Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires. James 1:19-20
I received an email recently that made me angry. I won’t bore you with the details, but something I had written was twisted so as to mean something completely different from what I intended.
My immediate thought was to email back as soon as I could. I would put the writer straight, oh yes! - and I started thinking of some telling phrases I could use to make my point. In fact, my anger largely gave way to a feeling almost of enjoyment at the prospect of a bit of a battle. In essence, I would chew the other person up, swill him round my mouth, and spit him out onto the floor (in Christian love, of course). (Do you ever have those moments when you realise what a nasty person you are?)
Well, my day was a busy one, so I didn’t get round to it before going to bed. But even while my head was on the pillow I was still working on what I would say.
But then a strange thing happened. When I woke up the next morning I found that my anger was gone completely, and that even though I still felt annoyed at being wrongly treated, I could smile, shrug my shoulders and say to myself “Oh, leave it! It’s not worth it.”
So that email never got written. And I am glad. It would only have made matters worse, a case of pouring petrol on the flames.
James tells us to be “slow to speak”. The person who takes his or her time before opening their mouth can save a lot of trouble and defuse a lot of anger.
Well, they didn’t have emails, tweets etc in James’s day. But I can’t imagine a message we more desperately need than this. Almost every day we hear of some politician, footballer or other celebrity who has shot off a hasty message into cyberspace, only to end up having to apologise and say that his message “was taken out of context” or something.
And, of course, it applies to ordinary everyday speech as well, at work or school or just round the neighbourhood. Is there anyone reading this who could claim never to have spoken a word that they instantly regretted: “Oh, my big mouth...! Why did I say that! How could I be so stupid!”
Words spoken in anger can do untold damage. They can cause deep pain. They can demolish a person’s confidence. They can destroy a relationship. They can start a nasty argument - or give new life to a dying one. James does, in fact, enlarge on this whole theme in chapter 3 verses 1-12. He compares the thoughtless word to the tiny spark that starts a forest fire: “The tongue... is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body... It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison...”
Of course, there are times when it is right to respond to some situation we feel angry about (anger in itself is not necessarily wrong). But it must surely be right first to wait until we are cool and have had a chance to really digest what it is that’s troubling us. And it can only be right, if we are Christians, to stop, take a deep breath and pray before we speak.
I never sent off that self-justifying email, but I can claim no credit for that: I simply didn’t have the time. But I am thankful to God that that night’s sleep made so much difference to the way my mind was working. The old advice “Why not sleep on it?” has a lot to be said for it.
I find that two other sayings come back to me from my own childhood, both of them bits of advice I wish I had followed better through my life.
First: “Count to ten before you speak...” One to ten can be a surprisingly long time!
Second - and this chimes in with James’s remark that we should be “quick to listen” as well as “slow to speak” - “Why do you think God gave you two ears but only one mouth!” If only most of us listened twice as much as we speak.
Do any of us need to give a little thought to the way we use our tongue - or our computer, our phone, or whatever?
Lord God, forgive my foolish tongue! Help me to use it only to do good, never harm. Amen.