Typically for James's literary style, he presents his instructions through pairs of complementary or contrasting ideas.
This is James's first assault on a major theme in his epistle: the immorality and destructiveness of an uncontrolled tongue. His first command regarding one's tongue is to silence it. Instead of talking, listen. His emphasis is not just on the quantity of listening (listen a lot) but on the promptness of listening (listen first): be quick to do it. The complementary command is to be slow to speak.
There is an important reason in the context of trials for making this the first instruction: trials make us do the opposite of what James says to do. The pressures of trials make us slow to listen and quick to speak--especially quick to speak in anger. The proverbial man who kicks the dog when he comes home from work does so not because the pet has wronged him but because he has suffered trials at work. It becomes even more serious when we "kick" other people. A married couple struggling financially is more likely to experience marital conflict. They may fight over the money or over other issues, but the financial trial has become the occasion for sinning against each other. With sensitive pastoral awareness of people's needs, James recognizes that their circumstances must present daily possibilities for relational conflicts.
James's instruction to them could apply to their conflicts with unbelieving persecutors; he would want Christians to maintain purity toward enemies as well as friends. However, there are indications later in the letter that he wanted especially to warn against impurity in relationships with fellow Christians (4:1, 11; 5:9).
The particular danger that James sees in these frequent relational conflicts should be defined from the preceding material in 1:2-18. James's argument does not appeal to a Pauline image of the body of Christ, in which he might have said everyone should be quick to listen because we are all members of one body (as in Ephesians 4), or later that we should look after orphans and widows because, if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it (as in 1 Corinthians 12). Nor does James write exactly with Paul's missionary argument of being light to a world in darkness (as in Ephesians 5). It is not that James would disagree with what Paul would later write, but that his context is the theology he has already written in 1:2-18. There he has explained that conflicts can be occasions for testing, which develops perseverance and leads to maturity; or they can be occasions for temptation, which promotes sin and leads to death. James is calling for purity in relationships because he sees the life-threatening danger of sin and the life-giving value of faith. The danger in being slow to listen and quick to speak is in the sin aroused. As in 1:13-15, the trial becomes an occasion for death-dealing sin.
Almost daily as a pastor I see the value that good listening has for the church's purity within and the church's mission without. When disagreements occur in the church, over and over I have seen what great damage is done to people, to relationships and to the effectiveness of our ministries when we are quick to argue our positions, defend our views and push our opinions. I have also seen what great good is done when we discipline ourselves to postpone defending our own views and judging others' views while we concentrate on listening and giving a full hearing in order to understand the other side of the conflict. We usually find the conflict more easily resolved. Good listening is a protection against dissension.
It is not only the avoidance of conflict that James has in mind. This verse, when extended into verse 20, implies a ministry God wants us to have toward each other to promote the righteous life he desires. Good listening helps to administer God's love for others' healing and strengthening. The result is their greater ability to live the life of righteousness.
James expects people who have been given birth in Christ to begin changing habits and behavior. He tells us to become slow to speak. We have a problem, though. Listening is most difficult when we are angry. In fact, the underlying anger is a primary and root cause for our slowness to listen and quickness to speak. It is clear that James perceives a close connection between the speaking and the anger, for his instruction to be slow to speak (bradys eis to lalesai) is followed by a further application in identical terms and structure: slow to become angry (bradys eis orgen). A major part of James's letter will be spent elaborating on this connection between sinful speech and selfish anger (in chapters 3 and 4), so that 1:19 is really a theme verse for the letter. James recognizes what trials do to us, that they stir our fear, self-pity, envy, confusion and especially anger. These result in behaviors of fighting, judging and attacking. He warns against these sins, and he writes about the ministry God wants us to have toward each other to bring about the righteous life that God desires.
The righteous life that God desires is the NIV's lengthy translation of James's two words dikaiosynen theou. This translation is an attempt to describe the active obedience desired by God rather than a static standard of righteousness, which is certainly in keeping with James's concern. The RSV stays closer to James stylistically, retaining his blunt grammatical contrast: "the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God." The Living Bible takes more interpretive freedom, but its terms convey too many questionable connotations: "anger doesn't make us good, as God demands that we must be." The TEV manages to include the idea of God's active purpose without diluting the concise and forceful contrast: "Man's anger does not achieve God's righteous purpose."
The contrast in this verse is made clear grammatically. The anger of man (orge andros) as subject is positioned next to the righteousness of God (dikaiosynen theou) as object, with the negated verb does not accomplish (ouk ergazetai) concluding the blunt sentence. Human anger and divine righteousness are typically at odds with each other. A person acting by the former does not carry out or produce the latter.
In spite of some commentators' depiction of James's epistle as a series of loosely connected thoughts, it should not be difficult to see the connection between 1:20 and the theological view of life that James has established in 1:2-18. The persecuted Christians have plenty of opportunity for anger in their trials. The one who desperately needs wisdom in his difficult circumstances (1:5) and the brother who needs help in his deprived economic conditions (1:9) are both urged by James to hold steady focus on the goal of real value: becoming mature and complete. Therefore they are to see their anger as tempting them to do evil and to recognize that such temptation is neither originating from God's will (1:13) nor (James now adds) achieving anything for God's will.
Again, we do not have to search long in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to find likely background to what James is thinking. The ones who are blessed are "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" (dikaiosyne), "the merciful," "the pure in heart," "the peacemakers" and "those who are persecuted because of righteousness" (Mt 5:6-10). Further, Jesus applied God's commandment against murder as a commandment also against hating, cursing or insulting--specifically being angry (orgizomenos): "anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (Mt 5:21-22).
In fact, the follower of Christ is commanded to carry out actions that are the opposite of anger: turning the other cheek to the one who strikes you, giving even more to the one who would take from you and loving the one who is your enemy (Mt 5:39-44). These are the kinds of application to be made from James's instruction.
The righteous life that God desires is the contrasting alternative. God has always stipulated holiness as the terms of being in covenantal relationship with the Holy One. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless" (Gen 17:1). James is writing from an awareness of this continuing command, made even more emphatic by the now fulfilled work of Christ.
The ministry to welcome from James is his unrelenting moral focus; he takes God's commands seriously, and he makes our unholiness clear and inexcusable. If one's goal is to "receive the crown of life," one will make moral choices accordingly. If I act in resentment toward the person who has greater comforts of wealth, I am not acting according to the righteous life that God desires. If I act in hatred toward the person who has injured me with spiteful attitudes or slanderous words or damaging actions, I am not carrying out the righteous life God desires. James is honest enough to face the choice clearly: Do I want revenge and comfort and avoidance of hardship, or do I want God's righteousness in my life?
If 1:19 pointed to the ministry that God wants us to have toward each other, now 1:20 points out our need for release from anger so that we can carry out that ministry and together learn the life of righteousness. That evokes the question "How can this happen in me?" The answer comes in the next verse.
That evokes the question "How can this happen in me?" The answer comes in the next verse.
There are multiple contrasts in this verse. First, the sole imperative is dexasthe ("accept" the word), an act that stands in contrast to that of the modifying participle apothemenoi ("taking off" or "getting rid of" all moral filth and evil). Both are to be intentional acts for Christians: accepting the word while rejecting evil. Second, the evil to be put away is prevalent (perisseian, describing a surrounding presence in abundance), whereas the word to be accepted is planted (emphyton, depicting an internal presence of the word that has already been placed like a seed inside the Christian). Third, the implanted word is able to save you (sosai tas psychas hymon, "to save your souls"), implying a contrasting threat to your souls from the preceding moral filth and prevalent evil. This one verse is thus a marvelous window into the worldview from which James is writing. It is a worldview of complementary moral imperatives made urgent by their corresponding results.
|get rid of||IS IN CONTRAST TO||humbly accept|
|the evil prevalent around you||IS IN CONTRAST TO||the word planted in you|
|which threatens you (implied)||IS IN CONTRAST TO||which can save you|
By comparing other texts, James's worldview is found to be not an isolated thought but a genuinely biblical worldview. First, the prevalence of evil is a notion James would have found in Jesus' sermons. Jesus taught that the quantity of trouble (kakia) is enough in each day (Mt 6:34), so James can warn about the evil (kakia) with the quantitative term of perisseian (surplus, abundance). Jesus taught that one can store up either good or evil in one's heart and that the abundance (perisseuma) in one's heart will direct how one speaks (Lk 6:45). James could be recalling that teaching now, both in the quantitative image of evil and in the application to one's speech.
Second, the need to put off this evil drives other New Testament writers. The force of the participle apothemenoi is properly translated as an imperative: Get rid of . . . This urgency is similarly reflected in 1 Peter 2:1, "Rid yourselves [apothemenoi] of all malice [kakian]." With the same verb, Paul will urge the Ephesians to put off the old self and to get rid of falsehood (Eph 4:22, 25).
Third, the emphasis on the ability of the word to save is also part of the fabric of New Testament thought. Again the origin is in Jesus' teaching--in Matthew 7:24. "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock." Christ's parable depicted a house surrounded by prevalent and threatening dangers--falling rains, rising streams, blowing winds. The inhabitants were saved through "words"--the words of Christ put into practice. Then James's theology in the first part of chapter 1 (specifically 1:18, concerning "the word of truth") provides the immediate context for his application here in 1:21. Finally, Peter again presents confirming parallel instruction in 1 Peter 2:2. The "pure spiritual milk" Peter has in mind is most likely the word of God, which he has just emphasized in 1:23-25. Thus Peter's line of thought runs parallel to James's:
1. God has given us birth through his word (Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:23).
2. Therefore it is imperative that we get rid of all evil (Jas 1:21; 1 Pet 2:1).
3. In place of the evil, it is the word of God that we must now accept and crave (Jas 1:21; 1 Pet 2:2).
Application is to be made based upon what we have seen of the meaning. First we found in this verse a worldview, seeing evil as both pervasive and life-threatening for us. This calls us to evaluate our own worldview by comparison. Do we see the world in the same terms? Minimizing the danger of doing evil is, in light of this verse, recklessly unrealistic. It is somewhat comparable to persisting in a heavy smoking habit while saying, "It's not as bad as they make it out to be" (that is, it's not really life-threatening) or "The cancer won't get me" (that is, the danger is not really prevalent). Unrealistic thinking leaves us insulated against the urgency for moral reform. This is one reason that our praying in crises is not like King David's: "Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil." We pray for safety instead of purity because we do not see impurity as dangerous.
Second, this verse calls for us to repent of all moral filth in our lives. It includes not only sensational crimes but also everyday evils like a complaining attitude, a jealous spirit, a deceitful or gossipy way of speaking, or a rebelliousness against authority. Like numerous other biblical statements, this one makes clear that repentance is not merely a sorrow for one's sin but, more fully, a sorrow that moves one to make changes in one's life. Biblical repentance is a change of direction, a turning around, a choice to repudiate immorality and cry out to God, "I don't want to be like this anymore!"
The third area of necessary application is in the humble acceptance of God's word. It should not be confusing that James would tell us to accept what is already planted in us. The term emphyton (planted in you) indicates that the focus of the word's work is on changing the Christian rather than changing the circumstances of the trial. Humbly accept would then mean not only to believe teachably but to act upon that word--for example, to accept that being quick to listen and slow to speak really is the best course in the midst of the conflict. Anger is a stance of telling and demanding; James commands a stance of learning and receiving. It is the stance he has already prescribed and illustrated in 1:2-18 concerning trials. It requires a humble teachability to consider it pure joy when one meets trials because one knows, from God's word, that the trials will be used by God as tests to develop perseverance.
When I was directing an InterVarsity conference in Colorado one year, something the speaker said prompted a student to ask with evident intensity, "But what do you do when things are going wrong, and other people are hurting you, and you are hurt and angry?" The speaker answered, "Have your daily quiet time."
At first this made me angry; it seemed to be a simplistic answer that ignored the struggle expressed in the question. As I thought about it, though, the wisdom of the speaker's words came into focus. We need the word of God--we need to humbly accept it into our minds and hearts--because it really is able to save us from the destructive power of our own sinfulness. With this conviction, James goes on to explain how to use that lifesaving word of God.