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6. How to Grow in Spiritual Maturity (James 1:19-21)

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Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls.

James 1:19-21 (NET)

How can we grow spiritually?

In James 1:18, James described the new birth of Christians. He said, “By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Even before time, God planned to save us. It’s a mystery in Scripture called election (Eph 1:4). However, in time, by God’s sovereign plan, we encountered the gospel, accepted it, and it saved us. We were born into the family of God.

When a person accepts Christ, it is a wonderful thing. Scripture says the angels rejoice in heaven over one person’s conversion (Lk 15:10). However, like natural babies, spiritual babies are prone to various dangers because of a lack of wisdom and maturity. For example, with the Corinthian church, Paul said this to them:

So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not merely human?

1 Corinthians 3:1-4

Since the majority of the church was spiritual infants, they could not receive deep doctrine—they could only handle milk. They were in discord with one another, and they were overly exalting teachers in the church, which meant they were prone both to idolatry and spiritual deception.

Likewise, many of our churches today are full of immature believers—spiritual infants. They have a low understanding of doctrine. They are prone to fighting and discord with others (including God, cf. Jam 1:13) and are prone to idolizing people—their pastors, worship leaders, Christian recording artists, etc. Because of this undue worship, many fall away from God when their spiritual leaders sin or make a mistake. The church can never complete what God has called it to unless its members mature and grow up in Christ.

In 1 John 2:13-14, John classified the church as children, young men, and fathers. He said that the children knew God—they had a saving relationship with him. The young men were conquering the devil because the Word of God was strong in them. Finally, he said the fathers, like the children, knew God. However, this knowledge was much deeper based on experience and their knowledge of God’s Word. Also, because they were fathers, they were leading others to Christ and mentoring believers. This is the spiritual pathway God has for all of us—ultimately becoming spiritual mothers and fathers.

After James reminds these believers of their new birth, in James 1:19-21, he writes to them about how they can grow spiritually. They were experiencing trials as scattered Jewish Christian refugees. In their scattering, God was using their trials to perfect and mature them (Jam 1:2-4); however, to mature, they needed to respond well to their trials. In James 1:19-20, he gives them further instructions on how to do so. They needed to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Then in James 1:21, he summarizes these commands by saying, “So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls.” By getting rid of evil and welcoming God’s Word, these believers could be saved. Since James is writing to believers and he previously talked about their new birth (1:18), this saving seems to refer to a present and future tense of saving (cf. Phil 2:12-13, Rom 13:11)—becoming sanctified by growing in spiritual maturity and one day being glorified at Christ’s coming, as they persevered in the faith. James was calling for them to grow.

In this study, we will consider principles about growing in spiritual maturity.

Big Question: How can believers grow in spiritual maturity according to James 1:19-21?

To Grow Spiritually, We Must Be Quick to Listen

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.

James 1:19

To be “quick to listen” has the sense of “hurry up and listen!” or “run to listen.” When you find someone who is a good listener, you will find someone who is mature or who will mature quickly, if they keep being a good listener.

Interpretation Question: In what ways should believers be quick to listen?

1. Believers should be quick to listen to God’s Word.

Since the surrounding context talks about being born again by the word of truth (v.18), being saved by the message implanted (v. 21), and being doers of God’s Word and not hearers only (v. 22), the command to be quick to listen must first be applied to our hearing of God’s Word. Unfortunately, this is why many believers are not growing. They don’t hurry up to take part in opportunities to hear the Word! They don’t hurry up to read Scripture daily, be involved in small groups and worship services, or read Christian literature! Today, we have more opportunities than past generations to study God’s Word because of the Internet, TV, radio, and modern transportation, and yet, it’s highly likely that believers are less biblically literate than past generations. To really grow spiritually, we must be zealous in taking advantage of opportunities to hear and study the Word. (1) To do this means that we must get rid of apathy. In 1 Peter 2:2, Peter actually commands believers to “crave” or “yearn” for the spiritual milk of God’s Word like an infant. Peter doesn’t command believers to read it or study it. He commands us to desire it, because when we desire it, we will read it. We’ll hurry up to hear it. This means when we find ourselves apathetic towards God’s Word, bored in the midst of the sermons, we must repent of our hard hearts. (2) Not only must we be careful of apathy, we must be careful of busyness. As in the Mary and Martha story (Lk 10:38-42), it’s very possible to be busy doing good things, including ministry, which keep us from the best thing—sitting at Jesus’ feet, hearing and studying his Word. Are you hurrying up to listen to God’s Word? Or, are you apathetic and too busy to spend time in God’s Word? Being zealous for God’s Word is crucial for spiritual growth.

2. Believers should be quick to listen to others.

(1) Not listening to others probably leads to most of our arguments and fights in society, whether that be in families, churches, work, or government. This was a problem amongst the scattered Jewish Christians, as James says they were warring and fighting with one another (4:1-2)—no doubt prompted by the stress of their persecution. In their situation, listening to others and really hearing them would be very important to have peace. Listening is difficult because we are naturally prideful and selfish. Because of this, we tend to believe that the way we view things is correct and how others view things is wrong—which leads to discord with others who likewise think they are correct. Typically, when people are fighting over something, each person is correct to some extent—they are just focusing on different angles. In the church, sometimes there is an argument over the emphasis of preaching the gospel versus social justice (caring for the poor, etc.). Both are actually important and the Christian duty. Christ preached the gospel, but he also healed the sick and fed the poor. Certainly, a person’s eternal destiny must be more important than his or her temporary needs, but both are important. In politics, sometimes there are fights over things like national security on the border—not allowing criminals or terrorists to enter the country. No one would say this is unimportant. But on the other side, most believe a country should also be hospitable (cf. Lev 19:34, Ps 146:9)—providing a place of refuge for the persecuted, oppressed, or marginalized. Both are important—protecting the country and being hospitable to those in need. In order to avoid needless discord and fighting, which lead to sin, we must learn to listen. It has often been said that God gave us two ears that always stay open and one mouth which we can close, so we could listen twice as much as we talk.

(2) Listening is not only important to avoid discord and fighting, but it’s also important to help others, especially when counseling or serving them. We need to listen to what people are saying. We need to listen to what they are not saying—often people leave out things intentionally for fear of rejection and sometimes even to deceive. We need to consider their body language. Seventy percent of communication is nonverbal, so in listening we need to watch what a person’s body is saying. We also need to prayerfully listen to the Spirit while ministering to people. God has special things he wants to speak and do in people’s lives; therefore, we must be sensitive to his leading while ministering to others. When Nehemiah was talking to the Persian king, he prayed in his heart before responding to him (Neh 2). We should be praying and listening to the Spirit when talking to others as well. Listening is very important for counseling and serving people.

(3) Being a good listener includes practicing “active listening” skills like asking follow-up questions so that we can learn more and also repeating what was said for clarification. As people understand that they are being heard, it builds trust and they are more likely to share more and listen to what we say. It’s often been said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!”

Are we quick to listen? To grow spiritually, we must be quick to listen to God’s Word and also quick to listen to others—both of these will aid in keeping us out of sin and discord and also in serving others.

Application Question: Why is listening so important for spiritual growth? Why is listening so hard to do well? How has God helped you grow as a listener? What are some good tips for listening?

To Grow Spiritually, We Must Be Slow to Speak

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.

James 1:19

Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words abound, transgression is inevitable, but the one who restrains his words is wise.” Also, Proverbs 13:3 says, “The one who guards his words guards his life, but whoever is talkative will come to ruin.” When we talk too much, we won’t be good listeners and therefore will be more prone to sin. For that reason, in order to grow spiritually, we must be slow to speak.

Interpretation Question: In what ways should believers be slow to speak?

1. Believers should be slow to speak when listening to God’s Word.

Again, since the context is dealing with Scripture (1:18, 21, 22), we must first apply the command to our listening to God’s Word. In the ancient context, people owned very few books because they were so expensive, and even less would have owned a Bible. Typically, people went to church or synagogue to hear the Word read and preached. However, the ancient worship context was less formal than modern worship settings. People would commonly interrupt the sermons to ask questions or contest the teaching. This is probably part of the reason Paul told the ladies at Corinth to ask their questions at home to their husbands instead of at church (1 Cor 14:34-35). Some were obviously disrupting the worship. Likewise, in small groups and informal teaching services, we should be slow to speak and instead focus on learning. Unfortunately, in informal Bible study settings, some needlessly dominate the conversations, not allowing others to talk, and also not adding much valuable content. Being slow to speak does not forbid good dialogue and conversation while in Bible study—it just means that our words should be thoughtful, strategic, and edifying to others. We should prayerfully consider our words so that they clarify God’s Word and build others up. Remember, in the multitude of words, sin is not lacking. In addition, when hearing God’s Word, we must be careful to not talk in our mind—having a running dialogue while Scripture is taught. Often in regular conversations, people do very little listening because they are thinking about what they are going to say next or some other business they need to attend to. People do the same when hearing Scripture taught. For that reason, when reading or listening to God’s Word, we must quiet our minds and focus on what God is saying so we can learn. This is crucial for our growth.

2. Believers should be slow to speak when teaching or counseling others according to God’s Word.

As mentioned, being slow to speak doesn’t mean to never speak. God wants us to ask wise questions and strategically share God’s Word with others. In James 3:1, James said that not many should seek to be teachers because they will receive a harsher judgment. Obviously, some were pridefully mishandling God’s Word—causing division and hurting people. The Word of God is powerful—both when taught correctly and when taught inaccurately. Our wrong conclusions on Scripture hurt people, and we’ll be judged for it—both by people and God. Paul said he taught God’s Word with fear and trembling (1 Cor 2:3-4). Many believers don’t have a healthy fear when speaking God’s Word. They speak pridefully, hastily, and sometimes angrily, which hurts people. The Bible is a two-edged sword, which can both hurt and heal (Heb 4:12). When a doctor does surgery, he makes sure that he is not only knowledgeable but clean and sober because performing surgery is a matter of life and death. Believers should likewise aim to be knowledgeable, morally clean, and sober in handling God’s Word. When in sin, which includes spiritual sins like pride, lust, anger, and unforgiveness, we’ll be more prone to misinterpret and abuse Scripture (cf. Jam 1:21, 1 Peter 2:1-2, 1 Tim 4:1-2). Sometimes, it’s wise to not speak or teach God’s Word until we have repented of certain sins. In addition, we should hold back from teaching on topics that we are unsure about from a biblical perspective. It’s wise, even for teachers, to say, “I don’t know. I need to study that more.” Personally, there are some topics I won’t teach publicly on because I’m still wrestling to understand the texts and doctrines. If I do teach them, I share the various views and where I’m at in my current understanding of the text or doctrine.

To grow spiritually, we must be slow to teach God’s Word. We should have a healthy fear and trembling because God’s Word is powerful, our sin affects our ability to properly understand and teach it, and because God will hold us accountable for what we teach (Jam 3:1, Matt 5:19).

3. Believers should be slow to speak in regular conversations.

We are made in God’s image, and God created the earth through his Words. Therefore, there is the power of life and death in our words (Prov 18:21)—to build and destroy. No doubt, because of this, Christ said that we will be judged for every idle word (Matt 12:36). For that reason, we must be slow to speak. We should carefully consider the potential outcomes of what we say. Will this encourage others, build them up, or discourage them? We should refrain from criticizing others. We must keep our tongues from lying and exaggeration. We must keep our tongues from boasting. We must learn to only speak edifying words. Ephesians 4:29-30 says:

You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

When unwholesome talk comes out of our mouths, we grieve the Holy Spirit—meaning we pain the Lord and hinder his ministry in and through us. We can’t grow when speaking ungodly words, and it hinders the growth of others. Therefore, to grow we must be slow to speak.

Application Question: Why is it so important to be slow to speak? In what ways do you commonly fail in your speech? What tips have you found helpful in being slow to speak?

To Grow Spiritually, We Must Be Slow to Anger

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.

James 1:19

Anger is another tremendous hindrance to spiritual growth. In Ephesians 4:26-27, Paul warned believers to not go to bed angry, lest they give Satan a foothold. Unresolved anger hinders our growth both individually and corporately, as communities and local churches. Many churches are not growing spiritually because of discord and fighting, which opens the door to the enemy.

James warns that human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Again, this means that it will hinder our spiritual growth and others’. Seeds of anger sown into others typically produce destructive fruit in them. In fact, Christ taught anger was the seed of murder (Matt 5:21-22).

Interpretation Question: In what ways should believers be slow to anger?

1. Believers should be slow to anger when hearing God’s Word.

Throughout the story of the Bible, God’s people often became angry at the prophets for speaking God’s Word to them. They even killed them at times! Likewise, in the New Testament, Paul said this to the Galatians, “So then, have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (5:16). Since the Word is a sword, it cuts us when we read it or hear it preached. When it challenges us about some sin—illegal downloading, cheating on taxes, harboring unforgiveness, not submitting to leadership, sexual immorality, etc.—our natural response often is anger, especially when the Word comes from a preacher, member of the church, or friend. This is not just true when God speaks to us about a sinful act but also when God’s Word confronts us theologically about some wrong view we harbor. Often when topics like God’s role for women in the church or home are taught, people immediately start struggling with anger during the study. When Scripture talks about our need to submit to the governing authorities, especially when they are ungodly or oppressive, people commonly struggle with anger. They would rather criticize or rebel against the leaders. Today, when the sexual ethics of the Bible are taught—how God forbids lust, including same-sex attraction and sex outside of marriage—again, people often struggle with anger. Believers can’t grow spiritually when they are angry at God’s Word. Our job is not to judge the Word! It is to correctly interpret it and then submit to it. Instead of becoming angry at those who tell us the truth, we should honor them and encourage them because it’s a hard job (1 Tim 5:17). As mentioned, others have been killed for preaching truth. And other teachers simply skip hard truths—to protect themselves—rather than loving God and others by preaching God’s Word. Paul warned that in the last days, preachers would simply itch people’s ears—teaching feel-good topics and building up a great following—instead of preaching sound doctrine (2 Tim 4:1-4). The prophet, typically, has never been loved.

2. Believers should be slow to anger in relationships.

Again, Christ taught that anger was the seed of murder, and Paul warned that it opened the door to Satan in our lives. Even when people harm us, Scripture calls us to bless them. Romans 12:19-21 says,

Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Instead of being angry, we should serve those who hurt us. Christ said that we should pray for them instead of cursing them (Matt 5:44). God is a just God. He will pursue justice for how we have been harmed—either in this life or the next. In the meantime, we should bless our enemies, and overcome evil with good.

3. Believers should be righteously angry.

In the same way, being slow to speak doesn’t mean to never speak, being slow to become angry also doesn’t mean to never be angry. There is a righteous anger we should have. Certainly, we see this in Christ. When Christ was lied about and mocked while being tried by the Sanhedrin, he said nothing (Mark 14:53-65). He was gentle like a lamb. But, when people were cheating the poor and dishonoring God’s house—the temple—he was ferocious like a lion. He pulled out a whip, flipped tables, and kicked those sinning out of God’s house (John 2). Likewise, there is a righteous anger that we should have. Sometimes, we sin by not being angry (Eph 4:26).

What’s the difference between righteous anger and sinful anger? In general, as demonstrated by Christ, sinful anger is typically selfish—concerned primarily with ourselves and our rights. But righteous anger is typically concerned with God and others. We should be like lambs when personally offended and mistreated and like lions when God or others are mistreated or offended.

Selfish anger doesn’t lead to a righteous life—it typically leads both us and others into sin. But righteous anger—which fights for others and for God’s honor—leads to righteousness. It cares about the poor, the abused, and the neglected and that burning passion stirs people up to do something about injustice. When selfishly angry, we must humble ourselves. When righteously angry, we must wisely discern how to use the anger for the benefit of others and God’s glory.

Application Question: In what ways do you struggle with anger? How is God calling you to respond to your anger and better control it? How can we discern whether our anger is sinful or righteous? How can we protect ourselves from sinning, even when righteously angry (cf. Eph 4:26-27)?

To Grow Spiritually, We Must Joyfully Receive God’s Word

So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls.

James 1:21

Not only must we be quick to listen to God’s Word and not angry when hearing it, but we must also joyfully receive it. When James says to “welcome the message,” the word “welcome” has the sense of to “receive with hospitality” or to “receive favorably.”1 Therefore, like a good host, we must always receive God’s Word joyfully into our hearts. One can constantly read Scripture, hear it preached, and yet not truly receive it and allow it to change them. Certainly, that was the sin of the Pharisees. They were always reading and studying but not truly receiving what God said. They ultimately rejected Christ—who was God’s Word incarnate (John 1:1). Likewise, we must joyfully receive the truths that God teaches us when studying Scripture for our morning devotions. We must joyfully receive it when it is preached. We must joyfully receive it when we are corrected because of our sinful actions or beliefs. Proverbs 9:8 says, “… reprove a wise person and he will love you.”

Observation Question: How can we joyfully receive God’s Word?

1. We joyfully receive God’s Word by getting rid of all sin.

“Put away” in other places is used of taking off dirty clothes. In the same way, if we are going to receive God’s Word, we must get rid of the old clothes we’ve been hanging onto—ungodly actions, thoughts, entertainment, etc. In addition, “put away” is derived from a Greek word that refers to wax in the ear.2 It may have this sense in the reading. Therefore, James is calling us to get rid of sin which clogs our ears to God’s voice. In 1 Peter 2:1-2, Peter said something similar. He says, “So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation.” Since Peter connects getting rid of sin with yearning or craving God’s Word, it tells us that sin affects our appetite. When born again, it is very natural for a spiritual child to want to eat—just like a baby does. But practicing and enjoying sin negatively affects our spiritual appetite. Enjoying sinful entertainment, conversations, or actions affects our desire to read, study, and obey God’s Word. It’s often been said, “The Bible will make a person get rid of sin, or sin will make a person get rid of the Bible.” Sin makes us stop desiring God’s Word and enjoying it. It makes us start to disobey the Word we hear. Then, it eventually stops us from going places or doing things where we are hearing or learning about the Word. This is a common process many go through. Therefore, James essentially says get rid of sin—by being quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to being angry, and turning away from any other sinful thoughts or actions—so we can joyfully welcome God’s Word.

2. We joyfully receive God’s Word by humbly submitting to it.

The word “humbly” can also be translated “meek.” It was used of a wild horse that originally couldn’t be ridden but was eventually tamed by its owner. After taming, the owner could make the horse run, walk, speed up, slow down, and even stop. Likewise, we must submit to our Master, God, by humbly submitting to his Word. We should be quick to hear what our Master says through the Word. We shouldn’t be thinking about tomorrow’s business while listening to what it says. We shouldn’t argue with what it teaches. We should soberly and discerningly share its truths with others. We shouldn’t be angry when it confronts our sin or wrong ideologies. We should turn from sin when it convicts us. We must study the Word to “master” it, so it can “master” us. We must humbly submit to it. Psalm 25:9 (NIV) says, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”

Are you joyfully welcoming God’s Word in your life? This is how God saves us—changes us into his very image. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.” We’re transformed as we reject worldliness and sin, hear God’s Word, and humbly submit to it.

Application Question: How have you seen or experienced the statement, “The Bible will make us get rid of sin, or sin will make us get rid of the Bible?” In what ways has not turning away from sin (including sin within your entertainment and relationships) affected your spiritual appetite?


How can we grow in spiritual maturity? God gave us the new birth through his Word; however, it was never his intention for us to stay spiritual children. Children don’t know God’s Word. They are prone to discord, idolatry, false teaching, and even becoming angry at God. Therefore, James teaches these believers how to grow spiritually which was God’s purpose behind the trials they were experiencing (Jam 1:2-4).

  1. To Grow Spiritually, We Must Be Quick to Listen
  2. To Grow Spiritually, We Must Be Slow to Speak
  3. To Grow Spiritually, We Must Be Slow to Anger
  4. To Grow Spiritually, We Must Joyfully Receive God’s Word

Application Question: Which of the four points do you struggle with most and why? How is God calling you to grow in that area?

Prayer Prompts

  • Pray for grace over our listening (to God’s Word and others).
  • Pray for grace over our words (for them to glorify God and edify others).
  • Pray for grace over our anger (that it would build up and not destroy).
  • Pray for grace to grow in holiness and obedience.

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.

All emphases in Scripture quotations have been added.

BTG Publishing all rights reserved.

1 Received from the Net Bible website’s Greek explanation of “welcome” in James 1:21. Accessed 10/18/19 from

2 Barclay, W. (2003). The Letters of James and Peter (3rd ed. fully rev. and updated, p. 65). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.

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