19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:19-27 ESV
One of the most common responses to unwanted and unexpected trials is anger. The intrusion of difficulties into our comfortable lives can cause resentment that ultimately turns to rage. And far too often, our anger can be directed at God for having allowed the trial to disrupt our otherwise comfortable circumstances. But James cautions against being too quick to lash out at God when facing difficulty.
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. – James 1:19 NLT
James suggests that we take a deep breath and thoughtfully consider how best to respond when a trial comes our way. Pointing our fingers at God in anger will do little to solve our problem and even less toward producing righteousness in our lives.
Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. – James 1:20 NLT
Anger may be a normal and natural response to unexpected difficulties, but when directed at God, it can be a dangerous game to play. The prophet Isaiah also warned against the danger of unjustly accusing God when things don’t go quite the way we want them to.
How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT
“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT
Isaiah goes on to recommend a much more reverent and respectful attitude toward our Creator God.
O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. – Isaiah 64:8 NLT
So much of what James is saying in this opening chapter of his letter has to do with perspective. That is why he recommends that we ask God for wisdom when facing trials. We need the divinely enabled capacity to see our trials from God’s vantage point. And that includes the ability to maintain a healthy perspective regarding our Creator-creature relationship with God. He is the potter, we are the clay. We have been formed by His hand and He has the sovereign right and responsibility to do what He deems best for our lives.
When writing to the believers in Rome, the apostle Paul utilized Isaiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay in order to remind his readers of God’s sovereign authority.
…who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why did You make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use? – Romans 9:20-21 BSB
But James would have us understand that our anger when facing trials and difficulties comes from the inside out. In other words, the trial itself is not the problem. It is simply the trigger that produces our unrighteous reaction. That’s why he encourages an ongoing process of purification and sanctification in our lives.
So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. – James 1:21 NLT
Long before the trial ever arrived, we should have been doing some serious house-cleaning and soul-searching so that we might be better equipped to respond in reverent reliance upon God. James is recommending a life of dependence upon the sanctifying power of God’s Word. The gospel doesn’t simply save us; it produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives. The apostle Paul referred to it as the fruit of our salvation.
I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:9-11 NLT
According to James, this life-transforming “fruit” can save our souls. He is not referring to salvation from eternal condemnation. In other words, James is not teaching that anger expressed in the midst of trials can cause a believer to lose his salvation. He is simply warning that any form of unconfessed sin in our lives will have detrimental consequences. That’s why he tells us to “get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives” (James 1:21 NLT). But too often, we allow our distaste for any form of discomfort in our lives to produce anger and resentment. And rather than seeing the trial as a God-ordained test to purify and cleanse us, we simply demand that the difficulty be removed.
“We pray for safety instead of purity because we do not see impurity as dangerous.” – George M. Stulac, James
God speaks to His children through His Word. He uses it to guide, direct, convict, and encourage them. But James warns that it isn’t enough to hear God’s Word; you have to obey it.
…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT
Hearing the Word without applying its truths is like glancing in a mirror and then walking away. Whatever flaws and imperfections the mirror may have revealed will be quickly forgotten once you walk away. Whenever the Word reveals an area of your life that needs attention, you must deal with it immediately – with the Holy Spirit’s help.
James reminds us that obedience to the Word of God comes with a blessing.
…if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. – James 1:25 NLT
This process is an ongoing one. The Christian life is a constant exercise in self-assessment and Spirit-empowered reformation. And the Word of God is the primary tool the Holy Spirit uses to transform our lives by removing all the remaining filth and evil from our lives. And this process will continue until our final glorification.
James concludes this section of his letter with a rather stern warning against hypocritical behavior. And nothing reveals hypocrisy in the life of a believer quite like a trial. We can be going along quite well, displaying a form of righteousness that has everyone believing we are some kind of super saint. But then an unexpected and unwanted difficulty rears its ugly head and our facade of faithfulness comes crashing down like a house of cards. And, according to James, it is our verbal reaction to trials that exposes our hypocrisy.
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT
James seems to have had firsthand experience with this topic because he will revisit the problem of the tongue later in his letter.
…the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT
As far as he was concerned, the tongue is the Christian’s primary roadblock to sanctification. It may be small, but it can cause a great deal of grief and sorrow. And it is an accurate barometer of our true spiritual condition.
…if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. – James 3:2 NLT
What James says next seems contradictory or out of place. He shifts from discussing the need to control our tongue to describing pure and genuine religion.
Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT
What’s his point? It would seem that James is trying to differentiate between religion that is nothing more than lip service and actual sacrificial service to others. Not only can we use the tongue to curse and rage at the presence of trials. We can also use it to project an attitude of spiritual superiority by professing our allegiance to God. But James would suggest that words are not enough. In fact, in the very next chapter of his letter, he will expand on this hypocritical tendency and the need to walk the talk.
Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT
We need to put our words into action. True faith is life-transforming. It changes our lives as well as all those around us. it puts shoe leather to our religion and provides a practical expression of the sanctifying power of God’s Word.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.