Jesus was the Master of long form listening. When he was 12 years old his earthly parents lost track of him during a Passover celebration; the Bible says:
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. (Luke 2:46 ESV)
To be a follower of Jesus therefore, is to be committed to the art and practice of listening. A Christian is by definition:
quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19 ESV)
Easier said than done, of course, in the Internet generation.
If you find yourself struggling with this part of your calling and witness as a Christian then these 5 questions may be helpful to you in your efforts to become a better listener.
What do you mean by that?
When we hear someone using a set of familiar terms and phrases we tend to jump rather rapidly to an initial conclusion. Human beings love to fill in the blanks. We latch onto key words and images and our brains immediately make associations and connections that may or may not be legitimate.
Consider for example this theologically loaded phrase from the Epistle Of James:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24 ESV)
If a typical evangelical read or heard that phrase from any other person not listed as an actual New Testament Apostle they would immediately charge them with uttering heresy. The words “faith alone” in our little tribe are almost as sacred as “Jesus is Lord”. You cannot EVER put the word “not” anywhere close to the phrase “Jesus is Lord” around any self respecting evangelical – and nor should you ever put the word “not” before or in close proximity to the words “faith alone”. Such things are not done. And yet, here, in the Bible, such things are done.
If not for the words immediately following this phrase it would never receive a fair and honest hearing among Bible believing evangelicals.
And yet, because it does we do what we would otherwise not feel inclined to do. We slow down and search the wider context for clues as to the actual meaning of the phrase in question.
This is exactly what we need to do whenever we are engaging with theological others!
We need to ask the question: what do you mean by that?
Sometimes people are unaware of our theological and tribal triggers.
Sometimes they are trying so hard to be creative and memorable that they have unintentionally crossed over an important theological line.
Sometimes they are speaking in a hyperbolic fashion in order to make a legitimate point.
Sometimes they are answering a slightly different question than the one you are thinking of.
That seems to be the case here in the Epistle of James. James is not questioning the fact that people are saved by faith; in the previous verse he quoted from Genesis 15:6 saying:
“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (James 2:23 ESV)
Obviously then James is making a subtle distinction. He is saying that Abraham was saved by a particular type of faith – a faith that expresses itself in believing works. A further look at the wider context confirms that view. At the start of the paragraph James asks the rhetorical question that establishes his concern in the text:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14 ESV)
Clearly James is not questioning the central Christian affirmation that people are saved by faith and not by works of the law he is simply trying to define the nature of saving faith. Real faith works. Saving faith is active faith.
Who would want to argue with that?
And nobody would argue with that – if they took the time to inquire as to the meaning behind the words.
Sometimes people aren’t saying what it initially sounds like they are saying so you have to ask good questions if you truly want to understand.
Another good question is this:
Do you mind if I push back on that for a moment?
A lot of people think out loud. A lot of people think by writing. Not every statement therefore should be considered a final draft. If our history as a community has taught us anything it is that theological controversy has enabled us to achieve a greater degree of precision in our doctrinal formulations. In a good conversation the opinions and convictions of all parties are improved through challenge and clarification. Therefore we mustn’t condemn people for having voiced a sloppy thought; rather we ask the question: do you mind if I push back on that? Are you open to having that thought refined?
If they say no – and if they persist in obvious and egregious error, then by all means change your tone. If they continue to persist in and to espouse error and division, then by all means sound the alarm.
But don’t do either of those things until you have attempted to engage and correct them through civil conversation – this is how theology happens! Alister McGrath in his book Heresy writes, “We may aim at theological precision, yet our attempts are thwarted by the limitations of the human mind to grapple with the reality of God and the Christian Gospel.”
We are talking about things that are far above our paygrade and therefore all of us should be eager to have our thoughts improved through charitable interaction. The moment you think you have the perfect set of terms and phrases to describe Divine Realities and Gospel mysteries – you are no longer part of the solution, you are part of the problem. We see through a glass darkly – and therefore we need to keep talking.
Don’t reject people on the basis of a preliminary draft!
Another helpful question would be some version of this:
Could you explain to me how you arrived at this conclusion?
Very often we find ourselves hacking away at roots that lead to nowhere. Learn to ask the question: how did you arrive at this conclusion?
Not every conclusion is the result of deductive reasoning.
Not every conclusion is the result of wrestling with a text.
Many conclusions are arrived at instinctively, associatively, emotionally or sympathetically. Therefore if you really want to understand the person you are talking to, then you have to make an effort to audit their thinking, feeling and deciding process.
Many pastors figure this out in the context of routine congregational care. As theologically trained people we almost always assume that a change in conviction represents a change in hermeneutics – a change in how people are reading their Bibles. Sometimes that is the case – but many times it isn’t. I’ve had several encounters with parishioners who were wrestling with weighty theological issues – issues like the reality of hell or the sinfulness of homosexual behavior – and in very few of those cases was the tension created by a shift in hermeneutical approach, most often it was the result of a change in their relational environment.
They had a son or a daughter who had expressed same sex attraction – or they had a beloved grandmother who died without ever having professed faith in Christ. All of the sudden they are asking new questions and arriving at new and potentially unhelpful conclusions. If I as a pastor spend 20 minutes walking them through Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 or Matthew 25:46 I would most likely be wasting my time and quite possibly squandering much needed relational capital. The issue in this case isn’t exegesis – the issue is empathy, love and idolatry.
Realizing how my parishioner arrived at their new convictions will help me to facilitate a more useful and transformative conversation. I need to talk to this person about the deceitfulness of the human heart. We need to have a conversation about the power of disordered desire. We need to wrestle together with the temptation to love our family members more than we love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
That’s what we ought to be talking about.
But we’ll never get there unless I learn to ask better questions.
Another very useful question would be some version of this:
Have you interacted with any alternative points of view?
The simple truth is that some dialogues are worth pursuing and some are not. Obviously this calls for wisdom. The Book of Proverbs says:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. (Proverbs 26:4 ESV)
However, it goes on in the next verse to say:
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:5 ESV)
The Bible seems to be saying here that sometimes it is wise to carry on a dialogue with a person espousing strange and contrary views and sometimes it is not. So how do you decide when to engage and when not to engage?
I would contend that this question can be very helpful to you in making such a determination: “Have you interactive previously with any alternative points of view”?
Have you read any dissenting opinions?
Have you read anything from outside your denominational perspective?
Have you read anything written by anyone outside your tribe?
Have you read all the verses in the Bible that touch on the issue?
If a person has not bothered to seriously engage with a breadth of content and perspective then they are either thinking out loud (in which case see question #2) or they are merely repeating a party line. In which case nothing you say to them is likely to have any meaningful effect.
The bible says:
in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14 ESV)
and in abundance of counselors there is victory. (Proverbs 24:6 ESV)
People who don’t listen to other people or consult other perspectives are fools and you ought not to answer such a fool according to his folly – lest you become like him yourself. Carrying on a conversation with such a person is like shouting at the rising tide. You show yourself as much a fool as the fool who isn’t hearing you.
Lastly, in any civil conversation it is important to make frequent use of some version of this question:
Have I understood you correctly?
Christians discredit themselves when they misrepresent the ideas and viewpoints of their ideological counterparts. A person who is truly interested in understanding what another person is saying will pause at several points in the conversation in order to summarize and repeat what they understand the other person to be saying.
This is hard work, but it is necessary work if you want to understand and engage civilly with theological others.
Tim Keller advises Christians to “Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength and clarity that he or she could say, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’”
Don’t listen to accuse.
Don’t be thinking of your next point while your opponent is still speaking.
Don’t skim the surface of their argument looking merely for weak points to attack.
Listen carefully, honestly and interactively and only respond when you have received confirmation that the substance of your opponent’s viewpoint has been fairly and accurately represented.
This is hard work – but there is an opportunity here for us to offer to the culture a compelling witness of distinction. As the world outside descends into incivility, partisanship and open and unrelenting hostility, we have the opportunity to position ourselves as a city on a hill, a light in the darkness and as ambassadors of a better and soon coming Kingdom.
Lord, make it so in our time.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.
 Alister McGrath, Heresy (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 29.