“My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” James 1:19 – NLT
These words from James are so straightforward as to be impossible not to grasp, but for me they seem to be always just out of reach. I prayerfully strive to grab hold of them, but they creep away to mock and haunt me; like bones rattling around a locked closet they are always present to remind me of my futile determination to apply them. Conviction set in on me a long time ago and I earnestly decided to make this quick to listen mindset a personal goal, but more often than not I have experienced dismal failure. The sixty-five year milestone isn’t all that far off for me, which one might hope would generate a new level of patient maturity, but unfortunately, forbearance with differing outlooks never comes wrapped up with pretty blue ribbons. Learning to be quick to listen can only be achieved in the old-fashioned way—it must be earned through intent and perseverance.
It is progressive, and for me it requires tongue-biting and submission, which despite Scripture’s counsel to embrace, is never anyone’s natural inclination. And yes, there have been some incremental shifts in attitude, but I figure at my present rate of spiritual growth I’ll have to live to be about one hundred and fifty years old to see any measurable breakthrough. Okay. That may be exaggerated humor, but you get the point.
By personality and upbringing my customary and normal behavior has its roots in competition; in the marketplace of ideas winning the debate has always been crucial. Growing up, every supper hour was a serious examination of current events. Our father would toss out the topic and ask our opinion and often, once expressed, he’d take the opposite stance and pepper us with questions. I learned very early to stake out my position and defend it; I became adept at processing facts quickly, defining the terms of the discussion and taking ownership of my assertion. It didn’t matter to my mother or father if one of us disagreed with them; what mattered was that we were able to advance a viable argument and stick to our guns. We were always challenged that one could not straddle any issue; one had to deal with an old colloquialism about finding only dead skunks in the middle of the road. To this day, I stand in utter amazement when someone refuses to clearly state their viewpoint because they choose to be firmly planted astride the white-lines of the question.
Those kitchen debates are legendary in my family circle, and for the most part our parents’ efforts to teach us critical thinking skills were successful. All of my siblings are news junkies and lifelong learners, which is a good thing, but those sessions around the table also produced a negative byproduct. None of us has ever once met a subject that didn’t require our opinion to be expressed. And of my brothers and sisters, I am likely the most flagrant offender.
Now I fully understand that winning a discussion is very much a misnomer, but couched in that language, for me to win consistently I developed the tactics of a verbal pit-bull. Aggressiveness was always the order of the day. Attack and stay on the attack; never give an inch or go into backpedal mode; be heard and don’t bother me with facts that belie or contradict my entrenched thinking. Obviously all of that erects substantial barriers to creating a safe place for dialog, but we all have to live within the confines of our own skin.
Regardless of whether or not I have mellowed with time and prayer, my pugnacious reputation precedes me. Plus, I routinely use sharp-edged words because the seasons of my life have cultivated a very hardboiled worldview that automatically clashes with softer, rose-colored perspectives—all of which likely makes me one of the most misunderstood persons on the planet. That of course may be some more exaggerated humor, but then again, it is an honest assessment of how I often feel.
Self & Pride
In my observations, the obstacle to communication within the context of controversial or hot-button issues, is our collective unwillingness to be quick to listen, which speaks directly to the grim reality of human nature. Ego can so easily rear up and demand attention; our carnality, which we endeavor to keep tethered can slip off its leash to run free, marking its territory with gleeful abandon. Self, motivated and mobilized by its Siamese twin Pride, is truly elusive as it makes its way to center-stage to seize the microphone; we expect to be heard and understood before we seek to understand a differing view.
We are feckless and fallible, and we have a seemingly endless capacity to taint everything we come in contact with; in our hands, the ideals of Scripture can be fashioned to say whatever we need or want them to say. I suspect that we have all eye-witnessed the same passage cited by opposite sides of a debate and marveled at how the user determined to exegete the verses. There is much in God’s Word that is mysterious and complex; much that is difficult to apply, but have you noticed that when the commonsense meaning of Scripture hits too close to home we simply ignore it and emphasize those passages we think validate our perspective or our lifestyle choices.
No matter how careful or spiritual we may be, we are always in danger of being influenced by the mindset of the surrounding culture. In our 24-7 media coverage, a large segment of what passes for news is dependent on verbal clashes that are saturated with heated ideological bombast, which does nothing to piece together the fragile jigsaw puzzle of consensus and common ground.
The punditocracy facilitates each war of words with self-ordained authority, while left-wing and right-wing ideologues actively pursue a scorched earth policy. This is great political theatre and consistently gets high ratings, which keeps the advertisers satisfied, but it poisons constructive dialog. It appeals to Self and Pride, those ever-present twins continually heading for the spotlight. Sadly, the divisive hostility of our culture’s combative communication styles has crept into the church more and more.
Disputes & Church
Those with strong idealistic tendencies might think that wherever believers gather together would be a safe place for working through problematic issues, but reality is what it is, and safe places have to be created because this side of glory we never stop being human.
Disagreements in the church are to be resolved with respect, trust, cooperation and communication—the bottomline is that church deals with matters of the heart and soul, so conflict resolution is a spiritual matter that puts our motives, attitudes and priorities into play; how do we deal with our motives, attitudes and priorities when they come up against someone’s differing motives, attitudes or priorities? Please note that the admonition from James to be quick to listen and slow to speak was written to professed followers of Jesus Christ, so there really isn’t any rhetorical or philosophical place for us to hide, is there?
Knowing all that in my head and in my heart doesn’t alter the certainty that there can be a vast distance between knowledge and application; there can be miles between knowing truth and having it spill out of our hearts. It really comes down to a simple thesis: I have to sincerely desire to hear someone and that puts the onus entirely on me, which personalizes it, not just for me, but for all of us.
If, especially in those areas of intense controversy, we would each practice what we say we believe about valuing one another, then we’d go a long way toward building mutual trust and respect. Self and Pride must decrease while mutual trust and respect increase. It is only then, when we honor one another above ourselves, that we find safe places to explore even the most combustible issues that confront us in these interesting times in which we live. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.