“Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.”
James 1:19, 20 (Common English Bible)
Sydney Harris shares an occasion when he was walking with a friend home from the office. On the way, his friend stopped at a newsstand to purchase the evening paper. Completing the transaction, Harris’ friend thanked the vendor politely. The vendor didn’t even acknowledge. “A sullen fellow, isn’t he?” Harris commented. “Oh, he’s that way every night,” shrugged his friend. “Then why do you continue being so polite to him?” Sydney Harris asked. “Why not?” inquired his friend. “Why should I let him decide how I’m going to act?” Notice that the operative word is “act.” His friend acts toward people. Many of us react toward them.[i]
This is the guidance James provides – “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” In addition to conforming to the format of a letter, James belongs to the literary genre of Wisdom literature. Such literature was widespread throughout the Middle East during the 1st century CE. Advancing understanding of wise instructions for life in general, sacred Wisdom literature communicates to readers how to live happily as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Various values and actions consistent with discipleship are examined and urged as faithful expressions of fidelity to God. Here, James implores Christians to “act” toward one another rather than “react.”
James knows who he is. He is a disciple of Jesus Christ. This knowledge provides James with an understanding of the behavior that is now expected of him – the understanding that refuses to return anger with anger, incivility with incivility. Each one of us has natural impulses, internal responses to the behavior of others. Yet, failure to harness those impulses, when they would be hurtful to another, is to surrender our command of our conduct. That is slavery to impulses, which make of us mere responders to others. That is when our discipleship stumbles – those occasions when we pour out invective after it has been poured out over us.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus we are enjoined to return good for evil, to turn the other cheek when the hand of another strikes us. That requires uncommon strength, uncommon control of sinful impulses to defend our honor. That requires that we “act” as Jesus demonstrates in his own life and ministry, rather than “respond” as Peter did with the sword the night Jesus was arrested in the garden. Nobody is unhappier than the one who has surrendered command of his or her inner impulses and strikes back when injured – physically or emotionally. Yet, God’s righteousness expands when we return anger with love. That is were joy is found.
[i] Earl Nightingale, “Be an Actor, Not a Reactor,” Transformational Living: Positivity, Mindset, and Persistence (Shippensburg, PA: Sound Wisdom, 2019) 37.