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. (James 1:19-20, CEB)
The letter of James is rightly known for addressing the relationship between faith and “works.” Sometimes, however, it is wrongly interpreted as contradicting what the apostle Paul taught on the subject. Though the two writers use similar language, they are dealing with different (though related) issues.
Against the idea that God would count us as righteous on the basis of our religious track record, Paul taught that we are justified only by God’s grace, and on the basis of faith in the work of Christ alone. James would agree. But the question he was addressing was slightly different. For Paul, the question was, “Are we justified by faith or religious works?” For James, however, the question was, “And what does authentic faith look like?”
To put the matter in contemporary terms: whenever we sign our yearly contracts, my seminary colleagues and I are also required to sign a Statement of Faith, which sets out several foundational articles of doctrinal belief. Indeed, before anyone can be hired to a faculty position, they must respond to the statement in writing, and be interviewed (quizzed, really) regarding what they wrote.
It is, of course, entirely possible that one could sign the statement without believing a word of it. Once, when chairing a faculty search committee, I did a preliminary interview with a candidate whose résumé gave no indication of his being a Christian. I called to ask him about this, and reminded him that he would have to respond to our Statement of Faith. Evasively, he told me that he had read the statement and had great respect for it. Wanting to be helpful, he added that some of his friends were pastors.
He was not invited to interview.
But even if signing the statement does reflect what we honestly believe, that doesn’t mean that our lives have been transformed by such beliefs. Is faith just a cognitive matter? James doesn’t think so. If we truly believe the gospel, then our lives should embody that truth. Some things will have to change.
Like being quick to listen instead of being quick to anger and angry words.
James puts it this way: “An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” It’s perfectly legitimate to translate the verb James uses as “produce,” but to me, that word might carry a bit of unnecessary baggage. It makes me think of a production line, of things manufactured by human effort.
It might be helpful instead to recognize that the root of the word James uses here means “work” — thus echoing what he’s already said about faith “producing” endurance, and endurance having the effect of spiritual maturity in turn (James 1:3-4). Moreover (for all you grammarians), although the English translation makes the verb sound as if it’s in the active voice (A causes B), in the Greek it’s in the middle voice.
For these reasons, it might be better to think of James as saying something like “anger isn’t a work of God’s righteousness” — Christians who spew angry words at each other are not demonstrating authentic faith, not showing that their lives have been appropriately transformed by the gospel. In this, James seems to echo the teaching of Jesus: So, you think you haven’t violated the commandment against murder because you’ve never physically killed someone? Well, I’m telling you that if you’ve angrily called your brother or sister a nasty name you’re already in trouble (cf. Matt 5:21-22).
But wait, isn’t it possible to be angry in a righteous way? Yes: the image of Jesus driving the money-changers and merchants out of the temple comes to mind. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. What we are tempted to consider righteous anger in ourselves is almost always tainted with self-righteousness. The ability to be angry in a righteous way is something that we have to grow into, as we become more and more like Jesus in character.
So if we’re just letting angry words pour forth and are not taking the time to listen, we should take the hint.