What Is the Meaning of James 1:19-20? Slow to Speak? Slow to Wrath?
What does it mean to be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath? How should Christians apply these qualities in their lives and interactions with others?
What does James 1:19-20 say?
“So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
James wrote, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).
God exemplifies all three qualities perfectly. This is part of why He is completely righteous and without sin (Psalm 145:17; Deuteronomy 32:4). In our efforts to develop His righteous character, we must be growing these qualities in our lives (Matthew 6:33; James 3:18).
But what exactly does it mean to possess these qualities? What is the meaning of James 1:19-20?
Let’s consider each element of James’ admonition.
“Swift to hear”
“Swift to hear” doesn’t mean rushing to hear so that we can respond. Being swift to hear means we should always be willing to listen for understanding.
But what should we be willing to listen to and why?
First, we should be swift to hear the words of God.
Human beings naturally desire to be heard and understood by others. Similarly, but for totally unselfish reasons, God desires that you and I make every effort to listen to—–and fully understand—–Him and His ways.
James lays out the expectation that Christians should be “doers of the word” (James 1:22). If we are to be doers of God’s words, we must first be hearers of His words. How can we do something we haven’t first heard? Therefore, our focus should be on listening to God’s inspired words in His written instruction manual, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16).
(For more information, see “What Is the Meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16?”)
If we listen, His words will teach us, correct us and show us how to live. Jesus emphasized the importance of hearing and doing His instructions to build a foundation that will stabilize us through trials (Matthew 7:24).
Second, we should be swift to hear the words of people.
Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart.”
Are we truly engaged in our conversations? Are we making every effort to listen and understand the words spoken by our friends, families and others? Or are we concerned only with what we have to say or with something beyond the conversation?
(To learn more about this concept, read our blog post “Social Communication 101: Self-Centered Conversations.”)
When we listen to the words of others, what should we listen for?
- We should listen for counsel (Proverbs 1:5; 12:15).
- We should listen to receive correction, especially when we sin against our brother (Proverbs 10:17; Matthew 18:15).
- We should listen so that we can relate to others, understand the battles they face, and provide encouragement and exhortation (Hebrews 10:25; 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11, 14).
- We should listen to understand the needs of others and how we can serve them (Philippians 2:3-4).
- We should listen to genuinely enjoy conversation and build lasting relationships.
(To learn more about communication with other people, see “5 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills.”)
We should always remember to hear the words of others and, more importantly, the words of God.
“Slow to speak”
What does it mean to be “slow to speak”?
HELPS Word-Studies defines the Greek word for “slow” as “taking time to deliberate” or “unhurried, while still moving forward after considering all the facts.” Therefore, to be slow to speak, we must seriously gather all the facts first and then speak with careful consideration.
Like Christ, we must be “slow to speak.” We must read the situation and then respond wisely in how and when we say something.Christ set the perfect example when questioned by the Pharisees. The Pharisees sought to trick Him by asking if an adulterous woman should be stoned to death (John 8:4-5). After realizing their intent, Christ stooped to write on the ground, as if He hadn’t heard them. When they kept asking Him, He stood up and answered, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:6-7).
It seems the words He continued to write on the ground prompted the men, one by one, to walk guiltily away (verses 8-9).
What a powerful example!
Like Christ, we must be “slow to speak.” We must read the situation and then respond wisely in how and when we say something.
Consider some questions we can ask ourselves before we speak to ensure our words align with God’s Word:
● Are our words evil and lacking value, or are they graceful and edifying (Ephesians 4:29, 31)?
● Do our words bring joy, and are they spoken at the right time (Proverbs 15:23)?
● Are our words carefully spoken instead of being hasty or rash (Ecclesiastes 5:2-3)?
● Are our words acceptable in the sight of God (Psalm 19:14)?
● Are our words pleasant and sweet to those who hear them (Proverbs 16:24)?
● Do we give a “soft answer” that defuses anger in a tense situation (Proverbs 15:1)?
● Do we refrain from speaking when appropriate (Ecclesiastes 3:7)?
What, how and when we speak matters.
Jesus Christ taught that our speech is an indicator of who we are at our core. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:35-37).
For more insight on how to be slow to speak, read “You Don’t Say! Think Before You Speak.”
“Slow to wrath”
What does it mean to be “slow to wrath”?
The Greek word for “slow” used in this phrase is the same as the one used in “slow to speak.” Therefore, “slow to wrath” means carefully gathering all the facts before choosing whether or not we should be angry.
Contrary to popular belief, anger isn’t an emotion totally outside of our control. Anger is a choice. We must think before we become angry, just as we must think before we speak. Anger can be thoughtfully managed, similarly to how we can handpick every word in a carefully crafted sentence.
Rather than allowing uncontrolled anger to grow, we should be slow to wrath, preventing strife and contention before it starts. However, managing anger is not easy.
To successfully control anger is such a feat that Proverbs says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
Whether it builds subtly or quickly, uncontrolled anger can lead to sinful thoughts, hurtful speech and unwise actions soon to be regretted. Like a large reservoir of water escaping from an eroding earthen dam, anger builds and becomes hard to stop (Proverbs 14:17).
Ultimately, if we don’t manage anger properly, it will negatively impact our relationship with God and with others.
Rather than allowing uncontrolled anger to grow, we should be slow to wrath, preventing strife and contention before it starts (Proverbs 15:18).
How can we be slow to anger?
We can start by learning to identify anger as it builds within us. What triggers us to anger? Do we recognize its warning signs? Do we feel our bodies tense with the buildup of frustration? Do we recognize the strong urge to talk back or quickly retaliate?
Rather than react impulsively, we must seek to understand a situation before responding (Proverbs 14:29).
For more insight on anger, read “What Does the Bible Say About Anger?”
Does human wrath produce God’s righteousness?
After telling us to be slow to wrath, James tells us why: “For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Is there ever a time when our anger is justified?
The short answer is yes.
Paul, quoting Psalm 4:4, wrote, “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). We know anger by itself is not sin because God, who cannot sin, displayed anger and wrath in several different instances. On one occasion, when the children of Israel embraced idolatry, “the anger of the LORD was hot” against them (Judges 3:7-8).
Rather than let our anger be a foothold for the devil, we must use God’s Spirit to help us rightly judge, maintain a pure motive and be angry without sinning.So, if it’s possible to be justified in anger, why did God inspire James to write, “The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God”?
Because it’s difficult for imperfect human beings to exhibit righteous anger.
Unlike God, we are susceptible to three major pitfalls that can lead us to unrighteous anger:
- Imperfect judgment: God always judges in righteousness (Psalm 7:11). He sees all and knows all (Psalm 139:1-12; Isaiah 55:8-9). He alone knows the hearts and motives of men (1 Kings 8:39). In contrast, our human minds operate from a limited perspective.
- Wrong motives: A wrong motive, such as a selfish one, will lead us to unrighteous anger. The human tendency is to be angry because someone has mistreated us. But the right motive for godly anger is because someone has wronged or disrespected God. For example, in 1 Samuel 17:26, David expressed righteous anger while defending God’s honor.
- Sinful reactions: Even if we have properly judged the scenario and have the right motive, we still must guard our actions so that we don’t sin. We are commanded to be angry but not sin (Ephesians 4:26).
While exhibiting righteous anger is difficult, it’s not impossible. Rather than let our anger be a foothold for the devil, we must use God’s Spirit to help us rightly judge, maintain a pure motive and be angry without sinning.
Righteousness in action
So always remember to be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath.
For more information about God’s righteousness, see “What Is the Breastplate of Righteousness?”