Journeying through James 1:19-21 – More 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)

The order of events in 1:19 is key. One should listen more, talk less. Excelling in talking less and listening more develops patience (cf. James 1:2-4). Having a merciful attitude allows a person to see the light (cf. James 2:12–13). Patience and mercy come before anger for God; but, for humans, anger often comes first.

James does not say, “don’t get angry.” He says we should be “slow to anger.” It’s impossible not to get angry. James seems to be angry at times in his epistle (James 4:4 and 5:1-6).

The challenge for us believers is to try to master being “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (v. 19). Since none of us, except Jesus, has done this successfully, the point that James is making seems crystal clear: “anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (v. 20). In other words, if we are patient and merciful with each other, we stay safely in the grace of God, but if we get angry, and we do at times, we need to be really careful, because it’s an area where we can quickly go astray.

Jesus was constantly tested by some really angry and annoying people, who were not only trying to destroy His ministry, but they were actively doing everything they could to keep people from following Him. Jesus kept his cool, mostly, but He did speak the truth to them. He characterized such people as “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16), “hypocrites”(Matthew 22:18, Matthew 23:13 ff., Luke 11:44), “fools,” (Matthew 23:17) “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27), a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34) and children of the devil (John 8:44). He said all these things, not because He hated them, but because He loved and protected His sheep.

There is constructive Christ-like anger, and there is not. Anger is similar in to another strong emotion, passion. Anger is usually directed against something that we hate. Passion is usually directed towards something that we love. When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, the Bible says zeal (passion) for his Father’s house is what motivated Him. Jesus loved people. And Jesus hated the lies of the Devil that kept people from knowing His love.

The example of Jesus helps us see that there are times when we need to speak the truth in love. Again, the order given in James 1:19 is key: we should listen more, talk less, and be slow to anger. None of us can perfectly manage our anger as Jesus did, so we should be wary of getting upset. This is an area where it’s important to ask God for wisdom (James 1:5), remembering what James also shared at the beginning of his epistle: “let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:4).