Sometimes when reading the Bible, there are verses that land so personally that they seem to have been written directly with me in mind. Even though the ancient writers were writing to ancient listeners in ancient contexts and not directly at me, some biblical texts seem like they should have my name at the beginning of the line. Some verses comfort me in suffering, instruct me when I need wisdom, or even hit me on the side of the head when I’m being foolish. James 1:19 is one of those texts for me: “[Ken, you] should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV).
I’ve always been a verbal processor so talking is my “spiritual gift”—it is a spiritual gift, right? So, when I hear James 1:19, I immediately wish that I could go for coffee with James and explain some of the issues I have with the way he has worded the sentence—but then I realize that I am doing the opposite of the verse. I have to laugh but it’s an uncomfortable laugh. A colleague recently mentioned in jest (with no doubt truth in the jest) that during our lunch conversation no one else “could get a word in edgewise.” Ouch! I realized again that I needed that verse more than ever.
So, what is listening and why is being slow to speak and become angry so critical—especially today in our high volume, multi-media world where voices are blaring in a cacophony of sound? Stuart Murray argues that our Anabaptist forbears gave the church of today a bunch of gifts to help us reflect the amazing ethos of the early church. One of these gifts is a commitment to be “multivoiced” rather than “mono-voiced” congregations (The Naked Anabaptist 106). Anything to do with “voices” is irrelevant unless we are people who listen to those voices.
It is critical that we become people who listen well to the “multivoices” in our congregations—the quieter ones, the louder ones, the educated and less educated—the bitter, the hurt, and the joyous. There are some key questions that we need to ask about listening itself in order to be MBs who “listen well.”
Why is listening so important?
While it is possible to express ourselves in many ways, speaking is a critical means of communication. God spoke ten times in Genesis 1 and the earth was created. In Exodus 20, God spoke ten times to produce what Jewish tradition called the “Ten Words,” better known to us as the Ten Commandments. Jesus comes to us as the Word (John 1:1ff.). Speaking matters because it reveals our inner character and being. Speaking matters because it can bring about change.
But for us, speaking is just air and noise without listening. Listening matters because it empowers the speaker and expresses a deep valuing of the person who speaks. Listening matters because it is the path to understanding. We value and understand God as we listen. We value and understand people as we listen. We give our time and attention to listen to the voices in our midst because we are people of love—and love listens. Certainly, we must see listening as part of the Fruit of the Spirit, because true listening reflects and requires “love… peace, patience, kindness…faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
What does it look like “to listen”?
There are practitioners and scholars calling today for something branded as “transformative listening.” There are courses and experts teaching this so-called new method. But it seems a simple renaming of the first stage of any meaningful real human relationship; truly hearing the other person.
Real listening, whatever we want to call it, must begin with an honest willingness to empathically hear what the other person wants to communicate without interruption and without expressing judgment and critique. We must put down our phones, slow down, turn our eyes, hearts, and minds toward the other person, and express care. We need to ask open questions because we want to understand rather than jump to conclusions. We listen carefully to the words, but we also listen to what is below the words—the joy, the pain, the suffering, the hurt, the hope, and the dreams.
I went through training at one point to be a facilitator for what was then called “Victim Offender Reconciliation Program” (VORP), and encouraging transformative listening was central to that program. The offender had to truly listen to the victim hearing the hurt and the suffering. For this to happen, the facilitator made sure there was an opportunity for the victim to speak without fear or critique. Then the victim was asked to listen to the offender who could also speak without fear or critique. Only after this mutual listening was there a time of exploring if there could be movement toward a healing solution.
Does listening well mean that we agree with the person?
This is probably one of the most critical pieces. True listening must involve taking the other person seriously—weighing carefully what they are saying. Even the expression “weighing carefully” implies that words have different amounts of “weight.” The Hebrew word for “glory” is about weight. When we glorify God, we make God heavy. This is a metaphor for recognizing something as important or significant. The opposite is to “make light of.” To listen to God is take his words/instruction and make them heavy or important in our lives. To listen well to others is to give their words the appropriate weight.
However, listening well to anyone other than God, does not mean that we will necessarily agree or take steps to meet the requests of the other. We can listen well with our ears, eyes, heart, and minds, but in the end we may or may not agree with the wants expressed by the speaker.
This is a challenging truth when we are the speaker. I have often gone to my bosses at work with some idea for change that I was passionate about. In those moments, I was the speaker. I am thankful to be able to say that my bosses always took the time to listen well to my strong convictions and weigh them. However, they did not always make the changes I wanted them to make. During those moments, I felt like yelling out, “They’re not listening,” but then I realized again that listening is not the same as agreement. I had to then take the time to listen to them and try to return the gift of listening that they had first given to me.
If we consider listening and agreement as synonymous terms, we will unquestionably create even more frustration and more hurt in our community. At some point listening must become “mutual listening” for any honest and healthy relationship. Agreement is one of the possible outcomes of listening well—but it is not the only outcome. If agreement does not happen, the speaker is now invited to become the listener and seek to understand. That is why listening—or better yet “mutual listening”—involves all of us practicing listening together knowing that the process itself, and not simply the outcome, has transformative value.
But there may come a time when we recognize that we must agree to disagree. We have given weight to what we have heard, but we are at an impasse. We must think carefully about what love looks like in the impasse.
Should we try to “listen” without any presuppositions?
Some people have suggested that we should try to come into listening situations without presuppositions about what we think is right, good, and/or wise. Good listening must be done without interruption, judgment, or critique. But we as listeners cannot strip ourselves of our convictions as if they are like noise-reducing ear plugs that we must remove in order to hear better.
If we have deep convictions about God, Scripture, salvation, discipleship, love, justice, and the Kingdom, these form our identity and we will necessarily be hearing the speaker through these convictions. But all listeners have deep convictions that shape how they also hear. All of our hearing comes through our convictions about life and truth—and pretending otherwise is foolish. All we can do is recognize our convictions and admit openly to these convictions.
What does “slow to become angry” have to do with listening well?
James 1:19 is not giving us three different unrelated commands in the same verse. It is not like my mother telling me when I went off to college: “Remember to do your laundry, call home on Sundays, and find a church to go to.” James is giving us a deeply interconnected command. Being quick to listen necessarily requires that we are “slow to speak.” But being quick to listen also requires us to be “slow to become angry.” If we are quick to jump up in anger, we will derail and short-circuit listening.
It is so easy today to provide fast responses to people through electronic communication. We read something we don’t like, and in anger we shoot off (pun intended) an email or post a comment on social media. I have often heard the advice to never send a difficult email until you have slept on it. This is good advice that I need to hear. Often in the morning, I go back to edit my email—or better yet, ask are my words even necessary? And if my words are necessary, should I try to arrange an in-person meeting where I can listen to the person better and express care in ways that text emojis and emails can never do? If I want to be “quick to listen,” I must be a person who is “slow to become angry.”
What is the final goal of listening well?
As Christians, we listen because we love—but we also hope that we will be part of listening events that are truly “transformative” for all of us. Just like in the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program, we want the listening to lead to change in all the participants toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately hope.
For this to happen, listeners must listen to speakers, but then also speakers, in turn, become listeners. But as participants and facilitators, we recognize that we do not control outcomes. We pray for the Holy Spirit to work. We seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness. We love our neighbour as ourselves. But—then we wait, knowing that all transformation in us and others is the work of God. It does not come by our power, might, or human scheming.
There is no more important time than the present for us to listen well to each other and be the multivoiced people of God. But we must also recognize that James 1:19 is not simply for those with power and/or leadership roles. Even though I feel a special weight of that verse on me, it was written for every disciple of Jesus, then and now. So, may we hear it again and commit ourselves to it anew: “Everyone [insert your name here] should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”