The present-day impulse to misread the Bible merely as a self-help book is almost irresistible. A good example may be James 1:19-20, “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 (ESV).”

James 1:19-20

Sit it on a peer-led discussion and you will likely see James 1:19-20 construed simply as a wise way to get along with one’s peers at work, school, etc. The context of the passage though is probably not everyday interaction as commonly understood but rather more likely the response of a believing community to the preaching of God’s word. If so, then James’ words take on new significance — be quick to listen to those preaching the Word of God, be slow to object to what they say, and be slow to get angry when they step on your toes. 1

How do we know that? V21, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (ESV).”

In typical Jewish thinking, “hearing” also means “doing.” Hence vv22-25,

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 (ESV).

Naysayers and “non-doers” can no doubt be pious and difficult to deal with, often because they elevate the universals of religion over the specifics of faith. But faith and religion are not the same. Religion is a universal activity arising from an innate human need to organize life in harmony with ultimate reality, particularly in relation to existential crises of birth, marriage, sickness, and death. Faith on the other hand is unique to each religion, standing over religious practices, and judging them. Hence vv 26–27,

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 (ESV).

According to James, all religious practices are suspect, except for care of orphans and widows and the pursuit of personal purity.

I could take the preceding line of thinking throughout the Book of James, but what I’ve provided above should give you an idea of how a biblical context for James makes it so much richer than the typical self-help perspective most people bring to it.


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1Paul had a lot of problem with angry listeners. The Corinthians objected (got angry) at Paul’s preaching of gospel. Perversely though, they didn’t get angry at the preaching of some other gospel that entailed a different Jesus, etc.

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