“Listening, Speaking, Slow to Anger” Colchester Federated Church, August 29, 2021, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (James 1:17-27)

Over the next several Sundays we’re going to be exploring the Letter of James.  This James is none other than the brother of Jesus and the leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem.  James wrote his letter “to the twelve tribes who are scattered outside the land of Israel.”[1]  This was in reference to the Babylonian Exile and the fact that many prophets looked forward to the day when the 12-tribe kingdom would be restored in the land of Israel.  Unlike Paul who often wrote letters to Christian communities about specific situations (and often communities in conflict with one another, come to that), this letter is broad in scope. 

In fact, some Biblical scholars would say that this letter belongs to the genre of Wisdom Literature.  Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are all Old Testament books of the Bible that are Wisdom Literature.  Their whole purpose was to compile instructions—the wisdom passed down from generations in some cases—in order to help folks understand how to live wisely and follow God’s rule in one’s life.  The Letter of James contains within it many sayings that are expressed as these wise instructions for how people can live out our lives faithfully in following the example of Jesus the Christ. 

Perhaps the most famous wisdom saying in James’ Letter (which we will get to in the Sundays to come) is that faith must be expressed in good actions.  Faith without works is dead is how that teaching is translated in some versions of the Bible.  It helps to orient ourselves as readers within the Letter of James by moving from theme to theme, or lesson to lesson.  It helps to sit with the wisdom sayings and follow along with the arguments that James is making in each section of his letter.  We’re not going to be hearing parables or stories over the next few Sundays.  Instead, we will be hearing Wisdom Literature and ways that you and I can live wisely and follow God’s rule in our own lives.

With all of that hopefully clarified, today we begin with James’ instruction about listening, speaking, and being slow to grow angry.  James wrote, “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.  This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.”[2]

When reading this, it made me think of a funny and insightful statement made by Craig Ferguson—comedian, actor, author, and former TV host of the Late Late Show.  Ferguson once said that it took him three marriages to learn an important lesson about communication.  Ferguson said, “Ask yourself the three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything.  1) Does this need to be said?  2) Does this need to be said by me?  3) Does this need to be said by me now?”  We could summarize this communication teaching by saying that we all would do well to think before we speak.  It’s helpful that Craig Ferguson lays it out for us like this even in the midst of a comedy bit.  Before we say anything, ask some questions.  Does this need to be said?  Does this need to be said by me?  Does this need to be said by me now?

James emphasizes much the same idea when he says that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.  Because if we claim to be devoted to God, but we don’t control what we say, we are misleading ourselves.  We can cause emotional harm to another person if we lash out in our anger and don’t think before we speak. 

Now for obvious reasons, I have been thinking about marriage lately and more specifically about what makes marriages happy and lasting.  People can be married for decades and not be fulfilled in that relationship, let’s be honest.  Longevity in a marriage doesn’t always signify a healthy and happy one.  That’s just the truth. 

Emily Esfahani Smith wrote this great article years ago in The Atlantic called “Masters of Love” about what science says about what makes a lasting relationship a good one.  She writes, “The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in 10 marriages remain healthy and happy, as the psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After.”[3]  What makes those three in ten marriages healthy and happy?  Esfahani Smith interviewed John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute in New York City—an organization devoted to helping couples build and maintain healthy and loving relationships based on science.  The Gottmans spoke about how some couples create a culture of love and intimacy from the very beginning and others squash that movement within a relationship.

For instance, John Gottman designed this lab on the University of Washington campus that looked like a beautiful bed-and-breakfast retreat and invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day and watched them as they did what couples often do on vacation—cook, chat, listen to music, just hang out.  Throughout the day he would observe couples make what he calls “bids” for connection.  Let’s say the husband loves watching birds and he says to his wife, “Look at that gorgeous bird that just landed on that tree!”  The husband isn’t just commenting on the bird.  In effect, he’s looking for a sign of interest or support from his wife.  He’s looking for connection.  Turning to the wife, she has a choice for how she responds.  She can in effect turn toward her husband or turn away from him.  She can not even look up from her phone and say, “That’s great, honey.”  Even worse, she could say, “You and your dumb birds.  Ugh, you’re so obsessed with birds!”  Or she can say, “Wow!  That is a gorgeous bird!”  This is meant to be a silly and minor example of how this concept works, but Gottman says that it reveals a lot about the health of a relationship.  Do we turn toward one another or turn away from one another when a partner is seeking connection? 

My family teases me that I now go fishing all the time.  And I often say, “Well Neill loves fishing, and I love Neill.  So here we are.”  But the truth is that this whole idea of turning toward one’s partner has specific implications.  As the author states, “The couples who were still together after six years had ‘turn toward bids’ 87 percent of the time.  Nine times of out 10, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.”[4]  It ends up that having a spirit of kindness and generosity in a relationship is what makes marriages last and people remain happily married.  Kindness helps to glue couples together.  Kindness makes each partner feel understood, cared for, validated, and yes—loved.

When James wrote, “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” he was not specifically giving marriage advice.  But he might as well have been.  Are we mostly turning toward those we love or turning away?  We can expand upon some of these specific examples about what makes for a long and healthy marriage and contemplate what makes for a long and healthy relationship period.  What makes for a healthy relationship with one’s children or one’s siblings or one’s friends?  Kindness and generosity of spirit seem like good Christ-like orientations to have in mind.  Being quick to listen.  Being slow to speak.  And being especially slow to anger.  May it be so with us, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] James 1:1, CEB.
[2] James 1:19-20.
[3] Emily Esfahani Smith, “Masters of Love,” in The Atlantic, June 12, 2014 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/
[4] Ibid.

Photo of Rev. Lauren Lorincz & Neill Ostrout by David Butler, Butler Photography.