of human relations.  What happened on January 6 reveals to us again that we, as human beings have the tendency to be quick to anger, to be hasty to speak, and to be begrudging about listening to one another.

James 1:19, however, tells us to turn that around.  The verse tells us, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Be quick to listen: Sue Westfall remarks, “Listening communicates powerfully that you take the other seriously, that they are valued, that you appreciate them, and that you care.”

Rachel Naomi Remen stresses, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”

William Stringfellow comments, “Listening is a rare happening among human beings.  You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or with impressing the other, or are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or are debating about whether what is being said is true or relevant or agreeable.  Such matters have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered.  Listening is a primitive act of love in which a person gives himself or herself to another’s word, making himself or herself accessible and vulnerable to that word.”

Be slow to speak: Sue Westfall writes, “‘Toxic’ was the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’ for 2018.  Toxic: Imbued with poison.  Given the climate of our national discourse, this is no surprise.  Meanwhile, on the other hand, The Christian Science Monitor reported recently that words like ‘love,’ ‘kindness,’ and ‘patience,’ are being used less frequently in American life.  The juxtaposition is stark.  Words matter…. Words wound and they heal.  They obfuscate and enlighten.  They degrade and they uplift.”

Audrey Marlene observes, “Words that are badly chosen can slaughter your passion, lower your sense of worth, and sabotage your level of enthusiasm.  This can retard your progress and produce anemic results.”

Robert Fulghum adds, “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

Since our words have such power to encourage or to cripple the soul of another, we do well to approach our speaking to another slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully.

Be slow to anger: It is important to recognize that we are not told to avoid anger entirely, but to be “slow to anger.”  There is a vital place for anger in our lives.  We should get angry at injustice, at the mistreatment of others, at hypocrisy, and at tragedies and evils in the world.  The Hebrew Scriptures describe God’s anger 375 times.  Like God, we should get angry at sin, but we should also be slow and careful to anger, for anger that is out of control is dangerous to others and to us.  Dr. Redford B. Williams of Duke University Medical Center states, “Individuals who harbor hostility and anger toward others are five times more likely to die from heart disease.”

The story is told of Sinbad and his sailors.  When they landed on a tropical island, they saw coconuts in the trees that would quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger. The problem was that the coconuts were too high in the trees for the sailors to reach.  It so happened that along with the coconuts in the trees were a bunch of chattering monkeys.  Sinbad’s men picked up sticks and stones from the beach and began to throw them at the monkeys.  The monkeys became so enraged that they began to seize the coconuts and hurl them down on the sailors.  This was just what Sinbad and his men wanted.  They had gotten the monkeys so angry that the monkeys gathered and delivered their food for them.  The moral of the story is that when we are quick to anger, we usually play right into the hands of our enemy (the devil).

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