Slow to anger

Like many other Christians who teach communication skills to others, I often highlight a well-known passage from the letter of James: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (Jas 1:19-20, NRSV). The unfortunate reality is that we all too often get it exactly backwards: we are quick to become angry, quick to spout angry and ill-advised words, and slow to listen — if indeed we listen at all.

When James says that our quick-tempered behavior doesn’t “produce God’s righteousness,” though, it’s not because God has written a book on righteous communication and we’re violating the rules. It’s because the righteous God himself is slow to anger, and it is our vocation to live in a way that demonstrates God’s character.

. . .

Psalm 103, as we have seen, is a summons to bless God. The summons is issued a full six times: “Bless the LORD.” Three of the six times, he summons himself to praise: “Bless the LORD, O my soul.” And in a manner reminiscent of the great commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deut 6:5), the psalmist tells himself to bless God with “all that is within [him]” (Ps 103:1, NRSV).

We are called, therefore, to bless God with all that we are. Moreover, we are called to bless God for all that he’s done. “Do not forget all his benefits” (vs. 2) writes the psalmist, before giving a list of examples:

who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s
. (vss. 3-5)

There it is again: the steadfast love of God, the mercy and compassion by which he saves and forgives us. To say that God forgives us our “iniquity” is more than just a matter of looking the other way when we’ve committed some infraction of the rules. It runs deeper than mere behavior: the root of the Hebrew word suggests that we are bent out of alignment or even twisted (we’re like, soooo twisted, y’know?). There’s more to forgive than we would like to think.

The psalmist reinforces the point in verses 7 to 10:

He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.

The psalmist appears to be reminding his people of the debacle of the Golden Calf. In the minds of the Israelites, Moses had been too long up on Mount Sinai receiving instructions from God. They pressured Aaron into making an idol for them to worship instead, and Aaron caved in. When Moses came down the mountain carrying the tablets of the Commandments, and saw the drunken revelry, he dashed the tablets to pieces, destroyed the calf, and confronted Aaron (who did his weaselly best to deflect the responsibility).

Moses was forced to cut new tablets of stone and go back up the mountain. When God descended upon the mountain in a cloud and made his presence pass before Moses, he proclaimed,

The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…
(Exod 34:6)

The parallel to Psalm 103:8 is clear. The psalmist, in other words, is reminding the people of the patience of God and calling them to bless God for his steadfast love. It’s not that God doesn’t get angry; the people were punished severely for their idolatry (cf. Exod 32:35). But God is — to use a biblical term — “long-suffering,” holding back the wrath that the people justly deserve. God does not break covenant with the people, even if they break covenant with him.

. . .

What about us? It’s far too easy to take our salvation for granted. It’s too easy to forget our own twistedness, particularly when we’re caught up with condemning others for theirs. When we are quick to anger, we often do so with a sense of self-righteousness: I’m right, you’re wrong, and I’m going to show you just how wrong you are! We would do better to remember first who God is and how he has treated us: with patience, long-suffering, and forgiveness.

Imagine what might change if we were to live in the posture of continually blessing God for his steadfast love. Who knows — we might even become slower to anger ourselves.

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