I have heard the advice several times on many occasions. It is given to people who are baffled by their circumstances. Sometimes it is said to someone who did not get the job. Too often it is said to someone who lost a loved one: "Everything happens for a reason."
Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, has recently written a book wherein she describes how hurtful these words are. When someone who is in pain and suffering is told that everything happens for a reason, they are being told that their hurt has a greater purpose. Not only does this discount and forestall grief, but it implies some troubling things about God.
It may be that some, even many, of us believe things happen for a reason. This belief may indeed help us at times. But that does not mean it is the right thing to say to someone. What works for us doesn't necessarily work for others. Even well-intentioned words can be deeply hurtful.
You may be wondering, then, "what can I say at all to help a person in need?" When we see someone struggling, we want to help. When we know someone is bewildered, we want to teach what we think is beneficial. To that, Abba Poemen says that we are to hold back our tongues from teaching. We may think we have the answer, but we may be trying to answer an unasked question. We may think we know, but we have not yet known the one we address.
This is why James' advice is so needed: be quick to hear and slow to speak. When someone is struggling, our job is not to solve their problem with what we know. Instead, our job is to help others realize that they often have the answers they are seeking within themselves. We must listen to our neighbors in need, try to understand what is really at issue, wonder what resources they might have within them to help, and repeat what they have already said. If we believe that God is in each other, then our job is to recognize how God is speaking in each other. If we believe that God gifts each one of us, then our job is to recognize what is given to others. This is far more helpful than some pat slogan or saying. Sometimes the best teaching simply draws out what is already known. Next time you encounter a neighbor in need, resist the urge to tell them what you think they need to hear. Listen and acknowledge that word which is already spoken. Hear and reflect what was heard. This is how we speak the truth in love.