We all know the admonition, “Everyone should be quick to listen.” (James 1:19 NIV) But we need more than just this bald statement. Here’s why:
Three Self-Centred Reasons for Listening.
1. Listening to Top the Speaker’s Story.
As a teenager I worked in a pick-and-shovel crew with three older men who were recent immigrants from several countries in Eastern Europe. We often shared experiences and I noticed that every time one of us was talking the rest all listened intently.
But when the speaker stopped talking, one or the other two would say, “In my country this happened to me and . . .” He would then tell of his own experience which was more dangerous, more thrilling, or ended in worse trouble than the story of the previous speaker.
The other two appeared to be listening carefully: they were not. They were focused on their story they were about to tell to top the current speaker’s story. Each speaker acted as if his status in the group depended on his story’s Wow factor.
2. Listening for a Break and Jump in with an Off-Topic Story.
I was greeting people in the church vestibule after I had preached on the need for God’s people to get personally involved in some form of ministry outreach. Three couples were grouped around me.
“We have been financial partners of a missionary family in Africa” one woman said, and her husband mentioned they had spent a month’s vacation on the field, to help build a medical clinic, living and eating together with the African staff. The other two couples were listening intently. I was hoping to hear similar ministry-experience stories from them.
The moment the story teller paused for a breath, the wife of one of the other couples jumped in with a vacation-in-Mexico story and how Mexican food had made her sick. It totally derailed the personal-ministry-in-missions conversation and deteriorated into sharing bad foreign food experiences. She had been listening closely but only to jump in quickly at the first break and speak herself, even though it was off-topic.
3. Listening to get Ammunition Against the Opinion of the Speaker
We have all witnessed people talking with each other about debatable subjects such as sports teams, politics, religion, or economics. The listener is intent on what the speaker is saying, but only so that he can use something the speaker said as a weapon against him. All the listeners want to do is pounce on something the speaker is saying and use it to win the argument.
One Biblical, Other-Centred Reason for Listening
The apostle Paul expands on what James wrote about being quick to listen and slow to speak.
“Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don’t just think about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and in what they are doing.” (Philippians 2:3-4 TLB)
The motivation for listening biblically is to focus on the person speaking, to meet their needs—to understand the other person; to learn what they value, what they think or feel about a situation, event or person.
We listen biblically when we want to meet a need in the other person—to mourn with those who mourn; to rejoice with those who rejoice; to encourage the downcast; to build up the ones we listen to.
Biblical listening is other-centred listening—the kind of listeners we all like to have when we speak—the kind of listeners we need to be when others speak.