James 1:19-20 - The Verses Project

Bible James 1:19-20

Posted October 19, 2015

Know this, my beloved brothers:
let every person be quick to hear,
slow to speak, slow to anger;
for the anger of man
does not produce the righteousness of God.

These words were written by James, the half brother of Jesus. Throughout the first 18 verses of chapter 1, James has been trying to give some perspective to a suffering Church. He’s calling those who are going through tests and trials to be steadfast in their faith, while also reminding them that God is at work in their lives bringing about wisdom and Christlikeness. While everything around them may seem to be shifting like shadows, God is their Father of Lights, and even these times of refining are good gifts from a good Father who knows and loves them (see James 1:17).

Quick & Slow

In light of these promises from God and His saving work in the lives of His children, James transitions to call believers to be hearers and doers of the word, and in particular, focusing in on how Christian conduct is worked out in practical ways. James includes “every person” in his call; it’s not determined by your personality type or biological leanings. Some might be louder, some quieter by nature; some with a shorter temper, some more patient. All men and all women alike are called to model what he is about to speak to.

In the midst of suffering and challenging situations, there’s a propensity toward unrighteous anger and speech that isn’t glorifying to God. In a sense, James is providing us an intro to a topic that he’ll continue to address throughout the rest of his letter (1:26; 3:1-12; 4:1-3, 11-12; 5:12). What sort of anger is James referring to? The anger he address here isn’t the sort of anger that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 4:26. Rather, this seems to be an anger caused by a bad combination of one who has a hard time listening to others, but has an easy time opening his mouth while also possessing quick temper! The opposite of the person described here would one who is slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger, which isn’t an admirable set of qualities to possess.

In these verses, James relies heavily on Jewish wisdom teaching on speech and anger. We see a couple examples like this in Proverbs 17:27-28: “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Douglas Moo reflected on this passage and its implications in the book of James: “The ‘quick-tempered’ person, this proverb suggests, is the person who is likely to speak without careful consideration. Uncontrolled anger leads to uncontrolled speech. How often do we find ourselves selves regretting words spoken ‘in the heat of the moment’! The wise person, James reminds us, will therefore learn to control the emotion of anger and so eliminate one of the most common sources of hasty and unwise wise speech. Psychologists will sometimes claim that emotions, since they are a natural product of the personality, cannot truly be controlled - only suppressed or ignored. But James's exhortation here (and many similar biblical exhortations) presume differently. Emotions are the product of the entire person; and, by God's grace and the work of the Spirit, the person can be transformed so as to bring emotions in line with God's word and will.”

Anger’s Trajectory

Why should we be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger? James tells us as clearly as he can: man’s anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. James usage of righteousness in this passage isn’t referring to to word in the same way Paul does when he says that God declares us righteous as a judge would in a court of law. Rather, he uses the word in the same way we see it used throughout the Old Testament as well as Jesus Himself: doing what God requires of His people. We hope to live our lives not according to our wills, but rather God’s will and His standards.

This sort of righteousness of conduct found in God’s people is only possible because of the imputed righteousness of God that He alone can give to us! We can’t fabricate it; we can’t conjure it up. We must, at the end of the day, rely on the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in our hearts to bear this fruit! May we image our God, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness… (Exodus 34:6 ESV)”


Song by Ben Freeman.
Production + mix by Dustin Ragland.
Artwork by JD Raab.
Devotional by Joel Limpic.