Preaching and Listening

As an introvert, it’s amazing to me that for the last 20 years I’ve made a living by speaking in one form or another.  Teaching, consulting, preaching – all require that I be able to communicate to other people, often in large group settings.  So it is that I strive to craft my preaching around listening.  How to share the Word of God and which aspect of it should be shared is dependent on the person or people I’m with.  In seminary, we learned that an important theological answer to questions people often raise in conversation is Why do you want to know?

The answer to that question can help guide the answer I give.  Someone who asks whether abortion is a sin or not – straightforward question, right?  Well sure, but how do I want to respond?  I could respond about how it’s a sin, that it’s murder and that God has strictly forbidden murder.  But that answer isn’t the answer that someone who is struggling with the guilt of an abortion needs.  Of course it remains a sin, but what I want to emphasize is grace and mercy and forgiveness, because the pain and guilt is what is prompting the question.  It’s not academic curiosity, it’s a matter of a mother’s survival.

For this reason I’m instinctively distrustful of preachers who don’t listen.  We likely can all think of someone – pastor or otherwise – who loves to talk.  Who has an answer before you’ve finished asking the question.  Who has an answer or an opinion even when you haven’t asked a question.  Someone who can’t wait for you to finish talking so they can start talking.  That’s annoying.  But in the realm of God’s Word, I’ve learned that this can be very dangerous, and that it can be the sign of someone who has an agenda of their own behind the words they’re saying, even if those words are the Word of God.

This morning at the jail there was a man who joined us.  He was present a few weeks ago and I remembered him immediately.  He wanted to argue about baptism.  Or more accurately, he wanted people to listen to his teaching on baptism rather than mine.  He didn’t want to argue with me, he wanted people to listen to him.  He was back today.  And what I found interesting was that this guy was very talkative – again.  He threw around verses from Scripture either by quotation or referencing chapter and verse.  He spoke with conviction and by and large, I didn’t disagree with what he said.  But he clearly wanted the floor, and once he got it, would hold forth as long as he could.  I had to cut him off several times to allow others to talk.

What I found fascinating was that when conversation from the other guys led to an opportunity to actually study and walk through a section of Scripture, the talkative guy left.  As soon as we opened the Bible and started working through a passage (Matthew 18:21-35), this guy was no longer interested.  He was interested in his voice talking about God’s voice.  He wasn’t interested in God’s actual voice.

What a temptation it is to take pride in our own understanding and learning and insight into God’s Word, to the point where we won’t sit still to listen to the actual Word of God!  What a danger it is to insist that others listen to us, mistaking our voices for His!

Listening is such a crucial thing.  It can be difficult.  Time consuming.  Frustrating.  But how beautiful to just listen to someone, to allow them to express their heart so that the Holy Spirit might guide you in how to respond to them best!  What an amazing gift to give and to receive all at the same time!  I meet a lot of guys who know Scripture and are eager to tell me about it.  But what I value most in another person is someone who is anxious to listen.  If they’re willing and able to listen, then I better trust whatever they respond with.  If they’re chomping at the bit to direct me to a verse, then I suspect they haven’t really heard me.  They think they have.  They think they know what I’m talking about and how I feel and what I need.  But while they’ve been thinking through all of that, they haven’t been listening to me.

Take time to listen.  To give the gift of valuing what someone else has to say, and honor they’re showing you by saying it to you.  Trust that the Holy Spirit of God will be with you in those moments of listening, and will guide you in how to respond.  What to say or what not to say.  Particularly be careful of preachers who don’t listen, especially if they don’t listen to God’s Word.  They may not mean any harm, but sometimes that eagerness to talk can mask a deeper issue that either you or they or both of you should be concerned about.

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