My treatment of verses 19-20 argued that James’ concern is primarily spiritual, that he is issuing once more a call to humble submission before God in the midst of trials. More needs to be said, however, lest we miss James’ evident concern with the state and conduct of the community to which he is writing. Even if our anger is directed toward God, often the more immediate object of our anger are those persons whom we believe are responsible for our hardship. Behind the immediate object of our anger stands God, the ultimate object of our anger. These two objects of anger are closely related. The angry person inevitably upsets the community, introducing dispute, conflict, judgement and jealousy, all of which are contrary to the righteousness of God. The story of Cain in Genesis 4:1-8 illustrates the dual nature of anger. Cain burned with fury against God but could reach only Abel. His brother then became the immediate object of his wrath, issuing ultimately in violence and murder. In the story God warns Cain saying, “Why are you angry? … Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Examination of the broader context of James indicates that perhaps within the community itself, some members were cursing others (3:9-10), that there were quarrels, fights and disputes among them (4:1), with some speaking evil of and judging others (4:11-12). McKnight (135-139) may be correct in his assertion that this is the primary issue at stake in the community, with some of the poorer and unjustly treated members of the community seeking to bring about justice for their own cause by striking out in anger against the rich who oppress them. For McKnight, this strife consisted at the very least in verbal assaults, but very possibly also led to physical violence between some of the members. That it may also have led to murder in the community (137-138), is to take James 4:2 too literally.
Many texts in the Hebrew wisdom tradition draw attention to the need for great carefulness with respect to speech (see, for example, Proverbs 12:13-14a, 17-19; 13:3; 18:21; cf. especially Sirach 5:11: “Be quick to hear but deliberate in answering”). The same is true with respect to anger (Proverbs 14:29; 16:32; 19:11; 22:24-25; Ecclesiastes 7:9). Some texts draw the two themes together:
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Thus James’ admonition has ample precedent in the Old Testament. It is also the case that he would have learned the same lesson from Jesus. For example, Jesus’ teaching on the righteousness which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees clearly warns his followers concerning the very real dangers of angry speech (Matthew 5:20-26). Human anger does not produce the kind of righteous character, behaviour or community that God desires. Some of James’ community may indeed be crying out for justice against those who mistreat them, but the way of anger, insult and violence will not establish divine righteousness (cf. James 3:18).