A preacher colleague earned his bachelors degree in mathematics. After master's and doctor's degrees in theological studies his love for numbers persists. Over coffee one day I mentioned a future study on the topic of listening. Without a flinch he reminded me that words translated listen or hear appear in Scripture more than 700 times, 500 hundred of them imperatives in both Hebrew and Greek. Meaning, if my memory is working at all, that they are basically instructive in nature. Evidently learning to listen and hear are significant disciplines in living the life God planned for us. Even so, most of us, including me, are poor listeners. Of course there are numerous studies about our acumen as listeners. One reveals that approximately 90% of people in the work force, distracted by multitasking, the digital world, and decision fatigue, can no longer focus on verbal communication. Poor listeners indeed.
It is true in the community of faith as well. In a discussion about listening one day a church friend confessed that he is rarely able to concentrate on what is being said at church, either n the classroom or the worship center. He added an asterisk that I thought interesting. He said, "I've been in church all of my life. I've probably heard most of what is said many times before". OK, "been there, done that" may be a listening malfunction as well.
Jesus punctuated many of his lessons with the phrase "he who has ears let him hear"
(Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43; Mark 4:9; Mark 4:23; Luke 8:8, 14:35). The Apostle Paul referenced ancient Israel's stiff-necked resistance when he wrote "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear" (Romans 11:8, ESV). Earlier he had reminded the Roman believers that "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17, ESV). In matters of faith and spiritual discipline hearing and listening are critical life principles. While we're contemplating the place of faith and the church in contemporary culture we may want to remember that we're a "chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9, ESV) to a world of poor listeners. Perhaps we should learn the disciplines of listening ourselves to enable and enhance our witness and proclamation.
Leave it to practical James, the author of the Epistle, thought to be the brother of Jesus, and a first century church leader, to give us instruction about listening. He wrote this---
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to
anger. James 1: 19, ESV
It is a profound truth, this instruction to be "quick to hear" (most versions translate the Greek akousai to the English listen). In our world there is a distinction between listening and hearing. In the language of the New Testament, and the Old Testament as well, however, hearing and listening are basically synonymous. James' instruction is that we should be quick to listen.
His assessment and instruction accentuates several truths.
1. Evidently James knew that our instinctive responses in relational dynamics is to speak before we listen, and move toward anger when there is tension. In James 1:19, he reverses our natural human inclinations. The disciplines of listening begins when our words are measured and weighed, and our potential anger is shifted to the background of the relational stress. This slowness in the language of the New Testament is more than speed. The word used for "slow" indicates a sense of deliberation and fore-thought. Our words and actions are to be calculated.
2. The idea of "quick" is about speed. It is a contrast to the expected slowness of our words and anger. The word translated "quick" is the Greek tachus, the origin of our English word "tachometer". The tachometer measures velocity, revolutions per minute more exactly. In the Greek it implies an action without delay. This tachus implies a fast response because of preparation. Being quick to listen should be our ready response because we've learned how to deactivate our tongue and inner thermostat, and put our audio systems on-line. In the human system, our ears should be engaged without delay, while our words and eventual response are moved to the background.
The discipline of listening is a significant theme of Solomon's Proverbs. Faith reminds us that Scripture is consistent and without conflicting instruction. James' practical application affirms what Solomon had written centuries earlier. He wrote---
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. Proverbs 18:13, ESV
The discipline of listening places hearing or listening at the forefront of our communication with others. James taught that listening should be quick, and our words should be slow. Folly and shame are Solomon's words for poor listening.
My grandmother Holmes was an uneducated woman who taught Sunday School for more than forty years. She was a genuine believer and was wise. I can still hear her saying to me, "Sonny Holmes, God gave you two ears and one mouth. You should listen twice as much as you speak". You know, being quick to listen and slow to speak.
It's the discipline of listening. And, it should be quick.