COVID Through the Lens of James 1:19-20

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Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.

James 1:19-20, KJV

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.

James 1:19-20, ESV

This has been on my heart for some time; however, things came to a point of need recently. COVID has many stresses attached: the concerns for our own health, concerns for the health of others, especially already ill loved ones, concern over those without Jesus who may die from the disease, concern over this disease being used to encroach on personal liberties, and concern that COVID has disrupted some people’s commitment to the local church gatherings.

All of these concerns are valid. But I’ve seen a greater and greater trend that disturbs me. More and more, we are throwing off tact, restraint, and Biblical examples in order to perpetuate whatever aspect of this pandemic issue affects us the most. Now, people who do not publicly profess to be like Christ have no responsibility to actually be like him. But for those of us who have let the world know we are christians, we need to stop, breathe, and examine ourselves.

Note that I said ourselves, not others. We’re all plenty good at examining others, especially when we can hide behind a screen on which we type, or, more and more, a Facebook or YouTube Live screen.

So let me break down James 1:19-20 a bit from several perspectives. I’ll use some other Scriptures as well. I;’ll do that because the best commentary of the Bible is the Bible, and because one of our tendencies lately is to take an isolated verse and use it as a shaming bludgeon rather than an encouragement – particularly verses like Hebrrews 10:25 and Romans 13:1. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Know this/wherefore, my beloved brethren…

The King James Version begins with “wherefore,” so let’s see what it’s there for (yes, that’s a little catch phrase I learned a long time ago). James opens telling us to rejoice when we face trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance. He says that if we lack wisdom, we can ask God, and He will not despise us for asking.

He goes on to say those who persevere under trial are blessed. The assumption there is that all of us will go through trials. It’s a given. Then he talks about temptation. He tells us that when we are tempted or we sin, we can’t blame God. We can’t blame others. It’s all about us. In fact, I Corinthians 10:13 says this:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

I Corinthians 10:13, ESV

Then James goes on in verses 17 and 18 to remind us that all good gifts come from Him and that “In the exercise of His will He gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits [r]among His creatures.” James 1:18, NASB

The foundation is laid. We will endure trials. Their purpose is to produce endurance. We are blessed when we endure. If we are tempted and choose to act on that temptation, it is because of our own lusts, not because of God or circumstances. Everything good comes from God, and he expects us to be first fruits among His creatures – aka representatives of his nature.

Then he says: Know this/wherefore/you know this:

Now everyone must be quick to hear…

There’s a saying that tells us there’s a reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth. We need to hear. Some versions say listen. The original Greek is the same regardless.

Have you ever been in class listening to your professor? You hear the voice, kind of like Charlie Brown’s teacher in the background, but you don’t really hear what they are saying. Because you’re distracted, bored, you have a question, you don’t understand, or you are hoping the line at Papa John’s pizza at the Student Union won’t be too long after class is over.

The word for hear here (lol) means to listen to understand. Stop, pause, don’t stand there forming your response. Just hear. Most of the time, especially on social media, we listen to react or respond, not to understand. Or, because we are certain whatever they are going to say is less right than what we think, we are already thinking about papa John’s or how they have made Jesus sad because they do not agree with us.

Don’t protest. You know you do. I do it too. And we’ve seen each other do it.

James says we are to be quick to hear for understanding, empathy, connection. It should be our first instinct. And, like the earlier verses say, if we are tempted to knee-jerk or run it through our comfort filter, that is on us.

Slow to speak…

When I was a teacher, I attended a professional development about getting kids to participate and interact with the content and each other. The facilitator suggested counting silently to 5 after every question we asked, giving someone besides that one student in the front time to raise their hands. And once they give their answer, we should count to five again slowly, in case they want to clarify. This also buffers any correction that may need to come.

I wish we (see me) would apply this in our conversations about COVID and all its ramifications. I’m sure you’ve all been on the receiving end of sharing your honest opinion, only to have someone begin reacting to you before the last word is even out of your mouth. A caustic, self-righteous, quick reply that feels like a slap. I bet most of us are guilty of doing the same thing.

During the spring, a friend posed a question on facebook: If churches don’t meet, or if people don’t come to church, are they guilty of violating Hebrews 10:25?

My first mistake was not taking the time to hear for understanding. Had I really thought, I would have realized this was actually a rhetorical question. I thought it was an actual, “I want your thoughts” question. So I said something like:

If we take the verse in the context of Hebrews 10:24 and 25:

and let’s consider how to encourage one another in love and good deeds, not abandoning our own meeting together, as is the habit of some people, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

NASB

Then the goal of assembling together is to spur one another to love and good deeds, and it is something we should never forsake. However, since the early church didn’t have buildings, I think during this brief time, we may have to find ways to spur one another to love and good deeds outside of the building or assigned time, praying that this will end and we can come back together literally.

It was an honest answer based on the in-context understanding of that passage.

The response?

Someone needs to study their Bible more closely.

It appeared less than ten minutes after I commented. It felt just like a slap. It was public, which meant every single person who saw that post saw the smack-down.

I wanted to clarify or respond or maybe even apologize, but commenting was promptly turned off for that post, and a little while later it disappeared.

I’ll be frank. I still sting when I remember that. Not just because of the caustic reply, but because, humbly and sincerely, I was right. I’m not always right, not even close. But I was right about that interpretation of Hebrews 10:24 and 25.

I’ve been guilty of the same thing. I’ve answered with my quick, pithy “superior knowledge” and smacked someone down. It is nothing like Jesus. And honestly, the only appropriate action to take when i do that is to repent and apologize.

So what might it look like if we were slow to speak with regard to COVID?

Example A: We notice that Suzie is going out to eat, to the river, to a friend’s party, but Suzie uses the COVID excuse to miss church. What do we do?

First, do we have to do anything? Is our reprimand the only method God has for getting Suzie “back in line?” Let’s say we do feel prompted to talk to Suzie. Do we go to her privately and say we’ve missed her, ask what she needs, offer to go to lunch after the service next Sunday? Do we let her talk and be quick to hear what she says?

Or do we talk about her, make passive aggressive posts on Facebook, or publicly drive home the point that people who miss church don’t love Jesus as much as we do, hoping she’ll get the hint, feel bad, and come back?

Example B: Joey has been exposed to COVID. He gets sick, and five days after his symptoms start, he tests positive. 5 days after his positive test, even though he isn’t feeling all that good, he comes back to work, sits right next to you, and talks loudly about…everything. He defensively says his physicians said ten days after symptoms is fine, and now that he’s had it he doesn’t even need a mask. Meanwhile, you are the caretaker for your elderly aunt.

Do you talk to him? Do you silently fume? Do you ask your boss to seat you somewhere else? Do you ask Joey to wear a mask?

Do you find out if Joey is fever free and make sure you sanitize and follow the precautions you feel you should take? Who’s job is it to fix this, yours, Joeys, or both?

Example C: Someone keeps spamming your Facebook page with weird YouTube videos about how there’s a secret chip inside the COVID vaccine, and if you take the vaccine, you will have the Mark of the Beast. The post is ridiculous. They post a lot of things that seem ridiculous to you. In fact, some of what they post is downright fraudulent and dangerous sounding.

Is it my job to set them straight? Do I make fun of the post? Do I try to correct them? Do I copy and paste research debunking the claim? Do I just ignore it, even though fifteen other people on my feed have now shared it?

These are things that we all struggle with. How do we deal with them. When and how do we speak?

And slow to anger…

I’ll be vulnerable here. This one is getting harder for me when it comes to some pockets of information and some of the things I read and see and hear. From beating a few key dead horses to everyone seeming to be more concerned about being right than being open, I sometimes just have enough. And I’ll confess, I feel anger.

Anger is a self-fueling emotion. Back in the 1970s, rage therapy was all the rage (bwahaha). It was thought the best way to deal with anger was to get it out. Guess what they discovered? The more people express their anger with abandon, the angrier they become, even if they are passive-aggressive in their expression.

It makes sense, and many other negative emotions, like self-pity, are the same way. So how do we slow down that anger response, and what do we do with it?

The Bible says “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.”

I gotta say, some of us take a lot of liberties with “be angry and do not sin.” We think that means we should express anger about what we think we are right about, and it’s fine to do it as long as we aren’t smacking someone upside the head, so to speak.

But we’re wrong.

When we make snide remarks, we’re sinning. When we are passive aggressive hoping “that guy” gets the hint, we’re sinning. When we target people with shame, guilt, or manipulation, we’re sinning. When we take advantage of every opportunity to shoot darts at the people we are “disappointed in,” especially in a public manner, we are sinning.

All of those things are borne of the fleshly, personal discomfort a situation is causing us. The woman with the failing business lamenting everyone ordering from Amazon. The person shaming someone for homeschooling. The preacher who laments everyone’s unfaithfulness every time the pews are empty. None of those things are godly expressions of anger. And make no mistake, they drip with anger. We all feel it.

Example A: Tony has a restaurant downtown. He had to lay off most of the staff, and even with carry-outs and GrubHub deliveries, he may not make it. When he sees people ordering from texas Roadhouse or Getting Dominoes delivered, it stings because those big chains will make it no matter what. Why won’t his neighbors patronize his restaurants? Don’t they care about his family? Then someone gives him a Ruby Tuesday gift card for Christmas. Seriously??

Example B: Julie has no choice but to go to Wal Mart every Friday. She has elderly parents and an elderly father in law she buys food for. Every time she goes, people go the wrong way down the aisles, touch everything, talk and cough without their masks on. She’s been working from home and takes every precaution because her mother has COPD and diabetes. And one trip to Wal Mart with some dude laughing at people who wear masks while coughing and calling them sheep might just make her mother sick. Then he reaches around her, his stinky breath in her face, to grab an apple. She wishes she knew who he was so she could send him the medical bill if her mom ends up in the ICU!

Example C: First Presbyterian Church is behind on the mortgage. Because they’ve had a couple of outbreaks and because of city and state guidelines, in-person church has been sporadic since March. The pastor hasn’t taken a real salary in a month, hoping that will keep the electricity on. Thank goodness his wife is a CPA. Finally, for the last month, they’ve been able to have services and a regular offering. Online giving has been terrible. But guess what, of the 150 regulars, about 35 have shown up the last 3 Sundays.

Frustrated, he looks the camera dead in the lens and says “Thank you those of you who have chosen faith over fear to be here, who understand and respect God’s command to gather.” He doesn’t realize he just made several people at home on the couch cry. And, to be honest, he’s so frustrated, he isn’t really sure he cares. It’s not his fault their priorities are out of whack!

Example D: The election is over, and even if there are irregularities, a simple understanding of math and large numbers makes it clear who won. So why is my feed being spammed with people posting articles from Qanon and libertyordeath.org? Why are billionaires getting advantages in all these stimulus packages that are supposed to help the ones really struggling? Don’t people even care that my elderly aunt has no healthcare coverage? I’m working 3 jobs, and I still need food stamps. My boot straps are too frayed to pull up, people!

Or maybe it’s the opposite. How could someone who sings about loving Jesus actually think it’s okay to support murdering a 20-week old baby? I’m a teacher and my husband works third shift. We live paycheck to paycheck already. We all know who will actually be bearing that higher tax burden. It won’t be the millionaires, it’ll be us! And we’re already one big expense away from losing everything!

How many times do we react to situations like the ones above in the flesh and not the spirit? How many times do we publicly shame when we should privately pray? Do our emotional responses borne of real frustration produce any actual fruit? Is Tony’s restaurant going to sdo better if he rants on facebook about his selfish neighbors? Will bubba wear a mask if Julie yells at him or posts his photo on Twitter? Will that immunocompromised woman or man with GAD watching the church service be moved to attend next Sunday if the preacher makes him feel like dirt? Will anything in our society change if we call each other libtards and Trumptards?

Well, James answers those questions very clearly:

For man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God.

There’s really no need for me to wax eloquent on that. God’s own words do it perfectly. None of our fleshly, non-listening, quick-speaking, angry reactions and responses to our stress – no matter how valid that stress is – will ever bring about the righteousness of God.

I’ll tell you what it will bring about:

Strife
Division
Resentment
Shame
Polarity
Arguments

And a lost world who looks at us petulant Christians and shakes its head.

So what should we do? I’ll give you two passages, and I’ll paste them in King James, just to bring it home:

If any man among you seems to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

James 1:26-27

Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth. Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”

Ephesians 4:26-32

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