Our words matter

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Our Gospel and New Testament readings today are nicely synchronised.

Mark 7:1-23 has Jesus telling us that we are not defiled by disregard of human customs nor by what we put into our bodies (though he is talking here about religious purity (see verses 1-8 for context), not about drugs, alcohol, sugar, etc.), but rather by what comes out of our hearts and mouths (sexual immorality, theft, envy, arrogance and so on). He emphasises that it is what comes out of our mouths that is important, not what we put into our mouths.

Jesus criticises the religious leaders of his time for for emphasising human norms of behaviour and forsaking the command of God. And what is the command of God? Simple. To love God and to love our neighbour. These are the most important things in life – more important than any other command. Human rules about how to behave, what to eat, how to eat and so on, are irrelevant when it comes to our standing before God. What is important is what is in our hearts and how this comes out in our attitudes, words and actions. What should be in our hearts and what should manifest in our lived lives is LOVE – love for God and love for others.

James seems to have remembered this teaching from Jesus and picks it up in his letter, James 1:19-27, where James says that we should be quick to listen to others and to the Word of God (these are the things we should quickly allow in) but that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger (speaking and anger are things we should be slow to put out).

Being quick to listen means to be open and receptive to people around us, to make time for them, to be interested in and concerned for them. Our default response to people should always be to slow down and listen, listen with care, listen carefully, and listen with love. And we should also be quick to listen to the word of God – to the scriptures – which he says is “planted in us” (v21) like a tree, that can take root and grow and produce fruit. And the fruit of this Word/tree is our attitudes, words and actions – these should emerge out of the Word that we have allowed to grow in us, out of the love of God in our hearts.

On the other hand, James cautions us that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. He is clearly speaking about our relationships with other people – in v27 he says that the religion that God wants (accepts as pure and faultless) is for us to to look after widows and orphans in distress (that is, to take care of those who are vulnerable) and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (that is, not to conform to human customs and worldly norms of behaviour).

James speaks particularly about the tongue, which he says we must “keep a tight reign on”, like a wild horse that is ready to bolt. He actually speaks at length about the dangers of the tongue in chapter 3, where he says, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” We have to watch (and yes, even censor) our words, because they are more powerful than we think – whether they are words of healing and restoration or words of criticism and judgement.

Rather, says James, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. This reminds me of how God is often described in the scriptures, as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (e.g., Psalm 86:15). We should be like God – quick to love and slow to anger.

There has been a shift in the world since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He and his followers shifted social norms about how we use words. Speaking out whatever we think about people, and saying it bluntly and without regard for kindness or niceness has become a new norm. The attitude of not self-censoring and saying whatever one wants has been valorised – made into a virtue. We think we have a right to say whatever we want and that any kind of consideration of how our words might impact someone else is just a form of bleeding-heart leftism, political correctness or a sinister censorship of our right to free thought.

But no! This is completely out of alignment with the example and teaching of Christ and of his disciples! For Jesus, love and consideration for others is THE highest command (along with loving God) and checking what comes out of heart and mouths is clear in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7. James takes up Jesus’ teaching and unpacks it even more, with strong warnings about reining in (i.e. censoring) our tongues. Just read James 3 and see for yourself.

The path of the Christ-follower involves being full of love, quick to listen, slow to speak, abounding in love and desiring to build up others. Our words matter. This is the way of Christ.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 9: Slow to Anger

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Yesterday we looked in depth at one Hebrew word, chesed, which refers to God’s unfailing and steadfast love towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship, God’s ‘loving-kindness’. Chesed is used close to 250 times in the Old Testament. In eight of those, chesed is partnered with an important phrase, which is our focus today: “slow to anger”. There is one other place where “slow to anger” is used in the Old Testament – without the word chesed – giving a total of nine occurrences.

Although they are similar in wording, there is one version that has particular meaning to me. It is the version from Joel 2:13, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love), and he relents from sending calamity.” In the services at our church, we often recite this verse in the context of a time of penitence and confession. For me, it serves two purposes:

  • First, it calls me to repent, reminding me that I am sinful, fallen, broken. It is the first phrase that does that – “Rend your heart”. It was custom among Jewish people in those days to tear their clothes when distressed, bereaved or penitent. It was a public sign of intense, heartfelt emotion. Clothes were not as common as they are today, so ripping up your costly clothing would not be done lightly. Imagine wearing your best, most favourite clothes; and then ripping them. That’s probably not something we’d do! But Joel says that we should not just rend our clothes; rather we should rend our hearts. The depth of feeling that would prompt that kind of ripping is almost unimaginable. Joel calls us to a most heartfelt and intense contrition about our sinfulness. In the preceding verse, God says, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12).
  • Second, it gives me the promise that God will respond positively to my penitence, because God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and overflowing with chesed. This four-fold combination gives me the courage to fess up to God, rather than to pretend that I’m okay or to avoid God in the hope that my sin might just go away in time.

Joel wrote during the time of King Uzziah, a time of prosperity for Israel.[1] But a plague of locusts threatened the economy of the region and also the ability of Israel to continue its ceremonial religion. Joel interpreted the plague as a judgement from God, warning the people of Israel that their faith had waned and become formulaic – empty ritual. He warns them of a greater judgement to come if they do not repent and develop a heart-relationship with God. But if they did repent, God would restore them.

That’s a great story of Israel, but it is also a great story of ourselves, perhaps even of you yourself. Most of us go through times of great zeal in our faith, a rich and vibrant relationship with God, a stemming of the tide of sin, growth in faith and witness, and the development of Christlikeness. But most of us probably also go through times of falling away, of cooling down, of relying on self, on flirting with sin, of going incognito and of following our own desires.

Figurative plagues of locusts may be God’s way of calling us to repentance and to a heart-relationship with God. And it is in this context that this promise, that God is slow to anger and abounding in chesed, becomes so important.

Before we go on, let me list the other eight passages where we find this phrase:

  • And he [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
  • The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Numbers 14:18)
  • They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love). Therefore you did not desert them. (Nehemiah 9:17)
  • But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15)
  • The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love). (Psalm 103:8)
  • The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in chesed (love). (Psalm 145:8)
  • He [Jonah] prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love), a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
  • The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. (Nahum 1:3)

Many of these of these verses are partnered with a verse that speaks of judgement, as we see in Numbers 14:18 and Nahum 1:3. We will reflect at a later time on the topic of God’s judgement and wrath. For today, though, let us remain focused on ‘slow to anger’ in relation to chesed.

You will see from these verses that the four main elements are present in almost all of them: compassion, graciousness, slowness to anger and chesed. In addition, we have elements of: faithfulness, forgiveness of sin, not deserting, relenting from sending calamity and powerful. I suggest that all of these elements are different facets of one central concept, namely chesed. It is God’s covenant relationship lovingkindness that manifests in compassion, grace, forgiveness, faithfulness and so on. And God’s slowness to anger is part of that.

‘Slow to anger’ implies that God does get angry. Let us not kid ourselves about that. When we sin, God gets angry at us. God gets angry because sin is everything that is not what God intends us to be and do. Sin is, in essence, us turning away from God’s vision, God’s values, from God himself. And this distresses God and angers God.

But while we may expect God to go ballistic and annihilate us, we are reassured by this passage that God is slow to anger. Read these three verses from Psalm 103:8-10

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love). He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.

Here, “slow to anger” is augmented with “nor will he harbour his anger forever”.  In other words, God relents, cools down. And we are reassured that “he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” – we do not get our just deserts from God. God forgives, God relents, God concedes.

All of this speaks to a God who lacks anger towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship. It is not that God does not angry at all – that would be disturbing in its own way. Rather, God is not full of anger. And when God does get angry, it is slow in coming.

This is important for those of us who have been raised by people who are quick to anger and prone to excessive and disproportionate anger. We may come into a relationship with God, skittish that God will be like that – one wrong move and you get smacked! We may spend our entire faith-life walking on egg shells to not arouse the wrath of God, to keep the angry giant asleep.

But this is not the God we meet in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is slow to anger.

On the other hand, this same God is quick to love (chesed)! And abounding in love!

I love this contrast! Don’t you?

God is slow to anger and quick to love; lacking in anger and overflowing in love. The contrast is deliberate and points to the heart of God, the character of God. God is not full of anger, but full of love.

Many of us (and I am one of these) harbour a nagging belief that God is fundamentally, deeply disappointed in us. That we are deficient and inadequate and tainted. That we don’t live up to God’s standards. That God is perpetually frowning at us, disapproving, judging. And that if we make one more wrong move, God is likely to smite us.

But, when we take a big breath and look into the inner depths of God, when we dare to investigate what God really feels towards us, we discover that the overriding experience and feeling in the heart of God is love, not anger. Of course, we are not perfect, and we do upset God, and we mess up and sin – all of this is true and God is not unmoved by it. But this does not result in a dominance of anger in God towards us, because God is basically ‘cool’ – slow to anger. Rather, there is a dominance of love, goodwill, generosity, compassion and chesed in God towards us.

I invite you to take the risk of exploring what God really feels towards you.

Meditation for the Day

What do you think God really feels when God thinks about you? Anger or love? In what proportions? If you think God is primarily angry, read again these verses and weigh up again the ratio of anger to love. Test and challenge your belief that anger predominates.

Prayer for the Day

God of abundant love, grace and compassion, help me to truly believe that you love me.

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[1] Patterson, R. D. (1985). Joel (in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.