August 7th James 1:19-27 “Anger as Moral Filth and Pollution”

Dear Sisters and Brothers, 

When we first mention the word “sin” our minds often jump to sex.  When we speak words like “temptation, depravity, or moral decay” we often think of sex as being the main issue.  Although James recognizes sex as a source of temptation his focus is much different.  His main concern for his fellow Christians is that they will tempted in other ways. 

James 1:19-27 

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.  Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. 

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. 

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. 

So, what are the temptations that James is highlighting? He is talking about the anger that is steeped through society.  There is a huge temptation to engage in spreading news that will provoke angry responses in others.  “Keep a tight rein on your tongue,” he says, meaning to hold back your negative words even though they are like a horse that is ready to run.  James refers to human anger as “moral filth.” 

There are many angry people in the world.  The strange thing about anger is that it is not always unpleasant to feel inside yourself.  Anger can even be invigorating.  When we are focused on anger at others, we tend to feel rosy about ourselves.   When we shout at the faults of others, we become blind to our own faults.  In fact, we can see that anger has a strong connection to feelings of smug superiority.  Self-righteous people are known for their anger. 

This “moral filth” can take many forms.  We can meet it in the bullies of the schoolyard.  We can find it in cold sarcasm that always comes with a smile.  We can find it in politics and entertainment.  Many comedies feature people who are continually angry and complaining.  Think about any situation comedy you have ever seen, there is always somebody who is crabby or even violent, who hurts people with words on a daily basis.  Long ago, they had jesters to speak the truth about the problems of the world.  Now, we have stand-up comedians who usually complain, mock, and criticize their way through their shows.  It can be hilarious, but it can also be very negative. 

James is writing to Jewish Christians like himself and tells them to resist the temptation to embrace human anger.  Human anger spreads through evil words that quickly descend into bearing false witness.  Anger moves us away from dealing with facts and into personal attacks on people for the way they look, the way they talk, or little issues that have nothing to do with reality. 

James does not tell people to eliminate anger from their lives.  He leaves room for righteous indignation and hatred of evil behavior, but he doesn’t want those things to be confused with human anger which feels like a fever in the blood or an exhilarating call to action.  We are to fight the evils of this world with a self-control that avoids stirring anger in others.  

Human anger leads to a loss of freedom.  If someone can stir enough anger in you, they can control you.   Enough anger can turn a group of people into a mob.  People who feed on each other’s anger can commit atrocities far worse than what the individuals would have chosen to do.  Unbridled anger is the main cause of domestic violence, assault, and murder.  When people allow their anger to run free they can be driven on by the thrill of its power and bring ruin to many lives. 

Think about these words that James writes: 

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. 

James makes it very clear and unavoidable; human anger is impulse that must be fought and controlled. 

James ends this chapter by saying that religious people who continue to spread angry words are self-deceived about their own goodness.  He even says that their religion is “worthless.” 

If you doubt this, think about Jesus.  Think about his arrest, his trial, his torture, and his death.  Even though he was put in the hands of human anger, he did not feed on that anger or use it as a reason to reject humanity.  Think about Jesus after his resurrection; there is no human anger in him. 

Our religion is not supposed to lead to anger, violence, or destruction.  James identifies self-control as a mark of a true Christian.  Though we may be driven by righteous indignation to fight the evils of this world, we should never allow human anger to lead us into violence or mistreatment of another person. 

James says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”   The pollution of the soul is anger that produces hurt and violence. 

Questions to Ponder:   Do you ever feel manipulated by people trying to stir anger in you?  How do you deal with that temptation? 

Blessings, 

Pastor Rick