Quick to Listen

[Listen to an audio version here]

In light of the pandemic, I have thought more about the flu than I have at any time in my life. I realized Sunday that I need to think about it a lot more. As I described my understanding of the flu to a friend, she realized that I had confused what is called “the stomach flu” with the actual influenza virus. She told me that the flu vaccine does not help with the stomach flu. I had a brief moment of pain and flash of embarrassment as I realized that I had assumed something to be true that was actually wrong.

I quickly recovered and did a little reading on the subject. It turns out that the stomach flu is not a flu at all. It is caused primarily by what is called a norovirus. It is spread through surfaces and not primarily through the air.

This was a good thing to know because I’ve actually experienced the debilitating effects of this disease, gastroenteritis, many times, and it was horrible. When I had it, I felt like I was on the edge of death, even though I wasn’t. So, I am happy to gain clarity on it and be better empowered to avoid it.

Now, here’s the point of all this. I have many gaps in my knowledge like this. I have all sorts of things that make sense to me but aren’t true or aren’t clear. This is why it’s so crucial to listen! Our knowledge is really quite fragmentary, and we have to listen to God, to other people, and to reality in order to gain knowledge. There is much more that we don’t know than we do know. So, listening should be the fundamental stance of the human being.

There are other tremendous benefits to listening. Nothing builds connection and community like listening. When people listen, they show they care. When people feel heard, they feel that they are part of the community, even if people disagree with them. Listening builds the community. When people are listeners, they are community builders.

Quick to Listen
In light of this, I want us to consider a wonderful rule and aspiration from the Epistle of James: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). This little phrase encapsulates tremendous wisdom for individual growth in wisdom and community building. It is a sort of summary of everything we find in the wisdom literature of the Bible.

The importance of being a listener is stated throughout the Bible. Here’s just a few examples. “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:28).

Being slow to speak is necessarily connected with being quick to listen. The Bible continually warns about too many words. James has some of the strongest warnings. “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:27). He goes on to say, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Wow.

Now notice here that this does not mean that we should be silent. We should be slow to speak but not refrain from speaking. There is a problem of speaking too much, and there is also a problem when a person is not allowed to speak. When someone is constantly forcing their viewpoint forward, interrupting and not listening, this must be confronted. A relationship requires both sides to communicate their thoughts. What this verse means is that each of us should show deference to God, to others, and to reality as we formulate our thoughts. Listening first. Quick to listen; slow to speak.

When we hear something that doesn’t seem right or seems like an attack, it’s easy to let our anger take over. That’s why this passage urges us to keep control of our anger, be slow to anger. There is nothing wrong with anger in and of itself. It is an emotion that helps us respond to injustice. However, we need to be angry at the right things, for the right reason, to the right degree, and for the right time. All of these things must be in accordance with godliness, reality, and righteousness. When anger gets out of bounds (quick not slow), as our text warns us, it does not bring about the righteousness of God.

Why Such Bad Listeners?
If listening is such a good thing, why are we such bad listeners? Well, in many ways, we are not. When things are calm, we can listen, though even here we can all stand to improve.

The problem comes when things get intense and anxiety goes up. As anxiety goes up, the brain shuts down. As the authors of the wonderful book Crucial Conversations put it, when we need to be at our best, we are at our worst.

Why can’t we listen when our anxiety goes up?

We feel insecure. When your boss calls you in and criticizes you for the job you are doing, it may make you feel like you could lose your job. This may make you wonder, how am I going to take care of my family? This makes us want to defend ourselves or withdraw rather than listen carefully.

We feel attacked. If someone says, Donald Trump is a terrible president, you may feel attacked personally, if you support him. If someone says, Donald Trump is a great president, you may feel attacked, if you disagree. What’s our first inclination? To immediately say why he is or isn’t. It’s not to ask that person to explain their thinking.

We feel pressed. When we feel like we don’t have much time, we feel like we want to make sure we get what is important to us heard. This leads us to try to force our view into the conversation. The problem is that with people fast is slow and slow is fast. You can’t rush the process of mutual understanding.

We feel out of control. When we feel that we understand things, then we feel in control. When someone questions our understanding of things, it’s easy to feel as if our hold on the world is slipping. When we don’t know what’s going on, we feel much more afraid. It’s easy to view a different perspective or a questioning of our perspective as a threat to our control. That’s one reason we hold onto our ideas more tightly than they deserve.

Our feelings of insecurity, fear of rejection, impatience, and lack of control all make us less willing to listen. So, what are we to do?

Listen to the Gospel
We’ve got to listen to God. We’ve got to listen to the Gospel. We need to find our security in Christ not in circumstances. We need our identity to be rooted in Christ not other people’s view of us. We need to rest in God’s control not our ability to manage and understand things.

The world’s provisions, other people’s approval, and our own understanding are flimsy foundations. There are too many contingencies, too many disagreements, and too many gaps in our knowledge. When we see that God is in control, then we can be OK with not knowing. We can be OK with not defending ourselves. We can be OK with not getting our point across.

Again, this does not mean that we should be doormats. For the good of a relationship, we need to be able to speak. If others won’t let us speak, we should confront this issue. We just need to be willing to submit to the long, slow process of listening and building trust that is community building. We don’t need to rush it because we know that God is in control, and He will provide what we need.

Our anxiety makes this very difficult. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put this well: “Without freedom from anxiety man is so enmeshed in the vicious circle of egocentricity, so concerned about himself, that he cannot release himself for the adventure of love” (The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2.272).

How do we get over our anxiety and stop trying to force people to listen to us? Listen, listen, listen to the Gospel. Hear from God that He loves us and will take care of us. Hear from God that He is in control for our good. Hear that we can wait because God is bringing good things. That’s how we find power to listen. That’s how we let go of our anxious desire to be heard.

Applying It
Besides listening to the Gospel, let me suggest two things that will help us become quicker at listening and slower at speaking and getting angry.

First, become more self-aware. Try to notice when you become angry. Pay attention to when you stop listening. Notice what sets you off. Notice when you start thinking you have to take control of the conversation.

Other people can help us with this. I remember at a Session (church leader board) meeting, one of the elders told me, “When elder x said this, you changed. I could see it in your face, you went into defensive mode.” That was great. I didn’t see that clearly. It helped me become more self-aware. It didn’t cure me, but it made me more aware that this happens. Now, I can look for it and take steps to calm myself.

Second, approach people with curiosity rather than judgment. When someone says something that is different, that is an opportunity to learn. If we ask for help in understanding, we open the door to a relationship. If we respond defensively or attack, we further the polarization.

Let me say something here to my primarily white Christian audience on the subject of race. Like you, I struggle with the issue of race, and I often feel like I don’t understand the issues. I also wonder, what can I do that really makes a difference? Here’s what we can do, listen.

Many of our Brothers and Sisters in Christ in this country have very different perspectives on race than many of us do. Can we approach that fact with curiosity? Can we listen? Can we make an effort to be quick to listen on race issues? We can listen today, even if we don’t have an opportunity to have an actual conversation. Pick up a book. I would suggest starting with the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Curiosity won’t solve all the issues, but it’s a start. And it will make a difference.

I remember a woman said to me about Tennessee, “I love the place. I can’t stand the religion and the politics.” She was from New York, and she did not know I was a Pastor. I told her that I was, and I said, “I’d love to hear more about your struggles. I’d love to get your perspective. It would help me.” And she told me. I listened. Then, she wanted to hear what my thoughts were. I didn’t convince her to embrace evangelical Christianity that day, but I think we made one small step away from polarization and toward community.

That’s what God can and will do through us, if we become a people who are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Amen.


Photo by Joshua Rodriguez on Unsplash


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