Here’s a question. When you read it, go with the first answer that pops into your mind. Don’t overthink it. Ready? Here goes:
Name something that shows that a person has authentic faith.
Perhaps you thought of any of a number of behaviors that we take as marks of devotion: prayer; reading one’s Bible; church attendance; tithing; charity. Maybe you thought a bit more abstractly in terms of our relationship of trust in or dependence upon God.
But I’m guessing that even if I asked the question of 100 people, “not speaking in anger” wouldn’t even make the list.
That’s a pity, because the apostle James seems to think it’s important.
. . .
Sadly, increasing reports of people’s experiences of pain and mistreatment in church contexts has spawned its own vocabulary. We speak of church hurt and its more extreme cousin, spiritual abuse. Some of this comes in the form of narcissistic leaders who assume that God has spoken to them and only them. This presumably gives them the authority to impose their vision on others, whatever it takes — including angry, abusive speech meant to bring naysayers back in line or force them out.
But of course, it’s not just about leaders, narcissistic or otherwise. To the extent that any of us think of Christian faith in merely religious terms, we may neglect the ways in which our lives should be transformed by the growth of the “implanted word” (James 1:21, NRSV). Don’t kid yourselves, James says. If believers can’t get control of their tongues, something’s desperately off:
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27, NRSV)
Here, James describes true religion in three ways. Two of them are more general. First, true religion is to “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” This is a reflection of the Old Testament portrait of God as the defender of the poor and oppressed, a portrait subsequently picked up by Jesus in passages like Matthew 5:3-6 and Luke 6:20-23. Widows and orphans lived on the margins of society. God was their champion, and his people were taught to follow suit.
Second, true religion is to remain “unstained by the world.” Some Jewish (and subsequently, Christian as well) ideas of holiness and purity meant separatism, to remove oneself from the world so as not to be contaminated by it. But James is not advocating that. Rather, his teaching here reflects the final prayer of Jesus to the Father for his disciples:
I’m not asking that you take them out of this world but that you keep them safe from the evil one. They don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world. (John 17:15-16, CEB)
In James’ language, discipleship means living in this world but remaining “unstained” by it — its values and practices, its ways of thinking and behaving.
But third and more specifically, true religion means getting control of our tongues. This is so important to James that he will devote much of chapter 3 to the same subject. And given what he’s already said, this self-control entails not speaking hastily and in anger.
That’s not to say that “the Christian thing to do” is to shut up and take whatever comes your way, to be the doormat or punching bag. Listening goes both ways, because at root every human being is due the respect of being heard. Patient and compassionate listening, even and perhaps especially where strong differences exist, should characterize the Christian community.
But that doesn’t translate to a right to force someone to listen by ramping up the anger and aggression in our own speech. As Paul would say, yes, we must speak truth to one another — but always in love, for that is how we grow together as one body in Christ (cf. Eph 4:15-16).
So consider this: if we’re concerned about how we live our faith, concerned about our witness in the world, concerned about what others see when they visit our congregations, how about becoming people who know how to bridle their tongues and listen instead?