Here in Russia we work with churches and church leadership as part of our calling to help strengthen the Body of Christ for influence on society. We not only train pastors and church leaders, we sometimes provide direct counseling and coaching services to leaders. I bring this fact up to say that serving churches helps us understand them and the “state of affairs” in the Christian community. In so doing I have noticed two issues that deserve attention, because they affect not only church leadership, but they have a direct and negative impact on the church as a whole. These problems are serious enough that they not only destroy a church’s witness in the community, but they can destroy the faith of Christians. I am going to describe two such problems in this and in the next post.
The first such problem concerns what would seem to be a simple and unspiritual issue – the ability to hear. In fact the difficulty we see in people’s ability to hear, from leaders all the way down to the laity, is so great that we have built our entire ministry around this one value. Even so, does that make poor listening a spiritual problem? Well, the answer depends on how the concept is defined. If you take a typical psychological definition of good listening for exa
mple, it is “when a person can attend to a speaker, process what the speaker is saying, and respond appropriately. It is simply not enough to hear what a person is saying.” If good listening is just a skill, then it becomes easy to just say, “Well, some people have learned how to do it well, and others have not.” This is a very convenient excuse for poor listening, since “I can’t be great at everything.” Nor does it help the situation that almost no one actually considers themselves a poor listener. We all think we understand others. The fact that conflict is only growing in society should be sufficient proof that good listening is not common after all. But is listening merely a skill? Let’s look at the Bible for some answers.
Fools don’t listen
No one wants to be called a fool; but, as awareness of our need for transformation grows, we will need to confront the darkness within us that still resists the full Lordship of Jesus. When we run across verses about fools, we tend to read over them fast, stopping only to remind ourselves about how so-and-so is indeed a fool. That feels good. What doesn’t feel good is reading the “fool” verses to find ourselves in them.
The unwillingness of a fool to listen is a function of his independent spirit:
- “A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Pr. 17:10).
- “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Pr. 1:7).
Notice the contrast: those who fear God listen. Notice further the fundamental heart of a listener: a posture of learning out of a desire for wisdom. A fool is not teachable (seeking “instruction”), which is because “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Pr. 12:15).
The conversational effects are thus:
- no listening, meaning no desire to understand the other;
- masking, posturing, always making a point;
- no desire for agreeing, but rather a desire to be proven right in your eyes.
“The lips of the righteous feed many, But fools die for lack of understanding” (Pr. 10:21).
Fools are “starving” for wisdom, and the wise have plenty of good food to pass around, but the fool is not interested. He will not listen, because he thinks he has plenty, when in fact he is starving.
“A fool despises his father’s instruction, but he who heeds admonition is prudent.” (Pr. 15:5, RSV).
The fool is neither teachable nor humble. In the Kingdom, we are transferred from our earthly family into a new family. Our willingness to receive correction from each other (even those who break all the rules in how they give it!) is not merely the mark of maturity, it is the mark of the far more basic humility necessary for building the community of faith.
Jesus has some pretty strong words about listening.
First, read the parable of the sower from Matthew 13:3-23. If we count the number of times that Jesus uses the words “hear” or “understand” in his explanation of the parable (vv. 13-23) we can find 17 such uses! Jesus quotes Isaiah to back up his concern over poor listening:
‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
15 For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal/forgive them.’
Moreover, when Jesus discusses each of the four kinds of seeds that were found along the road, each one deals with how that person dealt with what he or she heard.
When Isaiah (and Jesus) say, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand” the difference between the two is that something has to get through for us to understand. To hear, we must let something sink in. The same idea is repeated in “You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive.” That is, to observe something is not at all the same as to understand or perceive its significance. What is missing? “For the heart of this people has become dull.” Here is our answer. The condition of the heart is the key. It is not only “out of the heart that we speak” (Lk. 6:45), but it is out of the heart that we listen! There is no more important conclusion we can make than this: how well a person listens is an indicator of that person’s spiritual condition.
Someone will argue, “But these passages are all about instruction and correction. And Jesus was talking about the Kingdom. Most conversation isn’t about that, so I don’t see how that applies.”
Let me remind you of a few biblical principles.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” (Lk. 16:10). If I can’t understand German well enough to understand “Wie geht’s?” then I certainly will have no business trying to read Goethe in the original. So then how could I possibly hear God speaking words of life to me, if I can’t even hear my wife trying to get me to hear her frustration? It simply can’t happen. Why? Because if I won’t let a simple matter sink in to my heart, then I won’t let a bigger idea get in. If my heart is hardened from hearing my wife’s pain and frustration, then how can I hear God’s pain over the brokenness in the world?
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1Jn.4:20). Tell me, please: how could this verse not apply to listening? It must. We may as well say, “Whoever claims to listen to God yet refuses to listen to a brother or sister is a liar.”
Even closer to home, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40). In other words, the way you treat others, particularly the disenfranchised, which would have to include how you listen, reflects your relationship with Christ.
так как вы сделали это одному из сих братьев Моих меньших, то сделали Мне.
And finally: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (Jas. 1:19-20). Here we see that James is promoting the value of listening in general, not just in “spiritual” matters. Moreover, look at the progression:
- Our priority should be to listen (“quick to listen”).
- Listening will cause us to put a lower priority on speaking.
- Listening provides protection against getting angry.
- Listening helps to “produce the righteousness that God desires.”
So listening, of any sort, is a spiritual matter. Checkmate.