Muddy Words

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. (NIV James 1:19-20)

It's frustrating when people don’t understand what you are saying. The truth of the matter, however, may simply be that we are not conveying our message in a way that it can properly be received and understood. Communication, real communication, seems to be desperately missing from our world. So, what can we do?

James’ words contain some hints about communication. Yes, listen more and talk less; but what about the last part? James’ isn’t just trying to point out that we shouldn’t get angry. He is actually pointing to something we often take for granted—the purpose of the conversation. We should ask ourselves, every time we speak or otherwise convey a message, “What is the goal?” If we took more time to consider our reason for talking, we might find others receiving it as intended.

According to James, the purpose of conversation, at least in the context of Christianity, is to “bring out the righteous life that God desires.” The righteous life that God desires is so much more than people escaping hell. God desires that our lives be entirely submitted to Him. This, in turn, brings life to the individual and allows them to reflect life back into the world. This is a righteous life, a life in a proper relationship with God, and thus, in a proper relationship with the world around us.

Unfortunately, we often speak without a clear purpose and, unintentionally, end up muddying the waters rather than opening channels of communication. Zig Ziglar used to say, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” When we do not speak with a specific final goal in mind our words become like muck in the water. This muck becomes the focus rather than the contamination and the temptation is to respond with more useless muck. This creates a vicious cycle of rhetoric that accomplishes nothing more than feeding frustration and further polarizing people.

Sometimes, we put the cart before the horse and make the conversation more important than the purpose. In other words, we want to win an argument rather than enlighten each other. When we are convinced that certain things should just be said, we place priority over the conversation rather than whether it is received in a transformative way. I fear that too many Christians preach the gospel just to say they did rather than for the sake of bringing light into another person’s life. I fear many Christians have reverted to slinging mud for the sake of winning an argument. When our purpose for preaching the gospel is anything other than to bring eternal life to a person with genuinely love, we muddy the waters with muck. We become the source of division and confusion. We prevent others from being able to receive the true message. We become a stumbling block through our pride.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (NIV 1 Corinthians 13:1).

Our goal for speaking cannot be simply to hear ourselves, it must be with the intent purpose of sharing an idea or truth with another.

This requires consideration, empathy, reason, and patience. James’ first words, "be quick to listen, slow to speak," are certainly true. Perhaps we should spend more time listening so that we can answer rather than react. The first has a purpose, the second is a response of fear. If you do not listen to those you oppose, you cannot convey a transformative message.

So how do you communicate? It’s easy to blame others, but we are ultimately responsible for our own actions. When you communicate, do you participate in a way that keeps the conversation in line with the original purpose, or do you hijack it in an effort to push an agenda or otherwise sabotage it? Do the words you share “bring about the righteous life that God desires”? Is your goal so important that your willing to invest in others and be p