Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Our Responsibility Before God to Listen

Updated!

It seems lately that there’s a rather disagreeable tendency that’s been surfacing in some of the political talk shows lately. When there is someone discussing a matter with someone with whom that person is in disagreement, he or she is often trying to talk over the other person to express his or her views – sometimes throwing out factoids in a rapid fire fashion without having to substantiate any one of them. It looks like the impression is that a person wins an argument by silencing the other person. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case – usually this does not persuade the other person but frustrate and humiliate that person. And this kind of motor mouth style of dealing with other people seems to be catching on with some people – it seems to be infiltrating workplaces and other areas of life.

What this style of talking to another person by talking over that person demonstrates is:

  • I am the one who matters most in this conversation. You are the one who matters least, if at all.
  • My opinions and views are absolute and need no foundation in reasoning and ethical persuasion. Your opinions and views are not worth a fair hearing.
  • I have the right to be impolite and put you down in conversation to gain my ends whenever I want. You do not have the right even to a polite discussion or to question what I am saying to you even to gain a clarification.
  • What I want you to do is more important than anything else in your life; I have the right to make any demand upon you that I see fit. Your own sense of the leading of God and the commands of scripture do not matter.

In the past, I found this style of conversation to be pretty characteristic of an egomaniac or narcissist. Solomon described it as the nature of a fool, among other things. Here are a few verses, among the many which Solomon gave in Proverbs to describe the relation of a person’s character and how a person talks with others:

“A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2).

“A gossip betrays a confidence, so avoid a man who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19).

“ . . . the mouth of the fool gushes out folly” (Proverbs 15:2).

“ . . . the heart of fools blurts out folly” (Proverbs 12:23).

“ . . . a false witness pours out lies” (Proverbs 12:17, 14:5).

“Where words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

I think that these verses not only warn against the motor mouth but also against the glib; this would be the person who talks a lot, seems to have a lot of information, but on further consideration is simply repeating a lot of hearsay and bits of secondhand information with little foundation in thought, reasoning or personal application. The torrent of words seems to be to exercise unilateral control of as much personal interaction as possible and to give the appearance of being informed without actually having learned anything for oneself. And, as Solomon said, the torrent of words will often include a number of falsifications, backstabbing, and betrayals of confidences. I’ve also noticed that those who deal with others with this motor mouth tactic seem to be extraordinarily fearful of the mildest correction, contradiction or disagreement as well.

The command and direction of scripture is rather that godliness is more demonstrated in being ready to listen, restrained in speech, and patient even with people who are frustrating, irritating and insulting:  “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

In this quotation I’ve combined the New International Version with the King James Version, since the NIV doesn’t capture the full scriptural implications of what is meant by the righteousness of God: the anger of man does not accomplish the justice and vindication in any situation which has its foundation and justification in God and for which God alone is responsible. So, James is actually saying that an angry, overbearing manner, intended to overwhelm another with words and crowd out anything that the other person says will never accomplish what God wants in that situation. About all that it will accomplish will be a temporary sensation of power – the preferred drug of the egomaniac. And it will most often leave the other person frustrated, humiliated and even more entrenched in his ideas, opinions, attitudes and actions, whether those ideas, opinions, attitudes and actions are for right or wrong according to scripture and reason. Sadly, though, I’ve actually heard a Christian leader advise other pastors to deal with people like this, to give them a hard time, to refuse to listen to them, to treat anything that is said as a groundless excuse and to demand instant obedience to get them to accomplish some small assignment in church. This was probably one of the most ungodly and unscriptural pieces of advice that I had ever heard one pastor give to other pastors.

So then, a believer is advising disobedience to scripture if he or she advises someone to try to overwhelm another person with words, to talk over another person, or not to give fair hearing to another person. I’ve noticed that this is also the practice of some abusive people, who may also say or imply things about their targets to discourage others from listening to what their targets have to say, so this ungodly advice may be a camouflage for a wicked, abusive scheme. The abuser also wants his or her version of a situation to be the only one that ever gets to be heard. So a believer who hears such advice should be alert that there may be a wicked scheme or a story of abuse that someone wants to remain hidden.

The need here is to follow what Solomon, a king known for his godly wisdom and justice, had to say about that: “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him” (Proverbs 18:17). The right of cross examination and to face one’s accusers has been built into systems of civil justice to get the truth but in personal relationships it applies as well. This is well illustrated in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird: when a cousin strikes Scout, the narrator of the novel, and runs away and claims that Scout had struck her, her uncle believes the cousin without having given Scout a fair hearing. Later Scout is able to tell him that that isn’t the way that her father Atticus treats her, that he would give both her and her brother a chance to let their sides be known – and that is part of the wisdom of Atticus Finch, one of the wisest fathers who never lived.

There is a limit on the other side, though, on when a believer may legitimately and scripturally refuse to listen. Certainly the believer is under no obligation to give a hearing to slander, once it is known to be slander:   “Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence . . .  no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence” (Psalm 101:5, 7). Even more, the believer is under no obligation to listen to false teaching which denies core doctrines of Christianity, which gives advice contrary to scripture or which gives aid and comfort to the enemies of Christ and the gospel. A firm but respectful refusal and departure is warranted here. Likewise upon the command of scripture a believer is to refuse to get involved in foolish arguments: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels” (II Timothy 2:23). Over the years I’ve had fellow believers attempt to get me involved in situations which involved disputes about such things as spiritual gifts, versions of English translations of the Bible, and events of Biblical end times prophecy. My explanation has been that I have my own convictions upon such matters based upon the scriptures, but I refuse to get involved in these kinds of discussions, since my first concern is to live out scripture, and not to prove any opinion of mine is right according to scripture, nor to get involved in someone else’s quarrels and disputes with fellow believers.

Still one last qualification needs to be added: giving a person a fair hearing does not mean listening without evaluating what is said according to scripture and reason, in that order. While Solomon said, “ . . . a wise man listens to advice . . .  ” (Proverbs 12:15), he also said, “A simple man believes anything” (Proverbs 14:15). Too many Christians over the years have allowed themselves to be gullible, and persuaded by factors contrary to scripture and reason – charm, glibness and popularity among them — and most certainly they and others have suffered for it.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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