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“Two Ears, One Mouth”

James 1:19
Bob DeGray
August 7, 2005

Key Sentence

Peacemakers are quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to get angry.


I. Quick to Hear
II. Slow to Speak
III. Slow to Get Angry


        During the first century after Christ’s resurrection several philosophies competed for the attention of Rome. The two best known were Epicureanism and Stoicism; the one sought happiness in the pursuit of pleasure, the other in the performance of duty. On the Stoic side one of the key proponents was a philosopher named Epictetus. He had been a Roman slave whose master first sent him to a school of philosophy, and then freed him. The interesting thing about Epictetus is that mixed in with his very philosophical writings are a number of very practical statements. For example - and this is the point - he is the source of a statement that I’ve heard for years, attributed to fathers or uncles or preachers or marriage counselors. It goes like this “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

        Not long before Epictetus another practical philosopher wrote a letter in which he upheld as a virtue a similar sentiment. This philosopher’s name was James, and he wrote to Jesus’ followers. In his letter he said, James 1:19-20 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

        Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry - that’s the philosophical and practical rule of life for a peacemaker, a person who wishes to successfully resolve or even avoid creating conflicts. This morning we’re going to explore the why and how of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. I doubt there’s a person in this room who can’t remember the last time they were angry - maybe not expressed anger, but at least felt anger. I doubt there are many in this room who’ve never said something they wished they could take back. And there are probably not very many of us who have never missed something important by not listening. So we could use a Biblical refresher on these subjects.

I. Quick to Hear
        Let’s begin with listening. In conflict prevention or resolution there are few more useful skills than the skill of listening well. The book of Proverbs gives us a number of exhortations in this area. Proverbs 18:13 He who answers before listening– that is his folly and his shame. You’ve probably never met a person who answers before listening, right? You’ve certainly never done it yourself. Unless you’re a parent. Parents do have this tendency to assume they know what their children are going to say, and to answer before listening. But children have been known to do the same thing. Or maybe it’s your boss that does this, or maybe you do it to your boss. Who knows, you might even do this to your husband or your wife. Proverbs tells us that to answer before listening is foolish. And Proverbs 19:20 gives us the wise alternative: Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.

        Jesus used to say “He who has ears, let him hear.” The possession of these external organs does not guarantee that information enters your brain. Proverbs 18:15 The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out. You may think yourself wise, you may think yourself insightful, you may think that you know what’s right to do and say - but the truly wise person is the one who seeks information, the one who listens and learns from the input of others.

        When we were on vacation arrived late one night at a campsite very close to the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park and had to set up in the rain. We set up one tent, and four of us slept in the van. The next day it was still rainy, and we began to realize what it meant to camp in the middle of a chilly rain forest. So we thought about moving to another campground. It was right then that Gail talked with a woman who recommended a site called ‘Heart of the Hills’, which she said was beautiful and both higher and drier. So we packed up and moved - and it was. We met the same lady in the new campground, and thanked her for her advice.

        Listening is a profitable skill, especially in conflict situations. Proverbs 25:12 Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear. One of the things to pray when you are confronting someone is that they would have ears to hear, that they would truly listen to what is being shared. Pray that you will really listen to the reasons and feelings they share so you can come to mutual understanding. In the same way, when someone is accusing you, pray for ears to hear the truth in what they say and to understand their point of view and their point.

        The Peacemaker materials emphasize listening. Ken Sande writes “Good listening is particularly important for a peacemaker. It improves your ability to understand others, it show that you realize you do not have all the answers, and it tells the other person that you value his or her thoughts and opinions.” Sande lists several listening skills that we as listeners can work on, beginning with waiting patiently while others talk. Sande says “Without this skill, you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict. With it you will not jump to premature conclusions about what others are thinking; you will give them time and hear them out; you will not interrupt while they are speaking; you will learn to be comfortable with silence; you will not offer immediate solutions to every problem others bring to you.” Waiting shows you are listening, and that you care.

        Second, attending; Sande says “the human mind can think four times faster than a person can talk. Yet if you allow your mind to wander, or start rehearsing your responses, you’ll miss what others are saying. There are several ways you can help yourself pay attention: maintain regular eye contact; avoid negative body language, such as folding your arms, tapping your foot, or looking around. Be responsive in your facial expression. It’s been shown that personal communication is about 50% body language, 40% facial expression and tone of voice, and only 10% words.

        Third, clarifying; this is the process of making sure you understand what the other person is saying, both the content and the emotions. It usually involves questions and statements like “Are you saying?” “Can you give me an example?” “Let me see if I understand.” Reflecting like this does not require that you agree with what the other person is saying: it simply reveals your comprehension of another person’s thoughts and feelings, and helps to clarify their words.

        Finally, Sande says that part of listening is agreeing with the parts of another person’s argument that are true, and acknowledging this agreement before addressing points of disagreement. This means you need to voice agreement as soon as you recognize that you have been in the wrong. Sande says “When you are talking with another person, first listen for the truth, resisting the temptation to defend yourself, blame others, or focus on disagreement. Ask yourself, ‘Is there any truth in what’s being said?”If your answer is “yes” acknowledge that truth. These kinds of responses require genuine humility and also call for keeping a tight rein on your emotions. But they are worth the effort, for a controlled response will usually do more for peace than will an emotional reaction.”

II. Slow to Speak
        Both Scripture and experience tell us the value of listening. But James counsels us to be quick to listen and at the same time slow to speak. He says this because he knows the tongue’s power. James 3:3-10 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.

        I’m going to do something mean, to ask you if you are aware of your tongue. Isn’t that a weird feeling? But what I really meant was, are you aware of the power of your words. James’ four illustrations make vivid the power of the tongue. First, the horse. A horse weighs 1000 lbs or more, and can carry 500 lbs for long distances. The same horse, unburdened, can sprint a quarter of a mile in 25 seconds. Yet, put a bit in its mouth and a 100 lb girl can make this powerful animal dance. Second, the rudder of a ship: James observed that ships small and large were steered by a relatively small rudder. It’s still the same, whether we’re looking at a tiny sailboat or the U.S.S Nimitz. He who controls the rudder controls the ship. In the same way the person who controls his tongue can alter the course of an entire conversation.

        But James’ third illustration is the one I personally find most compelling: the tongue is like the spark of a fire, with great potential for destruction. When we visited Montana a few years ago we saw the destruction of fire. Yellowstone was still recovering from a 1988 fire that destroyed a third of the park’s forest. The trees still stand like rows of charred pencils, silent witnesses to the powerful flames that stripped them bare. Verse six says “the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets all who course of his life on fire.” Your tongue has tremendous power for destruction - it’s fire can do permanent damage.

        The fourth illustration is in verse 7: “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue.” Kent Hughes says “I have seen whales playing jump rope at Sea World. I have seen African lions cowed, submissive to the wizardry of Gunther Williams. I have seen eagles kill their prey and humbly lay it at their master’s feet. But I have never seen one man or woman who in their own power could tame the tongue.”

        But Augustine points out that James “does not say no one can tame the tongue, but no one among men; so that when it is tamed we confess that it is brought about by the pity, the help, the grace of God.” God can tame the untamable tongues of those he has redeemed and made new. Jesus died for every kind of sin, including the sins of your tongue, and he paid the price for forgiveness of those sins, and gave you a new heart and his Holy Spirit so that now you can bless God and bless others with your tongue instead of only hurting them. Now, for believers, there is a choice: you can speak the words given by the Spirit and bless others, or you can speak the words dictated by your habits and your fallen nature and hurt others.

        So how do we do speak words of blessing in conflict? Let me give you another short list of obvious but I hope helpful suggestions. First, choose your words carefully. Do not be guilty of moving your mouth before your brain is in gear. Think about what you want to say. When I was working in Proverbs a few years ago I preached about ‘The Tongue’s Prayer’. Imagine your tongue praying before it speaks, and asking ‘O Lord, should I say anything?’, and then ‘O Lord, what should I say?’, and finally ‘O Lord, how should I say it?’. That’s choosing your words carefully.

        Second, breathe grace. One of the great changes to the Peacemaker materials in recent years has been the added emphasis on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sande now goes out of his way to remind believers that they themselves have been saved only by the gracious gift of God and that only his grace can transform those who are struggling with sin, and that we need to communicate God’s grace to others. Remember that God does not ask anyone to pay the price of their own sins, or do good works to make up for them, or even be able to avoid them in their own power. What he asks is that we fix our eyes on Jesus and trust him and depend on his strength. And this is what we ought to desire from others - humble dependence on Jesus.

        So choose your words carefully, breathe grace, and as Ephesians 4:15 says, “speak the truth in love.” We saw last week that we need to express love in dealing with offenses. Sometimes this will mean asking God for the ability to express love even when you don’t feel love; to show genuine, gentle, patient concern for a person’s well being and interest. This is speaking the truth in a way they are most likely to hear. If your concern for their sin is a concern for their genuine well being, they are likely to sense that. Put another way, if we want others to be brokenhearted about their sin, we need to approach them with a soft heart rather than a hard heart.

III. Slow to Get Angry
        So be quick to listen, slow to speak, and finally, slow to get angry. Are you? Sometimes I’m amazed at how fast I can get angry. We’re not just talking angry words or displays - we’re also talking about the internal feeling of anger, whether you bottle it up into bitterness or let it out in an explosion of rage. This anger, James says, does not achieve the righteous life God desires - it doesn’t show his righteousness worked out in our lives, and it doesn’t achieve the goal of conflict resolution. James calls this ‘man’s anger’. It’s anger at your inconvenience, or when someone opposes your ideas, or says something that dishonors or misrepresents or hurts you. It’s selfish anger that doesn’t reflect God’s righteousness.

        This is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 4. He says, verse 25 “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold. Our anger is often the crack through which Satan enters a conflict. You may have some really important and helpful things to say to a brother in Christ, but when one or both of you get angry you create conflict, and when you stay angry you prolong conflict. The command ‘don’t let the sun go down on your anger’ is of extreme practical value - don’t drag conflict out and let it fester into bitterness, instead work it out. There are times when wisdom is to says ‘we can’t talk about this now - let’s make a real effort to talk about it in the morning’ - but that ought to be the exception.

        Ephesians 4 continues giving insights for conflict resolution: 29Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. In conflict resolution our words should not be ‘unwholesome talk’, but rather ‘helpful for building others up according to their needs.’ The focus of those words should be to benefit those who listen. But to do this without grieving the Holy Spirit by shattering the unity of the body, we need to ‘get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander.’ These human reactions do not achieve God’s righteous will for us as brothers and sisters.

        Instead, we are to breath grace ‘be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.’ Peacemakers need to be quick to listen, slow and deliberate in speech, and glacially slow at becoming angry.

        I want to close with an abridged but true account from Peacemakers. I think it shows today’s truths, as well as several other principles we’ve studied. “Vic was trembling with anger as he drove home. When he had accepted the offer to work for John, he thought he’d found the perfect job. But within weeks, he discovered he was working in a battlefield. John ran the company with an iron hand and pushed everyone to increase the "bottom line." He never noticed good work, but was quick to call attention to mistakes. Vic soon chafed under John's treatment. He lost enthusiasm for his work, he found excuses to leave early, and he eagerly joined the gossip sessions about John. Vic's disrespect for John was exposed when he showed his co-workers a cartoon about an incompetent manager. Vic was mocking John's management style when John walked into the room, grabbed the cartoon and read it. Then he exploded, "You have fifteen minutes to empty your desk and get off my property." Vic was so stunned he quickly packed his things and left the office.

        But now he was angry. He convinced himself that he needed to file a lawsuit against John, and called his friend Al from church to get a referral to an attorney. Vic gave him a detailed description of all the things John had done."I can imagine how you feel," Al responded, "but do you really think a lawsuit is the best way to handle this?" "How else can I force him to correct what he's done?" replied Vic. "Someone has to stop this guy from abusing people." "That may be so," answered Al, "but if helping him change is your goal, a lawsuit should be the last resort. I think there's a better way. Why don't you get your Bible and read Matthew 18:15."

        Vic found the passage, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." "But that's if the other guy is a Christian," Vic said. "There's no way John could be a Christian, the way he's treating me!" "You can't know that for sure unless you ask him," replied Al. "And even if John doesn't profess to be a Christian, trying to talk with him personally and privately would probably be wise. It may make him less defensive and more willing to settle this problem before it gets out of hand.”

        "Okay, okay!" responded Vic. "I won't hire an attorney yet. But you still have a lot of work to do to convince me that I should go and talk to him by myself." "That's fair, enough," said Al. "If you'll get out a pencil and paper, I'll give you a few other passages you can read to get ideas on how to deal with this ...." After a long and sleepless night, Vic decided to look at the scriptures Al had suggested. First he read Matthew 7:3, where Jesus said, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" Oh great! He thought. Now Al wants me to say this was all my fault.

        But as he continued to read passages dealing with employment, and gossip, and anger, the Holy Spirit touched his heart. Vic began to see that he had failed to show John the respect and loyalty that should characterize a Christian worker. Vic called Al for further advice. Al showed him the "Seven A's of Confession." and then they discussed how Vic could help John see how he had contributed to the problem. Vic spent three hours praying, planning, and writing out what he would say. Then, asking God for courage and humility, Vic called John to ask if they could meet.

        Later that day Vic amazed John by confessing his wrongs in detail and acknowledging that he deserved to lose his job. When he closed by asking for forgiveness, John was so stunned all he could do was mumble, "Uh, sure." Vic went on to say, "I appreciate that. I'd be happy to stop now. But if you would allow me to, I'd like to offer a few observations on how I think you may be contributing to the tensions with your staff. It might help avoid similar problems with other employees in the future." Vic's offer was so sincere that John felt compelled to hear him out. Even though Vic spoke respectfully, he soon noticed that John's eyes were filling with tears. Vic paused. "I'm sorry," he said. "I guess I should stop." "No, you don't understand," John replied. "You haven't hurt me. It's just that as you were talking I realized that you're the first person who ever cared enough to talk to me like this."

        Though John didn’t agree with all of Vic’s concerns, he was able to receive his advice without taking offense. "You know," John said, "This wasn't all your fault. I shouldn't have lost my temper and fired you. If you'd like to come back, I'd be happy to have you." "Thanks," Vic said, "That means a lot. But Karen and I have been praying about this, and we've decided this was God's way of confirming our feeling that we need to move back to our home town to care for Karen’s parents.”

        “Well," John replied, "I’ll be sorry to see you go, especially after what you've done here today." Realizing he had a special window of opportunity, Vic asked if he could pray for the two of them. John's eyes showed surprise, but he said yes. Vic thanked God for his forgiveness and for helping them to have such a good talk. He also asked the Lord to minister to John and help him to see what changes to make in his business. As Vic walked to his car, he was so caught up in praising God that he almost collided with a former co-worker. "My goodness," she exclaimed, "You look awfully happy for someone who just lost his job." Seeing her puzzled look, he sensed God was opening another door. "This may sound strange," he said, "but let me tell you what I've learned about myself in the last few days ...."