Sometimes it is more difficult to study familiar passages because we have read them so often. Maybe it would help for us to remember that they are familiar because they are so important and have such a powerful and practical message. I would like this morning to take a look at one such paragraph, James 1:19-25, from a little bit different standpoint. Notice that this passage is set in the context of relationships. Notice that verse 17 of this same chapter refers to God as the Father of lights. He is the one who blesses us. He is our heavenly Father. Notice that in verse 18 it says that "of his own will he has begotten us (or brought us forth) by the word of truth." In other words, we are his children. Then notice in verse 19 it refers to all believers, all Christians, as "my beloved brothers," as James says it, and he refers to them again in chapter 2, verse 1, as "my brothers." So the whole paragraph is set in the context of the family relationships that we have as God's children and as members of Christ.
Now within this paragraph there are five rules to guide us in our relationships as Christians. These five guidelines have to do with how we treat each other in a family at home and also with how we treat each other in a family at church. These guidelines have application to who we are and how we relate to our neighbors in everyday life. They are extremely important and basic to what it means to live like a Christian in our relationships with other people.
This morning notice, first of all, that James calls for us to have a "quick ear," for us to be swift to hear; in other words, for us to be ready listeners to the people who are around us daily. Remember that God gave all of us two ears and one tongue for a good reason. It is hard to remember that, isn't it? Steven Covey has made the point that the principle here is that we are supposed to "seek first to understand and then to be understood." The way of communication in family relationships is to understand the other person's point of view before you begin to spout off your own words. It is the same principle that Jesus used with us. Remember that he dwelt among us to understand things from our perspective and then he spoke to us. Thirty years he was the carpenter's son and then three years he was the teacher. He had listened first.
Now, of course, this principle has to do with our taking care "how we hear," as it is stated in Luke 8, verse 18. We are to listen sympathetically. We are to listen to understand and not merely to be preparing a response while someone is speaking. This means hearing from the other person's point of view, putting yourself in the other person's shoes, being sensitive to what the person is going through, and sensitive to where the person is coming from, paying attention to the tone of voice and to the expressions, and understanding what that individual is thinking and feeling and needing. How else can you communicate to a person that you love them, that they are important to you, that you accept them? Someone has said that listening is like air in the room for any relationship. If it were possible to take all the air out of this room and for you to think "how much would I want to breathe?" then, that is how important really hearing somebody else is to getting along with them.
This principle, of course, also applies to paying attention to what we listen to, as it is said in Mark 4, verse 24. Not just how we listen but what we listen to is important in Christian relationships. The Bible emphasizes that we have a responsibility with regard to what we are willing to listen to. In Proverbs 17, verse 4, it says "An evil doer listens to wicked lips and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue. In Proverbs 14, verse 15, says "The simple believes everything but the prudent gives thought to his steps." In other words, he thinks over where this is coming from that is being said. The point is that whispering and talebearing and slandering cannot exist without someone who is willing to listen to it. The easiest way for us to cut off that kind of problem in our daily experience is not merely to scold people who are talking when they shouldn't be, but simply for us to quit listening to it. We are to be quick to understand people, quick to hear good about people, but not to hear evil reports.
I read about an Indian who was in downtown New York. The writer says that he was walking along with a friend who lived in New York City, and all of a sudden he said to his friend, "I hear a cricket." Of course, there are cars and horns and noise and people everywhere. "Oh, you are crazy," his friend replied. "You can't hear that." And the fellow said, "No, I hear a cricket. I do. I am sure of it." The guy protested, "It's the noon hour. You know there are people bustling around and cars honking and taxis squealing and noises from the city. I am sure you can't hear that." "I'm sure I do." The visitor listened intently for a few minutes and then he walked to the corner across the street. He looked all around, and finally on the other corner he found a shrub in a large cement planter, and he dug beneath a leaf and he found a cricket. The friend who lived in New York City was just totally astonished, and he said to the visitor, "Now my ears are no different from yours." "It simply depends on what you are listening to. Now here, let me show you." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of change - a few quarters and dimes and nickels, etc., and he dropped them on the sidewalk and every head within a block turned. And the fellow said, "You see what I mean? It all depends on what you are listening for." We want to be people whose attention you cannot get by talking bad about somebody else. But if there is something good to be said, all you have to do is mention it and it grabs our attention. Swift to hear, to understand somebody else.
Secondly, James says in this passage that we are in need of a cautious tongue in all of our family relationships. Someone said the human tongue is only a few inches from the brain, but when you listen to us talk, they seem miles apart. That is often true. Hasty and thoughtless words probably do more harm to relationships than anything else there is, don't they? James says in James 3, verses 5 and 6, "How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire and the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members staining our whole body, setting on fire the whole course of life and set on fire by hell." Think about the recent terrible fires that ravaged California. Every day you would hear about how many more square miles had been burned - sometimes thousands of square miles - and how many beautiful houses had just been consumed in all of that, and then some people's lives. And apparently one of them started with a hunter who got lost and set off a flair that started a brush fire. Maybe others were caused by arsonists who started out with just a little fire, and look what damage was done by that. What a parable that is for our words.
There are certain kinds of hurtful words that come from hasty, thoughtless speech most often. The first kind is faultfinding. It is the sharp and critical judgments that we jump to about people when we only know half the story, if that much. Another type is whispering, which means spreading damaging things about others that we don't even know to be true. And then there is obscenity - the vulgar words which sometimes spring unbidden from our mouths. Somebody described vulgarity or obscenity as stupidity made audible. How we ever got the idea that talking like that is a sign of toughness and of grown-upness, I will never know. The easiest thing in the world to do is just to talk dirty and go along with the crowd. The filthiness and foolish talk and crude joking which are out of place, as Paul says in Ephesians 5, verse 4, often come from thoughtless lips.
And then unfortunately, there are words of abuse - a kind of railing on those around that people who hated Jesus heaped on him in Matthew 27, verse 39 - the tongue lashing that belittles another person, the immature fellow who thinks he can get in his wife's face and give her a piece of his mind, the mama who chews on a child as if that child were lower than dirt, the co-worker who gives the guy next to him a piece of his mind, smuggly thinking that he has really accomplished something. All of that fits in the category of what we are talking about here.
The rule for all of us as Christians, James says for all people in verse 19, is to be slow to speak. I wish that were as easy as saying you need an accent like mine - you just need to talk slow. But, of course, it means more than that, doesn't it? It means that we are obligated to weigh our words very carefully and then to control our tongues. In fact, James says later on in this chapter at verse 26, "if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man's religion is mane, or worthless." We have to ask ourselves - "Is it true? Is it kind? And Is it necessary?" - and only when it passes those tests should it be said. Bro. V.P. Black was a great preacher who did so much good over long years. I have an article that he wrote one time in which he quotes Col. 3, verse 8, "But now you also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth." And he tells this story. It is something that he personally knew about. "A man was leading singing in a small church and he was doing the best he could because no one else would do it. A gossiping sister told several members of the church that this man was the worst song leader that she had ever heard. She also said if I could do no better than that, I'd not attempt to lead the singing." It could have been said about a preacher, teacher or person who made a visit, or a cook, or anybody. "The song leader heard what the gossiping sister said and he never attended services again." Bro. Black said, "If the brother dies without repenting and goes to hell, I'm sure he will see the gossiping sister there unless she repents." It makes you think, doesn't it?
The first family rule is a ready ear. The second family rule is a cautious tongue. And the third principle that this calls for is a steady temper. You can see the progression of thought here, if you think about it. One of us doesn't listen to the whole story and we jump to a bad conclusion. Then we spout off unwise words that hurt, and then anger quickly erupts. That scenario, I'm sure, is not very unusual but it always destructive to our really loving each other. Anger may smoulder in the form of a festering grudge where we didn't have the courage to deal with the problem but we thought we had the right to maintain the hate. Or, anger may explode in a fit of rage, and it may take the form of yelling or hitting or, unfortunately, even worse. James is so obviously right that it is not debatable. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God, does it? So often the opposite of that occurs.
And that is why the wisdom of the scriptures has always called for us to be slow to anger. I wrote down several of the Proverbs that I noticed in working on this. Proverbs 16, verse 32, says "Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." Prov. 14:29 says "Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly." The Proverbs remind us that a quick temper tends to produce foolish actions (Prov. 14:17) and to stir up strife (Prov. 15:18). Paul says in the New Testament that it gives place to the devil (Eph. 4:27). It gives him an opportunity, a foothold, a place to get in and pry people apart. Prov. 19:11 says "Good sense makes one slow to anger and it is his glory to overlook an offense." Good sense!
Notice that James doesn't prohibit anger. He calls for us to be slow to anger, to have a steady temper. Anger is simply a God-given emotion. It can be a healthy response to legitimate concerns in life if it doesn't come too quickly and if it is resolved appropriately and if it doesn't become a settled state. There is a difference between a person who is angry and an angry person. What Proverbs is saying is for us not to become angry persons. That means we have to control ourselves. We have to look within ourselves about what it is that is making us angry. Do you realize that very often it is not what somebody else did? It is what we are going through or what is inside us at the time. It means dealing with problems as they arise and not just sulking over them. It means expressing our anger to God and then getting over it.
Henry Ward Beecher wrote many years ago: "There is an anger that is damnable. It is the anger of selfishness. There is an anger that is majestic as the frown of Jehovah's brow. It is the anger of truth and love. If a man meets with injustice, it is not required that he shall not be roused to meet it. But if he is angry after he has had time to think upon it, that is sinful. The flame is not wrong but the coals are." I think that is an important observation. The flame is not wrong but the coals are. Bro. Hugo McCord, who was a friend of Hallie's, told one time about having met in the state of Illinois a delightful old gentleman who had long been married to his beloved wife. He said the old couple told him that every night after the two of them were in bed (and this had been their practice through the years), each reached over and patted the other with the understood meaning "all is well between us." Isn't that a lovely idea? Something like that needs to happen in all our families, where anger is dealt with before the sun goes down, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4.
We need a swift ear, cautious tongue, steady temper and a clean heart. Notice that James' "therefore" at the beginning of verse 21, or "so know this" at the beginning of verse 19. Both of those ideas are saying to us that the things he is talking about here - the anger, the words, the hearing - all of those things begin in the heart. The heart has to be prepared for something beautiful and good to grow out of it. I remember a few years ago the community of Times Beach, Missouri became well known. It was because people had built their houses in a location where the soil was contaminated with some toxic substances of one kind or another. People had to sell their places and had to be moved out somewhere else. Trying to build a healthy relationship with an ugly heart is about as impossible as being at home on top of a toxic landfill.
What we need is clean hearts - the removal of ungodly motives and ungodly intentions and thoughts from our minds. James says that we need to put away all filthiness. It is fascinating to me to learn that the word that the word for filthiness here (Bro. Woods says) is a word that applied to ear wax that stopped up a person's ear. What keeps us from hearing what God wants us to do? And James says that we are to put away overflowing wickedness. Barclay says it is the word for a sewer that springs up and overflows. Sometimes those bad things in our hearts keep us from receiving with meekness, with gentle control, the implanted word which can't be planted until the ground is rid of weeds, the word which is then able to save our souls.
I ran across a little piece by a lady named Debbie Hinton. She wrote, "Lord, it is not the dirt and clutter in plain sight that nags at me. It is the hidden dirt. You know, behind the refrigerator, in the closets, under the beds. Dirt that no one knows about but me. It is the same way with my life, God. It is those hidden sins I can't keep up with, those petty little grievances, the grudges, the resentments, the unspoken harsh feelings, the superior attitudes - thoughts and feelings that no one else knows about but me and you, God. Help me Father to clean my heart as I would my home. Take away all the dust and cobwebs of pride, ill feelings and prejudice. The dirt behind my refrigerator will never hurt anyone. The dirt in my heart will." We need clean hearts.
And then fifth, we need doing hands, according to verses 22-25. What our passage calls for here is just another of the basic family rules and that is, no matter what other people are doing, I'm to do what I should. A Christian has a responsibility in any relationship to do what is right even if other people are not. That means that a Christian is to go first, to set the tone, to do what he should do, to take personal action.
I ran across an illustration of hearing and doing that so impressed me. It has to do with Bro. Jim Bill McInteer. I have never met him but I have read after him and heard of him for years. Everybody thinks of Bro. McInteer as a fine gospel preacher, somebody who has dedicated his life to the cause of Christ in speaking and in writing. I understand that he is a man with an eloquent speech and a style of delivery that is unique to him, that he is someone who has preached all over the country for more than 60 years. Let me quote some other writer here: "However, Jim Bill has probably just finished his greatest sermon. For 17 years he has taken care of his lovely wife, Betty, while she suffered from alzheimer's disease. Until recently, she continued to travel with him as he spoke all over our great country. Jim Bill tells of the nights at home how he would dress her for bed, read to her as they were together, and pray with her before they fell asleep. In her later years he never really knew whether she understood any of it. But he continued to entertain her friends for lunch on my occasions, doing the cooking himself." This writer observed what a great demonstration of true love and devotion for all of us. Isn't that right? There is a man who heard and did.
James' picture in this passage of that kind of behavior is so vivid you can almost see it. Somebody takes a close, long look in the mirror observing everything that needs to be worked on in his life and his relationships. He sees it all, but he thinks that just having seen it is enough, and he goes on his way without making a single change. Do you know that counselors say that is way too common? People see what needs to be done but are not willing to make any changes. So James is telling us to be people who hear and then do.
What do we all need in our relationships? A quick ear, a cautious tongue, steady temper, clean heart and hands that do something that we see needs to be done. In this whole passage, the word of truth plays a prominent role. We are brought forth by the word of truth, according to verse 18. We are to get our hearts ready and receive the word of truth so that we can be saved in verse 21. And we are to be people who persevere at doing what the word says in verse 25. And the assurance is that such a person is blessed in his doing. We want every home, every family, we want our congregation to be blessed. Let us then pursue the guidelines in this great passage.
If you need to make a beginning this morning and if there is some way that you need to respond to the gospel - maybe in obeying the gospel to be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins - or maybe in asking for the prayers of your brothers and sisters in Christ - if we can help you, won't you come this very morning while we stand and sing?