“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:19-21).
You know that moment when your mind starts to wander while someone’s talking to you? Their voice trails off into the background. You still hear the sounds they make, but their words have no meaning. Husbands and wives do it to each other. Children do it to parents. Church members do it to pastors. Cats do it to everybody. That’s not hearing. To hear means to listen with comprehension, to discern the meaning of what’s being said and to respond appropriately.
James’ term of address, “my beloved brethren,” is an endearment. The tenderness in his tone let his readers know that he understood their struggles and heartaches. Far from being heavy-handed, he encouraged them in the faith because of the goodness of God. Yet, he called them to listen with an imperative: “Know this, my beloved brothers” (ESV).
Now, James didn’t change the subject. In the preceding verses, he addressed our need to attribute goodness, and not temptation, to God, to receive trials from God’s hand with joy and not doubt. The context indicates that we’re to be quick to listen to God, not just to each other.
It’s imperative that we develop a keen sense of spiritual listening – to hear what God has said and understand His Word. James said, “everyone must be quick to hear;” that is, listening should be our first response. Unfortunately, it’s a learned response, and not a natural one. Even then, it’s hard won. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). He is Spirit but we’re flesh. We have to learn to recognize His voice when He calls us. The fact that He doesn’t speak audibly, as we do, challenges us. We want Him to say something we can understand, but God wants to teach us to listen with our spirit.
What does anger have to do with listening? Whenever we don’t like a situation, it’s easy to turn on the anger. We want to take action to fix the offending circumstances. We mount our self-righteousness and charge into battle to slay some felonious injustice. Then, we congratulate ourselves for defending Christ’s reputation in our flesh, which is exactly what Satan wants us to do. He delights in leading Christians to take matters in our own hands.
Christian bookstores are filled with books that tout the latest secular business principles to write better sermons, grow bigger churches, and staff more effective organizations, but “friendship with the world is hostility toward God” (Jas. 4:4). Our flesh will never accomplish God’s will, no matter how cool, astute, or intelligent it appears to be. “The anger of man,” the wisdom of the flesh as opposed to humility toward God, is by definition selfish and not God-honoring. It never points anyone to Christ, no matter how loudly or forcefully we express it. James classified anger as “filthiness” – foulness that belongs in a sewer, and “wickedness” – malignity that must be surgically removed. In other words, anger sickens and pollutes the soul and never yields a God-pleasing aroma.
Listening is a little-known and often neglected aspect of worship. It’s a function of love. It displays the Christlike humility that we’re to cultivate and promote. Receiving the implanted Word of God doesn’t happen by automatically, but by the disciplined study of the Scriptures, and by hearing the faithfully taught Word.
The great benefit of spiritual listening is our salvation. The word James used to express salvation means to make whole or to rescue from destruction. Listening to God brings us into fellowship with Him and transforms our lives into His image.
May we learn to love the voice of God as He speaks to us in His Word.