by Danae Ashley
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. –James 1:19-21
I do a lot of pre-marital counseling in my private therapy practice and, not surprisingly, one of the main topics we discuss is communication. Each of us has our own style of communicating love, conflict, money management, sexuality, spirituality, family roles, and many other things – often in ways which we do not fully realize. We learn them first in our family of origin, and believe that the way our family does things is normal. By the time people come to pre-marital counseling, they have had enough experience with their beloved to realize that ‘normal’ is relative and that their partner’s communication style is usually quite different from their own. We often assume that the particular way we communicate is the correct way, and are more likely thinking about what we are going to say next rather than truly listening to the other.
If this level of communication conflict is possible between just two people, imagine it on the scale of a larger church community. When we come to church, we bring our whole family internalized within us and the coded ways in which we express our thoughts and feelings. This certainly creates the body of Christ, but it also generates misunderstandings and hurt feelings. The people addressed in James’ letter are experiencing this in their community, and the author is encouraging them to do some damage control. I appreciate how this first century author sums up a contemporary therapist’s technique in one sentence: [L]et everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. This is a good reminder for each of us, in every one of our relationships.
A wise quip claims that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen twice as much as we talk! Have you ever felt that someone was truly listening to you? How did it make you feel? I know for me, it feels holy. It feels like someone else has taken the time to seek and serve Christ in me and I am cherished.
How do we become better listeners so that those we encounter receive this gift? The admonition in verse 21 reminds us of the important starting point for all conversations, “…welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” When we allow the humility of Christ to guide us from the heart and into conversation with others, both we and our relationships are transformed.
I encourage you to take these words to heart and try this with your next conversation:
- Put away all distractions and fully gaze at the person speaking to you.
- Imagine that Jesus is speaking to you. Can you see the Christ in that person?
- Concentrate on what the person is saying and practice active listening—reflecting back what you think the other person has said without trying to defend, criticize, or solve their problems for them.
I know that when I slow down and do these steps, the atmosphere seems softer and more loving. I am not perfect at it, but I keep trying, as we say in our Baptismal Covenant, with God’s help.
The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle. She has written for a number of publications, produced a play, and has been featured on several podcasts regarding fertility struggle and faith. Danae’s favorite past times include reading, traveling with her husband, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.