Journeying through James 1:17-21 – On Anger

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. 19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. James 1:17‑20 (ESV)

Consider verse 19. Talking less and listening more before getting angry. It’s good advice. You should do it. However, none of us follow what James says completely. And later in the book, James writes, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (2:10, NIV). Now why would James tell us to do something, that we can’t do 100%, knowing that God requires 100% in order to do the righteousness that He desires? I’ll come back to that because I think this will help us understand what James is teaching.

First, it’s too bad that most of our English Bibles have a section break between verses 18 and 19. Section breaks, chapters and verses weren’t in the original Greek text. They were inserted into the Bible in the 16th century. Overall, they’re helpful, but this is one of a few rare cases where we’re probably better off without them.

For example, verses 19-20 are a lot easier to understand if we see them connected to a previous verse: “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father” (v. 17, NLT). Being quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger is a good and perfect gift. Given the problems and issues that we human beings have in patiently listening to one another and getting along with one another, I think it’s fair to say that we desperately need this gift from God.

James is teaching more than just moralism, centered on human effort. James is talking about being a new creation in Christ (v. 17). Jesus Christ hears us and listens to our prayers. He is patient and kind. He is slow to speak; He gives ample time to repent and consider the error of our ways. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NIV). One way to look at it is that God called you to use your life as an example of how He is “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” with everybody.

You cannot get rid of anger, but you can learn how to use it in a way that is good for you. How? James is teaching us to draw near to God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” But one might ask, “What does that look like in practice? How do I do that?”

In Psalm 4:4, David writes “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still.” Several times in the Psalms this verb, “meditate” is used for being still before the Lord in quiet reflection (Psalm 30:12, 37:7 & 131:2). What’s at stake?

Cain got angry with his brother—he murdered him. God counselled him, but he refused to listen. David is saying that the Lord wants us next to Him when we’re angry. Most people don’t want to be around an angry person, but the Lord does. Why? The Lord knows that we have a tendency to handle anger poorly. And Ephesians 4:26 notes what’s happening in the spiritual realm when you get angry.

Paul quotes Psalm 4:4, and adds something that you can’t see: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.” We only have to look at Cain and see that a “foothold” can lead to total control, recalling that Jesus said, “The Devil…was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth” (John 8:44, NJKV).

So take time to stand in the truth. Talk less and listen more to God. True, James is telling us not to get angry, but the real error that he’s seeking to correct is not drawing near for quiet meditation. He is teaching faith and trust in the power of God to heal our anger with His loving presence. As James says later in his epistle, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:7-8). In Jesus’ Name!