Humble Listening


You’ve probably heard the saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth”. The point is: we should listen twice as much as we speak. The Apostle James came to this conclusion when writing his epistle:

James 1:19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…

This translation comes from the ESV (which stands for the English Standard Version). But the CAV (Culturally Acceptable Version*), would probably say:

James 1:19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be slow to hear, quick to speak, quick to anger…

You’ve probably seen this in your family or church. We can get upset over a simple misunderstanding. But once we’re hurt, we find it hard to mend the relationship – because to admit that we misunderstood the person involves taking the blame for not listening.

In one of the Bible study groups I am a part of, we are doing a training course entitled 6 Steps to Talking About Jesus. It’s a helpful course, I recommend it. But it got me thinking: I wonder if Christians need to be trained, not only in what we are to say, but also in our how we are to listen?

What is humble listening? Put simply, it is listening to others lovingly. Listening to others patiently. Listening to others with the quiet confidence that comes from the peace of the Lord Jesus, knowing that we don’t have to win the conversation, or necessarily voice our disagreement. Most important of all, it is listening whilst knowing that I am a desperate sinner who is in desperate need of the grace of God found in the Lord Jesus Christ, of which without I am lost.

This listening means that if I speak with either a Christian brother or sister who has, for example, a different view of election and predestination, or if I speak with an unbeliever who believes in both a whole lot of everything and a whole lot of nothing at the same time; that I can be in a position where I can chose my words carefully and prayerfully for that person’s good.

It is perhaps a weakness of Evangelicalism in that we, evangelical Christians, are often too tough with each other, too tribal, and sometimes too quick to be adversarial. We’re just not that great at loving each other, and sadly, I have seen this too often when discussing secondary doctrinal matters. It works in cycles, when people first argue their own positions, before throwing out scriptural references, and then appealing to their favourite ‘paper-pope’ (i.e “Well according to Don Carson/Mark Dever/Francis Chan/Bishop [insert name here]”. In this, often intense, process, no-one is built up, no-one is encouraged or edified, and an unhealthy impasse is reached where neither person has learnt anything except concluding that they are right.

Of course we must take the word of God seriously and hold to the truths that lay within scripture. But it’s the Word of God which is inerrant – not us! Humble listening accepts that we might be wrong. Humble listening prevents us from feeling threatened or worried about being wrong, and furthermore, it means that we are teachable listeners, open to being lovingly corrected if we are wrong.

Being a humble listeners means that we are patient, it means we can listen and relax and not feel that it is our duty to respond with a theological riposte to a perceived threat, it also means that we can display the fruits of the Spirit more thoroughly.

In my own Christian life, I now hold views on certain doctrines that I did not hold to when I was in my late teens and early twenties. At that time I held views that, although not contrary to the fundamental issues, were wrong and I am grateful for the corrections that I have had. Although they were hard to take at the time, had I adopted the practice of humble listening, it would have been less painful and difficult.

One of my heroes, John Newton, had his fair share of doctrinal disputes, and this is what he said in this matter:

I have been thirty years forming my own views; and in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person, and that, in the course of a year or two” (Cecil, Memoirs of the Rev. John Newton, p.101)

John Newton was a humble listener, and he was a patient listener.

There is no doubt that humble listening is hard. Yet this is something that, as cross carrying, followers of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 9:23), we’re expected to do. Listening is a mark of discipleship, it is an expression of how we love fellow Christians (and show the world that we are His disciples).

* translation may not actually exist


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