“QUICK TO LISTEN, SLOW TO SPEAK, SLOW TO ANGER”
A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church by Carter Lester on
August 30, 2015
I love what Will Rogers once said about Congress: “Congress is so strange. A [person] gets up to speak and says nothing, nobody listens and then everybody disagrees.” Not much has changed has it? Indeed, turn on C-span to watch Congress or turn on your televisions to watch political debates, or listen to the pundits commenting on politics, and there is no shortage of people speaking, no shortage of words, but is anyone listening, really listening to what is being said? In the political and public arena, words are weapons for scoring points and putting other people down, but not something to listen to.
Is it that much different in our private lives? If the truth be told, in our individual lives at work, at school, and at home, how well do we really listen? How many times is there a conversation going on with the tv in the background or our phones open in front of us so we can see the latest text or posting? How often do we try to get by with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once described as “a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say?” I love Tom Paciorek’s definition of boredom: “having to listen to someone talk about himself when I want to talk about me.”
Listening is certainly important to God. The command to listen is all over the Bible. “Hear O Israel,” we hear over and over in the words of Moses and the prophets. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” demands Jesus. And in our text today, James writes, “You must understand this, my beloved; let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Why is listening so important, so emphasized in James and the rest of the Bible?
First, because listening is an act of love. Paul Tillich put it well when he said “the first duty of love is to listen.” The most basic human need is to be understood. Listening, really listening to others, and not merely hearing them out, or offering advice, affirms that the person speaking really matters, that their thoughts, their feelings, their experiences count for something.
Listening is the great antidote for loneliness and the sense of being all alone. As someone has written, “loneliness, is after all, not the absence of other bodies. It is the sense that no one understands or cares, that we are essentially alone with our struggles and troubles. An eighty year-old grandfather went to his daughter’s house for Sunday dinner. Along in years as he was, nobody in the family gave him much time or attention. When the meal was over he announced that he was going to take a walk in the neighborhood. ‘I’’ll be back in twenty minutes,’ he said. But two hours had passed before he finally returned. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ he said, ‘but I stopped to talk to an old friend and he just wouldn’t stop listening.’”
When teenage prostitutes were asked in a San Francisco study if there was anything they needed most and couldn’t get, their response, invariably preceded by sadness and tears was unanimous: “what I needed most was someone to listen to me. Someone who cared enough to listen to me.”
Listening is important because it is one of the most important ways we show our love to other people; one of the most important ways that we feel loved.
Second, listening is important because good listening is an act of humility.
Listening, true listening, is an act of humility because we are acknowledging that we are not the most important person in the room, that our thoughts and feelings are not the most important ones to be heard. Listening, good listening, acknowledges that we do not have all the facts or fully know what has happened and what is going on. When we are really listening to someone else, we are open to having our minds changed. When we are really listening, we are acknowledging that our version of the story might not be the right one, or our viewpoint on a matter may be missing something.
Learning by listening is especially important for those who have power, who are in charge. Parents, teachers, business and political leaders all need to talk, discipline, and give instruction, but woe to the ones who cannot listen. How about the boy who said, “Dad and I had words this morning, but I didn’t get to use mine.” Bernard Baruch, the Wall Street and Washington leader once noted that “most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
Third, listening is important because being quick to listen when added to being slow to speak is the best antidote for keeping our anger from burning out of control.
Anger in itself is not a sin. Indeed, anger is a gift from God because it is the body’s signal that something is wrong, that something unjust is being done. But as we all know anger is also like fire, capable of doing good things but capable also of burning everything up in its destructive path.
Listening is a great antidote for sinful anger because it slows us down and helps us to sort things out. Perhaps what we think happened is not what really happened. Perhaps the motivation we have attributed to someone – “you did that on purpose just to get back at me!” – is not true. Perhaps, in fact, the other person didn’t mean to do it, or had no idea that it would bother us. And perhaps, we are not entirely blameless. We may have also done some things that have hurt the other person. How are we going to learn any of those things if we don’t listen? Listening can help slow us down and find the words we need to express our anger without it blowing up into something uncontrollably destructive.
Fourth, listening to other people is important because if we cannot listen to others, how can we listen to God?
In the late 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a little book called Life Together for a seminary he and others set up in Germany to train ministers who would not be part of a church loyal to the Nazis. The seminary was only open for a short time before the Nazis shut it down. The seminary may have died a premature death, but Bonhoeffer’s book has never gone out of print.
In one section, Bonhoeffer talks about the ministry of listening. He writes, “But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life…Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
“Welcome with meekness, the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” James writes in 1:21. We listen so that we can receive from God, the giver of all gifts, the gift of a wisdom that has the power to save our souls and enable us to live faithfully day by day. This is why we read the Scriptures and pray: because this is how we listen to God. The world has never been so full of voices, most of which will lead us far astray. Now, more than ever, we need to listen for the voice of God amid all of the other voices, so that we can walk the way of God. The more we listen to others, the better we will be able to hear what God is speaking over the din of all of the competing voices in the world.
The longing we have to understand and be understood, the gift of an ear for one another and for God. We do not have to read James to know that listening is important, do we? So why don’t we do it? What keeps us from being good listeners? Several reasons come to mind.
One is time. A few years ago, I read about a study that found that American parents spend less than fifteen minutes a week in serious discussion with their children. To be sure, they spend much more time together talking than that, but it is time filled with logistics – “what time is practice today?” - or instructions – have you gotten your homework done yet? – but not true give-and-take conversation. On the other hand, there have been other studies that have found that remarkable good things happen in families, and especially with teenagers, when the family is simply able to eat dinner together consistently: for example better grades and happier teens and fewer cases of alcohol or drug abuse.. I wonder if one reason is that those families are finding ways to create more space for talking – and listening.
Marriage counselors often find that the problems affecting a couple are communication issues. In these hectic times, with kids on frenetic schedules and difficulties in balancing work and home responsibilities, the time that often gets squeezed out of the couple’s schedule is downtime together, time for talking – and listening. Problems fester and marriages slowly die from within.
Listening also takes attention and patience that we are not always willing to give. Turning off the tv and silencing the phone are certainly prerequisites. But we have to be willing also to set aside our schedules and agendas if we are going to listen. Sometimes we can even be appearing to give our full attention to the other person but not really be fully present.
You know one of the best things about being loved and well known by a wife and three smart daughters is also one of the hardest things: you can’t fool them. More than once, I am afraid to say, they have been telling me something and then they have seen a look in my eyes that told them I may be looking at them but I was thinking about something else. “Where did you just go?” Kerry or the girls will ask me, and I know I have been caught again, holding on to my agenda rather than setting it aside to listen.
Finally, sometimes we avoid listening because we want to avoid pain. How often do we ask, “How are you doing?” and then do not really want to hear any answer other than “Great” or at least, “about the same”? Sometimes we do not listen because we are afraid about what we might hear, if it might require something of us.
But go back to the beginning of this passage in James: “every generous act of giving…comes from above.” All that we do, all that we give, including listening, comes from God. Which is to say, that we can listen to others because we have already been listened to by God. But it is also to say that when we listen to others, we are not alone. God is in the listening and will give us all that we need, including the strength to live with what we hear.
You know, sometimes, we focus too much on the heroic side of faith, great deeds done by courageous and faithful Christians in the face of tremendous danger. To be sure we are to celebrate these heroes among the clouds of witnesses. But if we focus on them, then we may well think that being a Christian is really only about doing great and large acts of love, mercy, and sacrifice. And we think that there is no way we will ever be able to do that.
But James reminds us that being a Christian is also about doing little and every day things. Being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. These are things that we can all do this week, no matter how young or old we are, how experienced or new to the faith we are, how strong we feel, or how weak.
So before we go on with our worship here, let us take a moment of silence for reflection – and action. I invite you to write down on the back of your bulletin or on some other stray piece of paper: one way you are going to humbly listen this week, or one person you are going to love by listening this week. Do that now – but you may want to listen to God first.
Prayer: O Lord, we are grateful that you are always willing to listen to us, that you always have time for us. Help us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. In Jesus’ name, we pray.
 Gilbert Bowen, “The Gift of Listening,”
 Jim Reapson, Homemade.
 Bowen, op. cit.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, John W. Doberstein, trans. (New York: Harper, 1954), 98.