Communication is critical to living. If we can’t exchange infor­mation with other people, we can’t function. It’s true not just in industry or world politics, but in any and every relationship. You’ll always fare better if you’re a good communicator. It makes every pursuit easier and more fulfilling — from business to marriage, from foreign relations to family relations.

But we aren’t machines, and communication is more than just transferring data from one place to another. Good communication requires the right attitude. And that’s where we have trouble. God’s instructions about communicating involve much more than just passing information from one person to the next. They tell us to look at our hearts and examine our disposition toward others, and ultimately, toward our heavenly Father.

A simple example from Scripture is James 1:19: “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” Think about it.

Quick to hear. It takes work to be a good listener. It’s simple enough to put your brain on auto-pilot and let words pass in one ear and out the other. How often it happens when we’re on the hearing end of a conversation, a lecture, or of course a sermon. Our ears pick up the signal, the words run through our minds, but nothing really registers.

Yes, it takes effort to listen well. But it’s a vital skill. It’s impor­tant if we want to be of use to others. Often when a person comes to you for help, what he needs most is someone to listen; not just to hear, but to understand and sympathize. James says later in his epistle, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (5:16). Doesn’t that demand that we be eager to listen, not just with our ears, but with our minds and hearts? In such an impersonal society as ours, we are quite adept at tuning people out.

Good listening is also crucial to receiving instruction. We should be eager to learn, especially when it comes to godliness. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” Solomon said, “but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). “The heart of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (18:15). Paul warned Timothy of the com­ing time “when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). If the gospel doesn’t perk up your ears, then some heart examination is in order.

Slow to speak. Hasty speech and poor listening often go to­gether. Much of the reason we listen so poorly is that we’re so concerned with talking. “A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart” (Proverbs 18:2). “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (18:13). Many of us feel compelled to say something in every situation, even if we really have nothing to say. That can cause trouble. “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). Like bullets, words cannot be taken back once they’ve been fired off. A man who is quick on the draw with his words may not have time to consider their effect. Even a fool may be considered wise if he holds his tongue (see Proverbs 17:28).

Jesus warned that we will give account in the judgment for every idle word we speak (Matthew 12:36-37). Choose your words carefully. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each per­son” (Colossians 4:6).

■ Slow to wrath. A quick temper goes hand in hand with poor listening and hasty speech. A brother of mine once remarked, “The problem with heated discussions is that they tend to generate more heat than light.” How true. Anger contributes greatly to poor communication. It makes us quit listening. It makes us think only of what we can say to vent our anger. And it makes us liable to say something foolish, harmful, sinful.

James doesn’t tell us never to get angry, just to take a lot longer to do it. The reason? “For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” The Lord is slow to anger (Nahum 1:3), therefore a quick temper is not God-like. More to James’ point, it is exceedingly difficult to do good when motivated by anger. “Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, for anger resides in the bo­som of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is hasty of spirit exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29).