What it Really Means to 'Be Slow to Speak'
- Heather Adams Contributing Writer
- 2020 9 Oct
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak… – James 1:19
These days, there is no shortage of outlets for sharing. Anyone can now express themselves at any time, either the 'old-fashioned' way with a phone call or coffee date, or through online sites like Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. This is mostly a positive development.
But in times of unrest and uncertainty, it's easy to let frustration or fear seep into our conversations. When emotions flare too easily, exchanges can become heated, and discussions can quickly turn into debates. The healthy trading of ideas is replaced by arguing.
As Christians, we are called to communicate more lovingly. We can take a stand against this behavior—and even bring a healing touch to our interactions—especially in such a stressful climate.
God can equip us to create an atmosphere that encourages relationships, and His Word offers us many principles for relating to others well. One of the most simple yet profound ideas comes from a book of the New Testament:
...Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak… – James 1:19
This verse may be short, but it's full of knowledge. We can learn so much from it, not just about effective listening, but about seeking to build positive bonds with others.
This Verse in Context
The author of this verse is James, a brother of Jesus, and a leader in the Jerusalem church. James wrote the book that bears his name in A.D. 49 to Jewish Christians who were scattered across the region because of persecution. His aim was to remind them to pursue right behavior and to let their faith lead them to good deeds wherever they were living.
James 1 opens with a greeting to "the twelve tribes scattered among the nations." He goes on to advise his readers to handle the trials they are under with joy, because of the maturing work God is doing in them. James then lists some other characteristics believers should pursue, such as Godly wisdom, seeing dignity in everyone, perseverance in hardship, and strength in the midst of temptations.
James 1:19 begins a section about controlling our tongues and emotions for the good of all. He explains the part that discipline plays in a life of faith—listening carefully to God's word, then following through with actions that show His mercy and love.
Photo Credit: ©Crosswalk.com/Bethany Pyle
What Does 'Slow to Speak' Mean?
This is one of those Scripture passages that most everyone, whether Christian or not, is familiar with. The basic meaning is pretty clear: that we need to value the opinions and thoughts of others as much as our own, and not to let what anyone says offend us. It's easy to see the wisdom in this notion.
James used the principle to show how conversation can be a path to relationship. Our choices, he reminded, can open the door to more positive outcomes for all sides, and even to deeper connections. St. Ignatius later wrote that listening well puts us in another's shoes, so that our empathy for them will grow:
"Be slow to speak, and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, meetings, and wishes of those who do speak. Thus you will better know when to speak and when to be silent." – St. Ignatius
What Does God's Word Say About Our Words and Speech?
God's Word cautions against talking too impulsively in other passages as well. Some of these from the Old Testament may well have inspired James as he penned his book.
"Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips." (Psalms 141:3)
"Those who guard their lips preserve their lives…" (Proverbs 13:3)
"The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint…" (Proverbs 17:27)
"Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them." (Proverbs 29:20)
"...a time to be silent and a time to speak…" (Ecclesiastes 3:7)
"Do not be quick with your mouth…" (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
How James 1:19 Applies To Christians Today
The Scriptures were written thousands of years ago when most conversations happened face to face, not on social media. But this doctrine about how to interact with others applies just as much in the digital era as it always has. James reminded his readers to not only know what God expected of them, but to be obedient.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. – James 1:22
The instruction of verse 19 may be simple to understand, but not easy to implement, because It can feel unnatural. With our self-centered human nature, we want to take care of ourselves first. Making sure we are heard and understood is a good instinct—but we must temper that with a desire to give others the same consideration.
The main challenge of being 'slow to speak' is to let go of the need to always be first and to be right every time. It requires us to listen to what another person says with an attitude of respect and patience. And when we don't agree, we need to replace jumping to judgment with a desire for dialogue.
Stepping back and giving other people grace to express themselves is more than just being polite. It's a practical way to show God's love and spread His peace into an anxious world. And in return, we receive the blessing of growing more like Christ.
- We gain a greater sense of His empathy for others
- We gain more of His clarity and wisdom
- We gain a deeper kind of joy from reaching out with His love
Learning How To Be 'Slow To Speak'
James understood that we need God's grace to be able to approach interactions in this selfless way. If we ask Him, our Heavenly Father will prepare us. And we have an active role in that ongoing training process that can include step like these:
1. Assessing yourself honestly in this area—seeing where you are now gives you a starting point for growth.
2. Studying Scriptures that teach about this—meditating on passages will remind you of the importance of this attitude.
3. Reading Bible accounts of those who did and didn't follow this advice—learning from their successes and mistakes will guide your steps.
4. Lifting up prayers for help to do this—seeking God's touch on your heart and mind will stir your desire to honor others.
A Prayer for Patience
Dear Father God,
There is so much turmoil in the world right now, and tempers can run high. Thank You for reminding me that my mind and tongue can play a part in improving the atmosphere of conversations I join. Even if emotions are stirred up, I know that Your grace will help me be an instrument of Your peace on the earth.
If I tried to do this on my own, I'd fail. So, I'm looking to Your Word, which provides all the instructions and models to guide me, and to Your Holy Spirit for the coaching I need daily. Please soften my heart so I can be a willing student.
Lord, I pray that You would grow patience in me. Help me to stop and listen, and when I do speak, give me Your wisdom. Let my words be full of truth and encouragement to those who hear them. May I show a sense of care for others that reflects Your love.
I pray all this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Being 'slow to speak' is actually a very powerful tool for making positive connections. God wants to use believers to help bring calm to a strained world, so the way we interact with others is vitally important. If we follow James' advice, our words will contain more thought, discernment, and even healing for those we talk with.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. – James 3:17
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/gpointstudio
Heather Adams is an author, speaker, and singer living in Connecticut. Heather’s passion is to equip and encourage believers to seek more of God’s truth and to experience more of His joy each day. Her book, Bow Down: The Heart of a True Worshipper is a practical, 30-day devotional about worship based on the writings of King David. Heather's blog, Worship Walk Ministries, offers weekly Scripture passages and insights to ponder. A native New Englander, Heather is settling into her home in the South, trying out local foods and watching for the alligators that live nearby! You can connect with her on her website: heatheradamsworshipwalk.com
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.