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A few years ago, there was a phenomenon that is perhaps just as strange to be hearing about for the first time as it was to be witnessing it. People were wearing eyeglasses without lenses. In some bizarre sense, I can understand. Some cultural cachet comes with wearing glasses, at least more so now than in bygone years. So there are reasons. I wear glasses myself. I imagine that they make me look smarter than I am. This is also the case when I choose not to speak.

Proverbs 17:28 tells us that “even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Now, we have to be careful of a category error here. A person who wears glasses isn’t necessarily intelligent. Ordinarily, it means that he has bad vision. A person who keeps silent isn’t necessarily wise. He’s just not talking at the moment. The most important thing to notice from Proverbs 17:28 is that keeping silent is not a characteristic of a fool.

As Christians, we need to keep near our hearts and minds the instruction of our Lord’s brother: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). With full Apostolic authority, James commands us to be quick to hear and slow to speak. It is critical for us to be obedient to this command because of the combustible nature of disagreements, which is why James closely connects speech and anger.

James helps us see how important our speech is in shaping our lives through a series of negative metaphors in James 3. He illustrates the guiding power of the tongue with the picture of a ship’s rudder and the igniting power of the tongue with the imagery of a blazing forest fire (3:4–5). A small spark can burn down houses in a wildfire; a misguided ship can run aground but it can also take us to beautiful places. To lead us, James gives us a list of qualities that ought to characterize our speech. Our speech should have the same characteristics as wisdom from above: “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (v. 17). But James’ first major instruction on the tongue is all about timing. We must be quick to hear and slow to speak.

I guarantee that you will not regret taking a moment to slow down before you respond the next time that someone offends you personally, makes light of a belief that you hold dear, or argues for a divergent point of view. Besides being something that you know to be true from experience, this point can be drawn out even more by reversing the order of two of the commands in James 1:19. Instead of the command to be “slow to speak” being followed by the command to be “slow to anger,” let’s consider them the other way around, with the command to be “slow to anger” coming before the command to be “slow to speak.” It’s helpful to reverse this order because that is how we typically experience the unraveling that comes from an unrestrained tongue. Someone says something, and we usually experience anger first, and this is what causes us to be quick to speak. Thinking of being slow to anger before being slow to speak helps us see our anger as a warning that we might just say something that we’ll regret.

We are to be quick to hear and slow to speak. Speaking ought to come second.

As helpful as it might be for our sanctification to think about James’ commands backwards, there is something more to the order in which James places these commands. He is defying the natural order of our fallen experience. He wants us to be transformed. By putting the command to be “quick to hear” first, he teaches us the posture that we must assume if we are to have a way out of being offensive or foolish. And isn’t it fitting that what we are to be quick to do, from a rhetorical standpoint, comes first? We are to be quick to hear and slow to speak. Speaking ought to come second. Rather than giving in to our natural tendencies to experience anger first and then open our mouths and shut our ears, we ought to listen first and then speak, and to do so righteously.

God is so good to us that He has even given us this lesson in our own bodies. Can we shut our ears? No, but we can shut our mouths, so we ought to be quick to hear and slow to speak. From the way that God has made our bodies, we might say that it is more natural to be quick to hear and that it is a fallen, unnatural tendency to be quick to speak.

A desire to be quick to hear is especially important when we are trying to talk with someone with whom we disagree. Our day isn’t entirely unique. Disagreements abound as they always have, but our cultural moment does seem heated, so it is especially important for Christians to be quick to hear as we interact with the watching world. Having a choice word with someone might wreck a relationship and ruin a witness, but by being quick to hear, we might know how to speak the truth tactfully and in love.

Someone might believe silly or sinful things to be true about the world. False world­views are like eyeglasses without lenses. If we don’t openly listen, we won’t know what adjustments need to be made or see how our responses can be like corrective lenses for truth, bringing the world as it actually is into focus. One of the benefits of being quick to hear and slow to speak is that it gives us opportunity to pray that this might be possible through God’s Spirit.

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