LEARNING TO LISTEN
Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry… Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. (James 1:19,21)
Once upon a time a preacher visited a rural church as the guest speaker. This preacher had a reputation as a great orator, and he lived up to his reputation. His voice was powerful, his pronunciation was perfect, his logic was persuasive, his jokes were funny. His sermon had little to do with the Bible, but as a speech it was a masterpiece. When the sermon was finished, an old man in the audience was asked by a friend what he thought of it. The old man had been a Christian for many years, and he was a man of much wisdom and few words. He summed it up this way: “Much wind; loud thunder; no rain.”
That story makes me chuckle, but it also makes me wonder: How often could people listen to me and say, “Much wind; loud thunder; no rain”? I speak on the radio to many people in many countries. If all I offer is my own opinion or a few nice stories, you might as well tune me out. You don’t need a lot of wind and thunder; you need refreshing, life-giving rain, the kind that comes from the Word of God, the Bible. I have a duty to say what the Bible says and to introduce people to Jesus Christ. Those of us who are pastors and teachers must preach what God says in his Word, not just our own ideas.
But you have a duty too, a duty to listen when God speaks. Communication has two sides, and speaking is just one of them—listening is the other. It’s not enough for the Word to be preached; it must be listened to as well. And, unfortunately, listening is not something that comes easily to most of us.
God inspired the writing of the Bible, and everything God says in the Bible is absolutely trustworthy and true. The Lord has spoken, but how many of us are really listening? It doesn’t matter how wonderful the Bible is if you don’t read what it says. It doesn’t matter how well a pastor is preaching the Word of God if you aren’t in church listening.
Listening to God’s Word isn’t just optional; it’s absolutely necessary. The Bible says, “These are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deuteronomy 32:47). You should listen to God as though your life depends on it—because it does. Pay attention to God’s Word. Believe it. Delight in it. Act on what God has told you. If you listen and respond to God, you will flourish. But if you won’t listen to God, you will perish. Your life depends on the Word of God, so you must learn to listen.
Why not listen to the God who knows everything? Why not listen to the voice of the only one who can give us life? It is through his Word that God gives new life in Jesus Christ, and it is through his Word that God leads us into a healthy and holy lifestyle. That’s what the Bible means in James 1:18 when it says that God “chose to give us birth through the Word of truth.” God’s Word is the very source of our life, it is what gives us birth, and so we had better learn to listen.
How can we learn to listen? The Bible gives some clear instructions in James 1. Verse 19 says: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” In other words, keep your ears open, your mouth shut, and your temper under control. That’s excellent advice any time we’re in a conversation with someone, and it’s supremely important when we’re listening to God.
Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak
“Be quick to listen.” Have you ever tried talking to someone who is wearing headphones and listening to music? Their ears are so full of sound that they don’t hear a thing you say. The headphones have to come off before a conversation is possible. In the same way, when God wants to talk to you, it’s important to get rid of distractions and take the time to hear what he’s saying. Don’t act like you’re too busy. Don’t be so occupied with music or TV or computer or running around that God’s voice doesn’t get through to you. Be quick to listen.
Being quick to listen means making time for God, and it means paying careful attention to what God says. Do you ever find yourself in a conversation with someone where you’re pretending to listen but your mind is somewhere else entirely? As someone talks, you may nod politely once in a while and look like you’re taking in every word, but you’re actually daydreaming and don’t have a clue what the person is saying. We might do this not only with other people but also with God. Sometimes, even as we’re reading what God says in the Bible, our attention wanders and we hardly recall what we just read. Or we’re in church, looking at a pastor who is preaching God’s Word to us, but even though we might appear to be paying attention, our minds might drift elsewhere. If we want to be “quick to listen,” we must make time for God, and we must concentrate on what he is saying to us.
“Be quick to listen,” says James, and slow to speak.” Many of us have that reversed: we’re slow to listen and quick to speak. If you’re like me, this may show up in the way you feel about interruptions. When I’m talking and someone interrupts me, I’m usually annoyed. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I interrupt others at least as often as they interrupt me. The main difference is that when I do the interrupting, it’s okay. I have such an important point to make that it can’t wait. I have to say it, even though the other person hasn’t finished speaking. And even if we learn to be more polite and don’t interrupt others, we still may focus less on what another person is trying to tell us than on what we’re planning to say next.
It’s not very smart to be in such a hurry to talk. In Proverbs 29:20 the Bible says, “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” One good way to avoid putting my foot in my mouth is to keep my mouth shut. People who listen quietly and are in no hurry to talk are the ones learn the most and gain the most wisdom. When such people do choose to speak, the fact that they’ve been good listeners means they usually have something worth saying. There may be a reason God gave each of us two ears but only one mouth: perhaps he wants us to listen twice as much as we talk. However, many of us would still rather talk than listen.
Apparently this is true even in our relationship to God. Surveys find that more than 90 percent of us claim to believe in God, and 75 percent say we pray at least once a day. However, less than 40 percent attend church each week, and hardly one in ten read the Bible every day. Again, 75 percent say some sort of prayer daily; barely 10% read the Bible daily. Why is daily prayer seven times more common than daily Bible reading? Why are people so much more apt to pray than to listen to gospel preaching or read the Bible for themselves? The answer is simple: most of us are quick to speak and slow to listen. We’d rather tell God what we want him to do than listen to what he is telling us. And when that happens, we’re likely to pray some pretty foolish prayers.
How can we expect God to listen to us when we won’t listen to him? How can we really know God unless we pay attention to him? Prayer is important, but listening is even more important. If you want to know God, you must listen more than you talk.
Three Ways to Listen
Let’s look at three important settings for listening to God: reading the Bible each day, hearing sermons each week, and discussions with others.
First, listen to God through personal, daily Bible reading. Just as you need food each day for your body, so you need daily food for your soul. If you want to be “quick to listen,” you need to develop the healthy habit of listening to God’s Word every day. So if you haven’t opened your Bible for a while, perhaps it’s time you dusted it off and took the time to listen to what God is saying.
If you find it hard to read the Bible each day and would like help in making this a habit, you might be interested in our daily devotional booklet called Today. For each day of the week, the Today booklet suggests a Bible reading and then offers a brief meditation to help you understand what you’ve read and apply the Bible’s message to your life. We’d be glad to send you a copy of Today at your request. Personal, daily Bible reading is an absolute must for anyone who is eager to know God.
A second, equally important part of listening to God is finding a church where the Bible is preached. There you will hear preachers and teachers who have studied the Bible carefully and are able to apply its meaning to the time and place in which you live. It’s vital to find a church that proclaims the Bible, to attend it each week, and to listen carefully to what God is saying in each sermon.
A third way to benefit from God’s Word is to discuss it with other people. A good church provides opportunities to join a group that studies and discusses the Bible together. Listening to the Bible in discussion with friends has been a life-changing experience for many people. It allows you to ask your own questions, and it gives you the opportunity to benefit from the insights of others and enjoy their friendship and support.
If you can’t make it to a Bible study group, another way to study the Bible with someone else is through the mail. For example, Crossroad Bible Institute is a ministry that works with The Back to God Hour, and Crossroad offers a correspondence study course called Great Truths of the Bible. You receive each new lesson in the mail and do the lesson. A Christian instructor evaluates your lesson, writes a letter to encourage you, and answers any further questions you might have.
Daily Bible reading, weekly church attendance, and regular involvement in Bible study and discussion—these are concrete ways you can be quick to listen. If you’d like help in any of these areas, please contact us. Be ready at the end of the program for information on how to get in touch. We’ll gladly do all we can to provide help in daily devotions, finding a church, or enrolling in Bible study through the mail.
If you don’t listen to God, you remain ignorant. In one survey, over half of people who call themselves evangelical Christians could not state even five of the Ten Commandments. In another survey, nearly sixty percent of the people polled did not know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. If you don’t even know that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, it’s unlikely that you know what he said, and it’s almost certain that you’re not putting his words into practice. If you don’t know even half of the Ten Commandments God gave on Mount Sinai, you’re probably not living in tune with his commands. If you don’t know God, it’s not because he hasn’t spoken; you just haven’t been listening. Just as you must listen to other people to really know them, so you must listen to God if you want to know him and understand his will for you.
Slow to Become Angry
Once you make time to listen, the next step is to keep your temper under control. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak,” and, says James, “slow to become angry.” Have you ever noticed that as soon as you start getting angry, you stop listening, and you say and do things that you later regret? It seems that when the temper flares up, the brain shuts down. That’s why the Bible says, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).
There’s a story about a man who was driving down a narrow, winding road in the mountains when he saw ahead of him a car coming around a curve. Because the road was so narrow, he pulled over to the side so that the approaching car could get past. Just as the other car was going past, the woman driving it leaned out the window and shouted, “Pig, pig, pig!” The man was furious. He had politely pulled over, and this was the thanks he got. It made him furious to think she had called him a pig. So he slammed his foot on the accelerator, squealed his tires, roared around the curve—and smashed his car into a pig!
Not everyone who yells “Pig” is trying to insult you; they may be trying to warn you that there’s danger around the corner.
So “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” If someone says you’ve been drinking too much, you can take it as an insult and lose your temper—or you can calm down, listen carefully, and seek help in dealing with your alcohol problem before it destroys you. If your spouse says you should spend more time at home, you can get mad—or you can listen instead, and improve your family relationships before it is too late. If someone at work says you could be performing better, you may be tempted to lose your cool, but perhaps taking those words to heart is exactly what will make you work more effectively. It may even save your job and prevent you from getting fired. In Proverbs 15:31, the Bible says, “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise.” Sometimes the truth hurts, but often the thing that makes us angriest turns out to be “a life-giving rebuke,” the very thing we need to hear most.
We must keep our tempers under control long enough to benefit from the truth, even when it hurts. This is important when listening to others, and it is of utmost importance when we are listening to God. Take, for example, the Bible’s teaching that we can be saved only through faith in Jesus Christ. John 3:18 says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Those words make some people angry. Perhaps they make you angry. Why should there be only one way to heaven? Why should people who reject Jesus be doomed to hell? You can become furious with the Bible for saying this and angry with any Christian who believes it, but no matter how angry you become, it remains a fact: Jesus is the only way of salvation. Instead of becoming angry, it’s much wiser to accept the truth and receive the wonderful gift of salvation for yourself.
James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
A good listener humbly accepts the Word of God. When something in the Bible makes you angry, it doesn’t mean the Bible should change. It means you should change. So many people miss out on God’s light and life because they become angry whenever the truth hurts. They don’t want to give up their sinful behavior, and they resent being confronted about it. The Bible says, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). In order to accept God’s truth, we must let go of our anger, and realize that our defensiveness may have something to do with moral filth and evil that we need to get rid of.
If you are having sex outside of marriage or living together with someone without a lifetime commitment, you may not like what the Bible says about fornication, but you need to hear it. If you are gay or lesbian, you may become furious with churches which teach that sex between persons of the same gender is sinful, but that’s what the Bible says. If you consider yourself pro-choice, you may be angered by those who say that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being, but that is the plain conclusion of biblical teaching, not to mention scientific fact. If you swear or gossip and can’t control your tongue, you may get grumpy when the Bible says your religion is worthless, but you need to face the truth. If you think constantly about making money but never help people in need and don’t give generously to charity, you may get upset when the Bible condemns greed and commands kindness to the poor, but you need to hear it, whether you like it or not.
It is a natural human tendency to become defensive. But when God’s Spirit moves us to listen, we drop our defenses, stop pretending that our sins are okay, and instead accept what God says. “Therefore,” says James, “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
Ready to Respond
How does God’s Word save you? It saves you by changing you. You can’t just listen; you must respond. “Do not merely listen to the word,” says James, “and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” It’s bad to shut your ears to God completely, but it’s even worse to hear what he says and remain unchanged. Once you hear God’s Word, you have just two options: you can either do what Scripture says, or else you can deceive yourself.
One way of deceiving yourself is listening to what God says and thinking his words don’t apply to you. You may read a Bible passage or hear a sermon and say to yourself, “What a tremendous message! So-and-so really needs to hear that.” Now, it may be true that somebody else needed the message, but you have to ask yourself what God is saying to you. You are fooling yourself if your only response to a word from God is that it would be good for someone else.
Another way of deceiving yourself is to turn Bible reading into an academic exercise. You take pride in how much you know, and you’d be able to beat most people in a game of Bible trivia. You like to research what an ephod was or what the Jebusites were like, but you never ask yourself what the Holy Spirit of the living God is saying to you right now. You analyze the Hebrew and Greek words for repentance, but you never fall on your knees and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Your head is full of Bible facts, but your heart remains unchanged. Sound scholarship and careful study can be valuable, but if we’re more interested in satisfying our own curiosity than in responding to the voice of God, all our knowledge of biblical data is useless.
According to James, “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, it’s not a pretty sight. My face is covered with stubble, I have sleepers in the corners of my eyes, and my hair is sticking up in turkey tails all over. Now, suppose that instead of shaving, showering, and combing my hair, I instead walk away from the mirror and go out in public looking awful. That would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it? What’s the use of looking in a mirror if you don’t do anything about what you see? That’s what it’s like, says James, if you look in the Bible but then don’t do anything in response to what it shows you.
“But,” says James, “the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). That is God’s promise: when you focus on God’s Word as your guide for living in true freedom and when you put it into practice, you will flourish.
Are you learning to listen? Do you make time for God and pay careful attention to what he says? When the truth hurts, do you get angry and defensive, or do you ask the Lord to forgive and change you? Do you respond to what God says by putting it into practice through the help of God’s Spirit? Are you trusting in Jesus for your salvation and building your life on God’s Word? If so, you will be saved and blessed. If not, then please learn to listen before it’s too late.
Father in heaven, open our ears to hear what you say, and by your Spirit move our hearts to respond in faith and obedience. As we learn to listen to your written Word written in the Bible, help us to meet your living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.