I’m certain that most of you realize that we are living at a time where there is a growing fear of having any sort of uncomfortable conversation. It has become far easier to simply to air things out online or even ‘ghost’ someone rather than having to deal face-to-face with problems or differences of opinion. I certainly know this to be true in my role as a pastor… I’m continually saddened by the distance between what people will say to your face and what they will say online. In fact, so many people have turned to hiding behind a screen to trash-talk others in angry, online outbursts that important conversations about just about anything have almost disappeared! Now, we know that a great deal of this is specific to our time and the realities of our technological age, but the truth is the human tendencies towards rage, and gossip and slander are as old as time itself… this is why the Bible is so full of wisdom related to controlling our tongues, curbing our anger, and avoiding gossip. And we believe that things like controlling our tongues and curbing our anger are so important for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus that we felt a ‘Taming the Tongue’ series was necessary… this is why we’ve taking four weeks to explore the wisdom found in the New Testament Book of James and its Old Testament counterpart, the book of Proverbs… it’s just this simple: we want Grace to be a community where we can still have meaningful, crucial conversations with one another. We’ve already heard from Amy and Maron on the importance of taming our tongues and understanding the impact of our words… two messages that everyone should listen to, by the way… and today we turn to what the Bible has to say about why it’s important that we control our anger… and, my goodness, is this an important issue today or what! So, let’s get right to it… today’s passage is James 1:19-20.
I want to give you some context for these verses. It is generally accepted that the Book of James was written by James, the half-brother of Jesus, and that he wrote this letter only about 15 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, this makes the Book of James the first New Testament book written… and what that means is that James wrote this letter at a time when almost all of the followers of Jesus were Jews… the missionary journeys that were undertaken to bring gentiles into the fold hadn’t happened yet… and so it makes sense that James would begin his letter by saying in verse 1 that this letter is written to ‘the Jewish followers of Jesus who are scattered abroad.’ And while we can’t be 100% certain about this, the assumption is that many, if not most, of these ‘scattered abroad’ Jewish believers that James was writing to were people who had first heard the message of Jesus in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. On that amazing day, which you can read all about in Acts 3, these people had heard a great wind blowing into the city of Jerusalem, they’d followed the sound of that wind and it took them to a location where they found a group of Jesus’ disciples proclaiming powerfully and convincingly that Jesus was the Messiah… and they were hearing this message in their own languages! That experience had changed their lives and they’d carried this good news about Jesus back to one of the many places that are listed in the book of Acts’ retelling of that remarkable day. Why, the Book of Acts says that there were people from at least 16 different far-flung locations from all over the Roman world present that day and now these people had all gone back to their hometowns and were telling everyone about what had happened in Jerusalem! What we must keep in mind is that none of these people who went home to places like Parthia or Libya or Rome ever said they’d converted to a new religion. No, what they said was that they had come to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and even though Jesus had been crucified by the Romans and he’d died, God had raised him from the dead, and he was alive! Now, you can imagine how that was received back in their hometown synagogues. Some Jewish people did believe these people’s message about Jesus, but we know that this message was mostly rejected out-of-hand and ridiculed by most of the Jews living in scattered places like Pontus and Cappadocia and Elam. And it makes perfect sense to me why James started his letter by saying in verse 2, ‘Dear Brothers and Sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy, for you know that when your faith is tested your endurance has a chance to grow.’ James 1:2. When James says, ‘troubles come your way’ the word he uses for ‘troubles’ (pie-ras-mos) means ‘A test of your consistency!’ In other words, the ‘troubles that were coming their way’ were a test to see if they would consistently stand firm in their belief in Jesus… even when most people were saying they were crazy! And when James says, ‘this is an opportunity for your endurance to have a chance to grow,’ the word he uses (hup-o-mon-eh) to say ‘endurance’ means, ‘Being unmoved from your purpose, no matter how much suffering you have to go through!’ Again, this all relates directly to these scattered-abroad Jewish believers standing firmly when other Jews in their local towns and synagogues were in complete disagreement with them over whether Jesus mattered at all! And can you imagine the conversations around that subject! I can hear people in the various synagogues saying, ‘You people went off to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and Pentecost and then you came back with this crazy story about some man named Jesus being the Messiah. Everyone knows that the Messiah isn’t going to be crucified by the Romans… he is going to conquer the Romans… the messiah is destined to make Jerusalem and the temple the center of the world! And did you notice that that hasn’t happened, you idiots? What you say you believe is ridiculous!’ And then the small number of people who had been in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, people who’d seen the miracles and heard the message about Jesus from the disciples, in their own language no less, would counter that they didn’t like people condescending to them or questioning their experience or accusing them of being fools. And the conversations would get more animated and more heated, and anger filled… And this is why James, who had clearly heard something about these disagreements, said this in verses 19-20 in chapter one to the small number of Jewish followers of Jesus spread throughout the Roman world, ‘Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters. You must be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires!’ James 1:19-20. And James goes even farther in verse 21 where he says, ‘So get rid of all of the filth and evil in your lives and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts for it has the power to save your souls.’ James 1:21 He calls anger part of the filth and evil in their lives. That is really strong stuff!
It’s also important to know that James chose a very specific Greek word to say ‘Anger.’ He had a good number of choices… why, in the Book of Colossians the Apostle Paul uses 5 different words to describe various sorts of anger, but here, James uses just one word: ‘orgey.’ Orgey: a wrath that is purposed to bring public shame and judgment on others. I’m sure James chose to use this word over his other choices because what must have been happening was that as the arguments over Jesus grew, they got more and more personal, and the anger was being expressed in ways to bring public shame on those they disagreed with… it became more than a heated disagreement… it became a destroy-the-other-person’s-character kind of anger... it became orgey. And it also makes perfect sense to me that James would say, ‘Human anger like this does not produce the righteousness God desires.’ Your Bible may have a note at the bottom that says there is a question about whether the word that gives us ‘righteousness’ should be translated as ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice.’ I think this is one of those places in the Bible where both possible translations work. You see, speaking in this sort of anger with someone you disagree with, with the intent of destroying their character, doesn’t make you a ‘righteous’ person… it makes you a slanderer…. a character assassin. Nor does working to publicly destroy someone’s character ever result in bringing justice into the world… the disagreement gets lowered to the level of public, vitriolic gossip and all that is really accomplished is throwing fuel on an already raging fire. Fortunately, James has a remedy for his brothers and sisters... and for you and me, I might add. He says, ‘You all must be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry.’ Now, it isn’t as though this was a new thought. The 1st Century, Jewish world was seeped in the words of the Old Testament and, in particular, the wisdom of the Proverbs… and it’s my bet that every Jew living at that time was familiar with what the book of Proverbs had to say about anger… I’m going to read five verses from Proverbs that speak to controlling our anger… but I could have spent the rest of our time today just reading from Proverbs on this subject! Oh, and by the way, the word in Hebrew that we translate as ‘anger’ is the word APH and it literally means your nose or your nostrils… the idea was that when people got angry their noses turned red or their nostrils flared out… Anyway, listen to these proverbs:
People with understanding control their anger; a hot temper shows great foolishness. Proverbs 14:29.
A hot-tempered person starts fights; a cool-tempered person stops them. Proverbs 15:18.
An offended friend is harder to win back than a fortified city. Arguments separate friends like a gate locked with bars. Proverbs 18:19.
A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. Proverbs 15:1.
Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble. Proverbs 21:23
Again, none of this would have been new to James’ original readers, but what seems to have happened was in the heat of the moment this sort of wise advice got lost, trouble and division was breaking out everywhere and James was left with having to call out this sort of anger by saying exactly what it is… filth and evil.
Now, I know that what James was talking about was anger that grew out of people who attended the same synagogues having different Jewish ‘theological’ positions related to Jesus. I am also aware that these sorts of disagreements are not generally what lead to this sort of anger in most people’s lives today. I will say, though, that the more I thought about this as I prepared this sermon, the more I was reminded of the many times over my years as a pastor when this sort of ‘orgey’ anger was used against me and other pastors here at Grace. I am going to keep quiet about specifics, but I will admit that my blood pressure did tick up some as I was remembering things from the past. I will leave it at that. With that said, what we usually have in today’s world are differences that arise over things that are political, or cultural, or matters of personal taste and preference. I recently read an article in the Atlantic monthly where 2 men who’d been great friends and roommates for a good while completely fell apart over which Lorde album was the best; Lorde is a singer from New Zealand. They continued to live in the same apartment for over a year, but they ghosted one another, called each other ‘toxic’ in online attacks, and never spoke again. These are the kinds of places where our anger gets us in trouble… especially since we can vent that anger without ever having to look someone in the eye. James’ words are so poignant: Be quick to listen… this word does mean to hear others, but it always involves giving someone an audience. James is saying we need to be quick to give others our full attention… to try and figure out exactly what they are saying and why. We shouldn’t be on our guard looking for the dog-whistles that get us worked up… we should be listening with the intension of hearing the person out… even if we don’t agree with anything they are saying… And then he says we should Be slow to speak. This one is a real problem in our culture. People are continually thinking of what their response is going to be long before another person has even come close to finishing making their point. Being slow to speak doesn’t mean never responding. But it does mean responding after a time of considering what you are about to say. Everything we say has consequences and it’s far better to be silent while weighing out the consequences than it is to speak quickly and having to live with those consequences. This was evident 3000 years ago when Solomon wrote out his proverbs and it is still true today. We have to always keep in mind that the best way to ever get someone to listen to us is to start by listening to them and then carefully saying what we have to say in ways that don’t condescend or ridicule or shame or enflame the other person… and here is the hard part… we are to be slow to speak even if everything they’re saying to us is condescending and shaming and enflaming! We are not, through expressing our anger badly, ever going to bring about the justice of God. James says it directly and my experience is that he is right.
This passage is directly talking about ‘orgey anger’ and we all know that there are other kinds of anger out there. In fact, my struggles aren’t with ‘orgey’ so much as with 1. Anger that grows out of bitterness… This is an anger that comes from being personally hurt… and I’ll admit that I’ve been known to hold on to a personal slight… for decades. 2. There is also Anger that grows out of others having a cavalier attitude toward issues and circumstances that deeply move me. It just gets my goat when people say the things I’ve given my life to are unworthy of their attention. Then there is 3. Explosive anger, anger that blows up when say, someone doesn’t get their way… or when someone does something they think is stupid… or when someone feels like someone is wasting their time. This is rage that blows up unpredictably at unexpected times… and this sort of anger is everywhere right now. I’m sure you all know someone that torments others with this kind of rage. And all these angers are simply… I’m going to use a hard word here… sin. And I am also confident that James, had he not felt that he had to address a specific kind of anger right at the beginning of his letter, would have listed out a bunch of these other sorts of angers… all of which fall under the ‘filthy and evil and need to be gotten rid of’ definition.
Now, I do want to say that James doesn’t say we should never get angry; he says we should be slow to get angry. But from all that I can tell from my decades of reading the scriptures, the times for us to exhibit what would have to be called righteous anger are very few and far between… this kind of anger, the kind of anger that Jesus did show on rare occasions, should grow out of deep grief for the unjust conditions in our world, and it should always be absolutely in line with the things that we know are breaking God’s heart. But our anger should come slowly after much listening and contemplation and consideration. I am certain this is what James is telling us; it certainly is what Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, the author of so many proverbs about anger, believed.
I am not explosive. I think things through and get my facts in line… and then I tend to simmer… especially over those who have made assumptions about my motives or taken advantage of my better nature or used me in some way. But my hope is that should I come face-to-face with any of those folks that have done these things to me again, I will be quick to listen… slow to speak… and very slow to get angry… because, as James says so strongly, nothing righteous will ever come out of my anger, whether I express it through online trash-talking or when badmouthing someone behind their backs or even do it face-to-face. And my greatest hope is that through self-control… (or hoop-o-meh-neh… endurance, as James said) and through my carefully thought-out words and actions… through my willingness to even allow others to think they have won the day… in the end the righteousness and justice that God desires will break out in our world.
I’m going to quote James once again. ‘Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters. You must be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So, get rid of all of the filth and evil in your lives and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts for it has the power to save your souls. James 1:19-21 I think that says it all.