Big ears and a small mouth…a verse to live by

There are lots of things in the Bible that elicit debate.  Some people see economic justice as a primary theme while others see personal renewal.  Some see a young geophysical earth while others integrate evolutionary theory with the Genesis narrative.  We argue over sexual ethics, and whether yoga is an acceptable form of recreation.  We argue over just how far Christ’s claims reach into our lives, as Christians turn up their noses at each other because they’re drinking fair trade or are “too hardened to care,” shopping at Wal-Mart and raping the earth or Goodwill and strangling the economy.  And these are just the in-house battles Christians fight with each other.  Don’t even get me started on the litany of grenades fired from the outside about Christ and Christians.  What’s a Christ-follower to do?

How about this:  “…be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19).  This was the first bit in the whole Bible that I memorized.  I remember, when I was 12, that my grandma was visiting and she was doing laundry.  She called me into the kitchen when I came home from playing soccer and said, “What’s this?” as she held the crumpled paper, rescued from my jeans, in her old, old, hand.  I was speechless, and even a little embarrassed because kids don’t write Bible verses on scraps of paper and memorize them.  But I did – just that once.

“This,” I remember thinking, “sounds like a good way to live.”  Already, by 6th grade, I was discovering that my gender was making it’s way in the world by bragging, which meant when somebody was telling a story, your job was to think through the small rolodex of your 12-year-old brain and find a better story or, if you didn’t have one, stretch one to make it better, or even make one up, so that you came out faster, funnier, richer, stronger, or whatever.  Listening was out.  Reacting was in.  Walking away from conflict was out, getting mad was in.  Getting “in” by playing according to these rules was wearing me out.

Then along comes this little verse, either in church or Sunday school or maybe even boring family devotions, I can’t remember: quick to hear and slow to anger.  It sounded liberating, life giving.  Shortly after that I found another bit in the Bible that says “even a fool is considered wise if he keeps his mouth shut” (my paraphrase of the real thing, found here).  If you think James is on to something, try these practical tips for listening:

1. Shut your electronics off, or ignore them, when talking with someone.  When I see someone checking their e-mail on their phone while I’m talking with them, I get annoyed and I think: “The real way to get you to listen to me is to e-mail you.”  That is, of course, absurd.  The best communication is always, always, face to face, because we communicate with much more than words.

2. Listen with your whole person.  In our fragmented world, we’ve grown accustomed to divided minds, and so real listening is hard to do.  Because we talk slower than we think, the listener can easily go five or six other places while “listening” but much is lost by this lust for efficiency.  Eyes, ears, mind, heart – everything should be engaged in what the other is saying.

3. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. This is part of the famous prayer of St. Francis, and if we’d apply it in our lives, our relationships would be much richer.  Too often we label the other while listening: “liberal,” “heretic,” or whatever else we need to say in order to summarize quickly so that we can pull the right response out of our hat.  Folks did that with Jesus all the time.  They’d listen to him, and before he was finished talking, have him sewn into a tidy “heresy” box, or “blasphemy” box, so that they decided to kill him.  They thought they knew the Bible because they read it all time, but they didn’t listen to Jesus, and so missed the point completely.

Listening is related to the spiritual discipline of silence, which you can read about here, or in more depth here. When we practice silence, we learn to listen–to the voice of God as he speaks to our hearts, to the hymn of creation as we hear the praise of the trees and even the stars, and to the heart of the “other” with whom we work, or pray, or love, or serve.  I’d argue that without a little practice of solitude, learning to listen will be hard.  Go there, though, and life becomes richer fast, as the fog clears and real relationships grow.

What are the challenges of listening for you?

Can you share ways you’ve learned to listen better?

Why is silence so hard in our culture?

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  • I am living in Argentina now, and I’ve found that having to communicate in another language, no matter what your skill level may be, forces one to listen more than speak. Being in a situation or place where it is literally harder to speak and respond than it is to just listen and try to understand, I think, is helping at least myself, practice this. Here, I am often forced to be silent, but I don’t mind.

  • Will Hale

    My training in marriage and family therapy is challenging me to strengthen these intentional listening skills- they are at the center of the healing relationship between God and counselor, and counselor and the counseled.

    If I slip away from listening first, relying solely on my “expertise”, I will not understand my client’s pain and I will instead see and treat a caricature of them; their wounds go unaddressed. When I put aside my expertise and enter into the client’s world, I hear more than their words, I hear their unspoken pain in their expressions, their tone, etc. That can only come by really listening with my whole body.

    I think, Richard, this is like the solitude with God you encourage. I must set aside my pride to allow God to enter into my life so I can listen to him and experience his presence. Outside of solitude, I may have a concept of God, but it’s really just a warped image I create to try healing myself.

    I have found no other way to learn about solitude than to actually “do” solitude, whether it’s easy or awkwardly difficult. Listening has become easier as I fit it into my schedule regularly. I breathe deeply and slow my mind down. I pay attention to my body- if I feel tense, or anxious, I’ve learned these are cues of unfinished business God may want to address. I slowly consider the activity of my life, inviting God to point out what he wishes.