“Quick to Listen” to Whom?
As practical theologians, biblical counselors have always found James to be a kindred spirit. Pastoral, persuasive, practical—in a pinch, he is our guy. Since he peppers his letter with succinct aphorisms, he is memorable and easily quotable. One favorite quote is, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19).
The common application is that when you are in a tense relationship, listen before you speak, and be sure to keep any frustrations on simmer, not high boil. This is a wise saying, but it is not James’ saying. Instead, he is imploring us to be quick to listen to the word of truth (1:18).
The word of truth is Scripture. It is communication from the Creator God who speaks and his creation obeys. It is communication from the personal God who speaks words of truth to us—from the Father, through the Son, applied by the Spirit. In short, the word of truth is Jesus.
Suddenly this passage is no longer a candidate for Poor Richard’s Almanack, which gave us “God helps those who help themselves,” and not much more about God. For James, practical theology is from above and is always our response to God himself. He speaks and we “do” his speech. We are word-of-God-doers.
So if you are disrespectful toward others with your speech, don’t start by trying to listen to the person in front of you who drives you crazy. Start with meekness before God (1:21). Your problem is not poor interpersonal skills; it is arrogance before God himself. You only listen to him when there is a happy coincidence between your desire and his words. Don’t even think about talking to another person until you have heard the word of the Lord and are silent before him. No backtalk. No grumbling or complaining. Simply rest in the certainty that he is God and you are not, and life is not about the satisfaction of your desires or the supremacy of your will. (I am trying to channel James.)
Once we listen to the word of truth and are silent before God, then—and only then—are we free to speak to those who might be difficult for us.