“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 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.” – James 1:19-21
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha
“One-half of the ills of life come because men are unwilling to sit down quietly for thirty minutes to think through all the possible consequences of their acts.” – Blaise Pascal
“When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.” – Mark Twain
As the saying goes, “God gave you two ears and one mouth because you are supposed to listen twice as much as you speak.” These three verses, probably more than anything I’ve ever read, ring true and frustrate me at the same time. The default of my heart is anger. But when I sit down and really look at it, what is that anger? It is nothing more, and nothing less than my inflamed ego. There is a time and a place for righteous anger. There is a time when the only correct course of action is to pick up a cat-of-nine-tails and start turning over tables. But 99.999% of the time our anger is nothing like righteous anger. We get angry because so-and-so gets such-and-such and they don’t deserve it. We get angry because someone says something out of the way to us, or about us and got away with it. We get angry because we didn’t get our way. In other words, we get angry because we are jealous. We get jealous because of our pride. And our pride is the basis of every other sin that we might commit.
Robert Anton Wilson said, “Most people live in a myth and grow violently angry if anyone dares tell them the truth about themselves.” This is what we need to understand. James tells us that our anger stands in the way of the righteousness that God has for us. Our anger keeps us from, as Bob Wilson so aptly pointed out, hearing the truth about ourselves. More often than not, our anger flares up in the presence of anything that tries to pull off our mask and expose the self we want so desperately to hide.
There is an interesting thing that James adds at the end of these verses. After telling us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, he tells us to get rid of moral filth that is so prevalent. This idea is a “therefore” to the idea of being slow to anger, etc. In other words, he is telling us that the way we can accomplish the first part, is in doing the second. We are to get rid of moral filth in our lives, be humble in accepting the Word of God, and this will be the way that we are able to do the first part. You want to know how to tell when a person knows what they are doing is wrong? Watch for the things that make them angry. Tell an alcoholic that they need to watch their drinking. Tell a legalist that they need to be more loving. Tell a “free-spirit” that they need some boundaries. You will find out pretty quickly when a person isn’t so sure that what they are doing is right.
I’ll take it one step further. In general, the thing that a person thinks is “the worst” sin, is the thing that that person struggles with the most. And it comes back, once again, to the pride of Lucifer that we all share. A person who thinks that being a drunk is the worst thing you can do is typically someone who has fought very hard to overcome drunkenness. That person is then putting their pride in their ability to stop drinking, and thinks “I did it, why can’t you?” A person who struggles with lust may think that infidelity is the worst thing you can do. A person who struggles with anger may think that violence is the worst thing to do. The list could go on forever. The point is that James’ advice here is twofold. We are to get rid of our moral filth. That’s the part that our friends I’ve listed above have done. But the second part is that we are then to “humbly” accept the Word of God which can save us. And there is the kicker. Once we realize that any ability that we have to overcome this moral filth does not come from us, but from God’s Word planted in us, then we see things in a new light. When we realize that we, like these poor saps we are so angry with, are completely helpless to do anything about our sinful selves, then we become a lot more eager to forgive them. When we realize that we are no better than they are, then we give them the benefit of the doubt. Jesus puts it in positive terms when He tells us to love our neighbor as our self.
One of the most devastating, and humbling experiences that a person can have is to realize that you are exactly the thing that makes you the most angry. It is so easy for us to look at the Swaggarts and Bakkers of the world and say, “you fought so hard against this thing in public, but look at your private life.” But if we are honest with ourselves, we are absolutely no different. Robert Anton Wilson again stumbled on something close to the truth when he said, “You are precicely as big as what you love and precicly as small as what you allow to annoy you.” The downfall of these men, and the downfall of us all comes when we try to correct our own actions by just trying harder. We think there must be some program, some method, some path that we can, on our own efforts, do to overcome. But the fact is that we are totally and completely ill equiped to do this on our own.
In the end, like every other issue, it comes back to the two things that Jesus Himself told us to do. This “word planted in you” that James refers to is that of Jesus, The Word Himself. We are told to love God with all that we have and all that we are. And we are told to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This means that we humbly listen to what God tells us. And what God tells us is that we need His help. It also means that we are to love our neighbors by giving them the same forgiveness and the same benefit of the doubt that we give ourselves. Even when we beat up on ourselves, and wallow in our “wrongness,” we are really doing so out of some sense of pride in our ability to admit that we are so wrong.
The beauty and the freedom of the Gospel is that we don’t have to change other people. When Jesus told Peter vaguely how he would die, Peter’s first response was, “What about John.” Jesus, in the Grace and Truth way that only He could pull off said simply, “What is that to you? You must follow me.” Let that play in your mind the next time you are angry. The next time you think, “So-and-so just said blah-blah-blah to me!” Think, “what is that to me? I must follow Jesus.” The next time you wonder, “why did so-and-so get away with doing whatever-it-is?” Remember, “What is that to me? I must follow Jesus.” And the next time you are faced with the choice to do the whatever-it-is that tempts you. Remember, “What is that to me? I must follow Jesus.”
“How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.” – Fred Rogers