My heartbeat quickened. I peered at my brother, desperately hoping that I had imagined that sickening sound while my shaking hand grasped my car door. My legs felt like pillars of cement, unable to move. No need to get out to look at the damage because my brother’s expression told me everything.
“Look what you’ve done! I am not paying for this! I hope Dad doesn’t kill you when he finds out,” he exclaimed. The car shook as he slammed the car door and stormed off to his first hour class as the ring of the school bell peeled across the student parking lot. Feeling abandoned, I remained behind, my only company, a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes.
“Hey, it’s okay. It’s not that bad–it’s only a car. Are you alright?” asked the owner of the other car in a decibel just above a whisper. He bent to examine the fresh scrape on his new car.
With trepidation, my eyes met his, “Yeah, I’m okay. I am so very sorry about your car,” I cried. “I was in such a hurry and carelessly flung open my door without checking my surroundings.” I meant every word, but apologizing, no matter how sincere, wasn’t going to erase the ugly mark I had just made.
“It’s really okay,” he gently replied. “I know it was an accident and you didn’t mean to do it. Now let’s get to class before we’re both late.” He shrugged, locked his car and tried to lighten things with a couple of joking remarks as we hurried into school, but the last thing I felt like doing right then was laugh.
Not the reaction I had expected.
Twenty years later, that young man’s self-control during that moment still amazes me. I sincerely doubt that if someone did that to my car today–my far from new vehicle that smells of spoiled milk and melted crayons, the one with multiple scratches and dents easily visible on its exterior–that I would respond in the same calm, mild manner. Nope, I know for a fact that I would “go ballistic,” as they say.
My mother has long claimed that she finds it much more difficult to react like a Christian than to act like one, and I can certainly attest to that. Admittedly, I lose (or find), my temper all too quickly, verbally slapping down all those in earshot. Like flapping soles on a worn pair of shoes in desperate need of glue, so is my tongue. Quick to speak, easy to anger, and slow to listen–that’s me–the exact opposite of the apostle James’ admonition to believers in the early church (James 1:19).
The NIV, translates that verse like this: “My Dear brothers and sisters, take note of this . . . ” Opening with a term of endearment, he gently prompts them to “take note,” i.e., get out your pen and pencil and write this down so you don’t forget it. James’ tone is not of rebuke or condescension, but one of authoritative affection, delineating the type of lifestyle Christians were to live.This verse is one of many in which James instructs believers to control their tongues, impressing the importance of taming our thoughts and words for our own good, as well as the good of others. James’ message still applies to Christians two thousand years later.
So what does it mean to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry”? One of my Sunday school teachers used to tell us, “God gave you two ears and one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak.” James instructs us first to listen. Without pausing to listen before responding, we become like the fool in Proverbs 29:11, “A fool vents all his anger, but a wise man holds it back.” And sooner or later, even fools realize that their rants can devastate relationships that well-articulated apologies fail to mend.
It’s pretty clear why James tells us to be slow to anger and speak. As a teenager, I frequently blurted out words that were far from kind or sympathetic. When my “victim” appeared hurt and offended, I’d flippantly quip,“Just build a bridge and get over it.” Sometimes I actually apologized for my for my outbursts, thinking that sufficed. What more did people want? Now I know that they wanted to see some demonstration that I had actually cared enough to think about what I had said and hopefully, had begun to realize that while harsh words could be forgiven, the pain they inflicted was not easily forgotten.
We cannot retract words once spoken aloud, and contrary to the old saying, most all of us had rather have sticks and stones thrown at us than unkind words because words DO hurt. However, sometimes it is the nonverbal cues that inflict harm, making unpleasant memories difficult to shake off. Clenched jaws, hateful glares, or slammed doors followed by the sound of squealing tires can be equally as damaging.
For some, a gentle and mild manner comes more naturally than for others; it is their basic temperament. I want patience and sympathy to be from my heart, expressed through my words and actions, but it’s a daily struggle for people like me. (After all, I am a redhead, so I have an excuse!) Seriously, instead, I spew the opposite; however, because of my increasing knowledge and understanding of the grace and mercy the Lord has relentlessly bestowed on undeserving me, I truly want to do the same for others. I sincerely want to imitate Christ, so I ask myself:
How different would my response would be to someone cutting me off in traffic if I knew the passenger was in labor?
Would I be as quick to criticize the mom on the playground if I knew her husband had recently left her to be with someone else?
Would I pounce on my husband as readily if I waited for him to finish speaking and paused a moment to pray for understanding and wisdom?
“A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).
About a year ago, we visited a theme park with our girls, ages four and two. It was an Indian summer, and I was eight months pregnant so I wasn’t feeling all that great under that hot Carolina sun. Nor was I feeling particularly patient. Despite my efforts to move them along, the girls wanted to stop and paint masks at a picnic table the park had set up. Annoyed, because they chose to do this instead of riding all the rides we had paid for, I shuffled over to the table behind them. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice.
I turned and immediately recognized that face from my high school days and could only smile. There he stood, obviously now a dad, gently helping a little girl select paint colors. We talked a bit, briefly catching up on each other’s major “life events” and then parted. Walking away with my husband, I related the surreal incident that occurred nineteen years ago. After all this time, the telling of it still made me cringe.
Like I told my husband, I will always remember the extraordinary, unexpected kindness he showed me that day. WWJD bracelets were popular at the time; maybe he was wearing one which reminded him to act like Jesus, maybe not. But I know this, he acted like Jesus on that day. He had grace and mercy on me in that very awkward moment as we stood there on the school parking lot. No doubt, he was agitated. He had every right to be; a heedless, impetuous girl had just made an indelible, long scratch on his new car. Nonetheless, he remained calm, cool, and collected. He didn’t yell or berate me but simply said,“it’s just a car.” Even my husband shook his head in astonishment at the end of this amazing story.
God is watching us and so are others, especially our children. For many, we really are the only version of the Gospel they will ever “read,” and they judge us by the way we act, not our intentions. Our lack of self-control, often interpreted as hypocrisy by the lost world, is one of the most common reasons stated for rejecting Christianity. Do our actions and our reactions when “life happens,” reflect a forgiving and merciful Savior, or do they cause others to turn away? God holds us accountable.
“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36)
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves,”What would Jesus do?” a lot more often.