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What does it mean that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19)?

The New Testament epistle of James has been called "the Proverbs of the New Testament." It was written by James, the half-brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem, to Jewish Christians dispersed among the nations. It is filled with practical exhortations and wisdom. One of the practical instructions James gives is, "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19). James explains his reasoning for this, "for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (James 1:20–21).

Being quick to listen and slow to speak essentially means we should be willing to listen to other people, genuinely seeking to consider and understand what they are saying. We should weigh our words wisely, not responding in a heated moment with the first thing that comes to mind or refusing to give others the opportunity to share their thoughts. Given his caution to be slow to anger and his statement that human anger does not lead to righteousness, James seems particularly concerned with situations in which there is dissension or anger. Truly listening to others and being careful with our own words can certainly go a long way in preventing unnecessary hurt in tense moments. When all parties are quick to listen and slow to speak, reconciliation is much easier.

James also counsels his readers to "put away" wickedness and instead "receive with meekness the implanted word." We are to listen not only to other people, but to God. We listen to His Word and allow it to change us through the work of the Holy Spirit. Part of what the Holy Spirit produces in us is love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5:22–23). "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful" (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). These qualities all affect the way we listen to and interact with others. As we listen to God and allow Him to work in our hearts and lives, we also begin to love others more as He does (Philippians 2:12–13; John 13:34–35; Galatians 5:13–14; 6:2).

To be quick to listen and slow to speak often requires humility. We must be willing to admit we could have something to learn. Paul told the Philippians, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:3–8). Jesus, fully God and fully man, came to earth for us. There is no greater love, and no greater humility.

God listens to us when we pray. Because of Jesus' perfect life, death on the cross, and resurrection, all who put their faith in Him can be made children of God (John 1:12; Ephesians 2:1–10). Part of being adopted as God's child is having full access to Him in prayer. Hebrews 4:14–16 says, "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." If God is willing to listen to us, we should certainly reflect Him by listening to others.

This is not to say that in listening to others we must always agree with them. Quite the contrary, we are encouraged to "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 5:15–17). Psalm 1 warns us against wicked counsel. We should test the things we hear, especially as related to the truth of who God is (1 John 4:1–6; Acts 17:11). We are also encouraged to "speak the truth with [our] neighbor" (Ephesians 4:25). While we should be slow to speak, this does not mean we are never to speak. However, we are to "let no corrupting talk come out of [our] mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Ephesians 4:29).

Proverbs 10:17–21 give complementary advice to James: "Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray. … When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense." Jesus said that our words are a reflection of what is truly in our hearts (Matthew 12:34–37). When our hearts are being transformed by God, we are more likely to honor others by listening, learn wisdom, recognize truth through discernment (Hebrews 5:14), and speak in ways that honor God and lead to life. Let us all strive to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

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