If I were to rank all of the books of the bible from my most favorite to least, The Book of James would be right at the top of that list. Although a short book, it is filled with many theological and practical nuggets written, so they are easily understood. However, perhaps the reason I like this book the most is it made Martin Luther very nervous.
I like Luther, and I think he started a long-overdue reformation, but I also think that reformation stripped the Church of too much. The central theme of James is that faith without works is a dead faith. Luther missed the point that for James, it was our salvation and God’s grace that compels us to those works, and if that faith does not, it is not faith at all.
Over the next several weeks, we will be taking a closer look at James and how what we read on those pages can help us transform our lives and then work towards the transformation of others. First up, the destructive power of anger.
Have you ever been so angry that you have said or done something that you later regretted? I know I have on more than one occasion. Anger, like all emotions, is irrational and sometimes can cause us to say or do foolish things.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (19-20)
James gets right to the point, “anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” James is concerned with how we relate to one another and the words we use in that relationship. Words reveal our motivation, intention, belief, and emotional life. I guess you could say that words are a window to our thoughts.
Our emotional life grows and matures from our earliest days and how we relate to others, but it also comes from how we relate to ourselves. Anger is an emotion that can become destructive. Anger is also an emotion that alerts us when something is wrong. There is good anger, and there is bad anger. It all comes down to what anger drives us to do.
One of the problems we face as a society is the idea of individualism. Being an individual can be a good thing, and the “rugged individualist” is, in some ways, what made our country. But individualism can be very destructive. If we only think of what is good for me, then we forget about our neighbor. We cannot “love our neighbor” if our thoughts are only on what we want. If we feel we can do whatever we want as long as it is good for me, we don’t love or care for others.
We have tremendous freedom that has been guaranteed from the time of our founding documents, well for a particular segment of the population anyway; the rest had to fight and continue to fight today for those same rights. But the other half of freedom is responsibility. So the more significant the freedom, the bigger the responsibility.
Words have power. Think of some of the greatest orators of our time. Think of speeches or sermons that you have heard over your life. Some were inspiring and moved us to action. Some allowed us to dream about the future, while others broke us down and made us feel less than. This is the power of the spoken and written word. We use words to express ourselves, to describe, to name, to blame. We use words to win arguments, console, counsel, ask someone to marry us, and make peace. But we also use words to incite, make fun of, blame, and start wars. Words have power.
It seems to me that in today’s world, we can say whatever we want, and then, if necessary, we apologize for what we said. This happens more frequently when we get angry; we tend to say things without thinking about it. Although we can apologize for what we have said, the damage may have already been done.
According to James, we cannot bring about the righteousness of God with evil or hateful speech, for that sort of speech only brings about destruction.
“Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” (v 21)
One of the more difficult places to “hold our tongues,” as my mother used to say, is on Social Media. There is a lot of good that can come from exchanges on those platforms, but we need to be careful. It is not always easy to determine wit or sarcasm, and sometimes, people can interpret things the wrong way. It is very easy to get caught up in something, and before we know it, we are falling into that “evil speech” that James warns about. The best rule of thumb is to never respond in person or on Social Media in anger.
Words have tremendous power, and it is better to use that power to build up the kingdom of God rather than break it down. Getting angry will happen, but what happens next can be avoided with a bit of practice.