On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was mercilessly killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Like a match dropped on sunbaked straw, it set the world on fire with anti-racism protests spanning the globe.
As I’ve observed the broad spectrum of reaction and commentary, both Christian and non-Christian, the one constant that appears is anger. And to be fair, there’s much to be angry about:
- It should make us angry that a helpless man had the life squeezed out of him by the very ones charged with the duty to protect him.
- It should make us angry to see rioters justify the destruction and looting of people’s property and livelihoods.
- It should make us angry to know that we still live in a world where people are judged by the colour of their skin or race.
Evil abounds in our world. People are sinning against people. Satan still roams the earth devouring whomever he can. We should be righteously angry.
As God’s image bearers, any human being with a conscience can perceive evil and react with anger. The corrupting impact of our sin nature, however, ensures that no matter how justified our anger may be, it does not and cannot produce righteousness.
How to react well
We all need reminding that our sin ensures our unrighteousness. Even in Christ, whatever righteous fruit we produce can only be credited to the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in us. It is not from ourselves (see Romans 7:18; 8:5-14; Galatians 5:22-23).
As we continue to process the social upheaval we’re experiencing—the racial tensions and cries for change—as well as the discussions within the church of how Christ is calling us to respond, here’s a timely reminder and warning from James 1:19-20:
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.
1. Be quick to listen
To answer before listening – that is folly and shame (Proverbs 18:13).
I’m no programming expert, but when my Kijiji search for a used coffee table is immediately followed by Google ads for coffee tables, I know something more than coincidence is going on. There’s a mind baffling array of complex algorithms continually gathering data from our internet activity. This may be helpful for finding coffee tables, but it impacts far more.
Internet algorithms also learn about your reading habits. They track the kind of news, people, stories and opinions that interest you. And, with media so polarized along political and ideological lines, without even realizing it, most of us are living in echo chambers where the only views, opinions, beliefs, and perspectives we’re exposed to are the ones we already agree with.
This reality only amplifies the challenges we all face to making sound judgments. Regardless of the subject, so often we only ever hear part of the story. When this is true, we can’t react wisely, and more often than not make presumptuous judgments. We should remember Solomon’s words:
The first to plead his case seems right,
Until another comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)
Application: Quick to listen
One thing is certain in the present turmoil we face surrounding racial tensions and social justice: No one can boast possession of all the facts.
My former pastor used to say: “God gave us two ears and one mouth because he expects us to listen twice as much as we speak.” All Christians need to learn the practice of careful listening, especially when it comes to complex and sensitive issues like racism. Wisdom means being open to the idea that you could learn from hearing someone else’s point of view.
It also means the willingness to question yourself. When you see a Facebook post or email forward that seems to bolster an opinion you already share, be honest enough to ask some critical questions before sharing it or filing it away in your “proof that I’m right” bin. Here are a few worth asking:
- “Is this true?” Or, “Is this a sufficient representation of the truth?” (i.e. Is the author adequately representing all the facts, or are they cherry picking facts to validate their opinion or narrative?)
- “Is there any evidence to support this?” (Note: “evidence” includes things like statistical data, eye-witness testimony, or quotes from an authority on the subject.)
- “Is there any counter evidence against this?” (Note: weighing counter evidence requires the same work as in point b, but it includes a conscious effort to be open to the possibility that you may be wrong.)
Learning to listen well is the first step in responding well, not just to racism but to any issue. The key is recognizing that our goal is being wise, not being right.
The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out (Proverbs 18:15).
2. Be slow to speak
Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity (Proverbs 21:23).
Today’s culture of 24-hour news cycles (or 24-minutes in some cases!) makes us feel the need to quickly respond to things to make sure our opinion is heard before the subject changes. As a result, so many of our interactions on matters of great importance (like racism), are the products of quickly formed and poorly thought through opinions.
But God’s counsel for us is that we be slow to speak. That means taking time to mull over our words and our responses. It sounds so cliché, but we must think before we speak. And the better we think, the better we’ll speak.
But there’s more to it than that. As Christians, we must not only consider our words carefully. We must consider them in relation to God’s Word. As Christ’s ambassadors, we’re commissioned with transmitting the truth of the gospel. Of course, this means the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. But it also includes our speech in all areas of life. Here are Paul’s thoughts on the matter:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, [i.e. truth] so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:6).
There’s not a single aspect of life in society that God’s Word doesn’t inform. So often as Christians we make the mistake of thinking that “gospel speech” pertains only to a salvation message. So, we quote John 3:16 and a handful of other verses when trying to lead a person to Christ, but just spout our own opinions about everything else. We need to do better.
Application: Slow to speak
Solomon gives us an important reminder:
A fool does not delight in understanding,
But only in revealing his own mind (Proverbs 18:2).
The key to responding wisely, then, is responding from a basis of knowledge. Wise speech involves saying what you know, not just what you think. And of course, the beginning point for all true knowledge is “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7).
So, especially when responding to important issues like racism, here are a few questions to stop and ask yourself before you speak (or type and press Enter):
- “Do I know what I’m saying is true or is this just my opinion?”
Opinions aren’t necessarily wrong to give, but we should still exercise restraint and wisdom before offering them. So, if it’s just an opinion, ask yourself:
- “Do I have good reasons for holding this opinion?”
- If your answer is “no”, then ask yourself, “Is sharing my opinion going to do any good? Is it going to help anyone? Could it potentially hurt someone?”
3. Be slow to become angry
Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:9).
The anger felt and expressed over George Floyd’s murder is understandable. It was a horrible, wicked, and evil act. The danger we face, however, is failing to remember how prone we are to self-righteous anger.
Among the many reactions I read, one response from a New England police officer illustrated this blind spot well. This paragraph came near the end of his letter where he directly addresses Derek Chauvin, the police officer responsible for Floyd’s death. The New England police officer writes:
Now the country is burning down. And you were the spark. Your fellow officers are getting injured and killed. Even officers in your own city. Your brothers. I hope you can live with that for the rest of your life. I hope you can live with the suffering and pain you started. You have put us all in a position where we now have to defend ourselves against angry mobs with bricks and bats and other weapons who group us in with you. Well I am not like you. We are not like you. You are the 1%. I will NEVER be like you. I would rather die than be like you.
Initially as I read this letter, I was carried along with its spirit of indignant reprimand. It was somehow satisfying to hear Chauvin get a verbal comeuppance from a fellow policeman. But then the Holy Spirit convicted me of a few things.
- First, Chauvin can hardly be pinned with the blame for setting the world on fire. There was clearly a powder keg ready to go off.
- Second, there’s nothing of the heart of Christ in wishing for someone, even a murderer like Chauvin, to carry the burden of his guilt for the rest of his life. The whole point of the gospel, after all, is that Jesus came to relieve us of the life-crushing burden of our guilt (Hebrews 10:19-22). Derek Chauvin deserves our pity. We should pray that he finds Jesus while in prison.
- And third, despite his protest to the contrary, this officer is just like Chauvin. And so am I. And so are you. There’s no one righteous, not one (see Romans 3:11 and following). We were all born with the same darkened heart of sin as Derek Chauvin. And there but for the grace of God go we (1 Corinthians 15:10), because we’re all capable of the same depths of depravity.
Anger blinds us to this truth. It allows us to justify finger pointing. It allows us to entertain blame fixing. It distracts us from looking inward at our own sin. And it distracts us from the work of the gospel.
Application: Slow to become angry
To be clear, not all anger is sin, because anger toward evil is right and appropriate. God can also use it to shake out complacency and spur us to action. In this sense, righteous anger is a good and necessary response toward evil.
The warning of Scripture, however, is to be wary of how quickly we allow ourselves to call our anger “righteous.” Jon Bloom offers five good indicators to help us answer whether or not our anger toward racism, or anything else, is righteous anger:
- “Righteous anger is roused by evil that profanes God’s holiness and perverts his goodness.” This means that our primary concern is over the suppression, distortion and denial of God’s glory by the evil around us.
- “Righteous anger first sees the log in our own eyes (Matthew 7:5).” This means that anger which turns into finger pointing cannot be righteous anger. That’s because I am just as guilty of suppressing, distorting and denying the glory of God by my own sin.
- “Righteous anger is grieved, not merely infuriated, by evil.” Yes, Jesus flipped over the money changer’s tables, but he also wept over Jerusalem for the sin and evil he found there (Matthew 23:37).
- “Righteous anger is governed by God’s love and therefore is slow to be expressed, allowing redemptive acts of love to be pursued first if at all possible.” We remember that God reveals his own identity as “The LORD (‘I AM’) the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
- “Righteous anger acts swiftly when necessary. Some forms of evil require us to be quick to speak and quick to act. The slaughter of unborn children, ethnic and economic injustice, abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), sex trafficking, human slavery, adultery, refugee plight, persecution, and other such evils call for urgent, immediate rescue (Proverbs 24:11).”
The reactions and responses to racial tensions are running so high. There are calls for social and political change, and even revolution. Many argue that society has reached a “tipping point”, and perhaps it has. What are we to do?
Christians, regardless of colour, race, or political affiliation, will need all of God’s wisdom to navigate these days ahead. Being “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16) means that our words and actions must be wise, true, and Christ exalting.
How we engage in social change will vary greatly, depending on situation and circumstance. Whatever our role, we serve Christ best where we remember that anger can’t produce the righteousness that God desires.
So, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
- The Christian Task: Winning Hearts AND Minds
- Culture and Spirituality – FAQ Guide
- Faith and Reason – FAQ Guide
 Bloom, Jon. “How Can We Be Angry and Not Sin?” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-can-we-be-angry-and-not-sin