The Bible says in James 1:19-20: 19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Did you notice that? The Bible says we must be “slow to speak.” Of course this requires us to be “quick to listen” and it results in being “slow to anger,” but at the center of it all is a slowness to open our mouths.
It is interesting that this was written by James, the brother of Jesus. Imagine what James must have thought of Jesus when Jesus began His public ministry. Consider this scene in the life of Jesus in Matthew 12:46-50:
“46 While he [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'”
While this is only speculation on my part and I could be completely wrong, I wonder what was going through James’s mind here – “What does He think He’s doing? Who does He think He is? Why does He seem to prefer His followers to His own family?” We know from Mark 3:21 that his family was not certain of Jesus sanity and from John 7:5 that his brothers (this would obviously include James) had not yet believed in Him. It is very possible then that James had not been slow to listen to the things Jesus said and failed to recognize the ring of authority in what Jesus taught. Perhaps he became angry about all this and wrongly judged Jesus and even spoke negatively about Him before he eventually embraced his half-brother as Lord and Messiah. I don’t know, but it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Could James be writing James 1:19-20 from personal experience?
Regardless, he clearly says we should be “slow to speak.” Slow. To. Speak. And immediately conviction settles over my heart. Slow to speak is not necessarily something I am known for. But there it is, in black and white, forever preserved in the pages of Holy Scripture – we must be slow to speak.
Later on in the same epistle James illustrates just how powerful our words can be. He says in James 3:1-12:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
How vividly these images reveal the power of our speech (i.e. tongue)! The words we use have a powerful influence and effect on those around us. As a result we have been given, especially as disciples of Jesus, a tremendous responsibility to use our words carefully. I’m convinced this is why the Apostle Paul said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).
Beloved, are you careful with your speech? Do you give God praise and thanksgiving in one moment while cursing those made in His image the next? Are your words gracious?
So many problems could be resolved in our homes, church, workplace, school, communities and world if we could simply learn to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. When it comes down to it this is really an act of love.
Now this is clearly easier said than done, but it must be done. So let me suggest a few ideas that might help us become “slow to speak.”
1. Listen more and talk less. Ouch. That’s tough sometimes. Most of us are already forming our next sentence while the other person is talking instead of truly listening to what they are saying. Slow down and listen! Then speak.
2. Engage the mind before you open your mouth. In other words – think. Think about what you are going to say and maybe as important how you are going to say it. Be thoughtful with your speech.
3. Devote yourselves to prayer (Col. 4:2). A prayerful life keeps us connected to God and affects our outlook and attitude. Pray about the things you say and the way you say them. Confess your sins in regard to your speech and ask God for help. Be constant in prayer throughout the day and this will help you be slow to speak.
4. Love your neighbor as yourself. As I’ve already said, what James is telling us to do in 1:19-20 is really an act of love. Do you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? If you do, this will lead you to love your neighbor as yourself. It will help you speak more carefully and thoughtfully as you would like to have others speak to you. This is a fulfillment of the “royal law” of love.
Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you. The way we speak is serious business. Jesus said in Matthew 12:36-37, “36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Why? We will judged by our words because our words reveal the content of our hearts (Luke 6:45). It’s just that simple.
Therefore beloved, let’s be slow to speak.
And so, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
– Scott Eaton, Senior Pastor