Active Listening and Doing

July 17, 2022

Book: James

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Scripture: James 1:19-27

“If you hear God’s wisdom and ignore it, then James says, the only one you are fooling, is yourself.”

How many of you have ever been in a conversation with someone? And partway into the story that you’re sharing, they jump in with their own story that’s similar, but not really quite the story that you were telling. Immediately you know they weren’t really listening to you to hear your story. They were listening just enough so that they could come up with a story that they could share, something that they could bring to the conversation. It’s not always a story either. As a guy, I tend to be a fixer, and I find that when my wife Kate is struggling with something, or something is bothering her, my natural tendency, while she’s telling me, is to be thinking of ways to solve the problem that she’s sharing with me. Do any of you relate to that? Your significant other is trying to share a pain or a struggle you’re going through, and instead of listening, they’re coming up with all the different ways that they can fix it for you. Oftentimes, you haven’t even got far enough into the story yet or the problem yet for the other person to even really understand what it is that’s going wrong. And yet here you have a list of solutions. What I came to discover is that what Kate actually wanted was just to share. Most of the time, she already knows what to do about it, or she’ll figure it out. Believe it or not, I came also to discover that my wife is just as smart as I am, and actually, in some cases, probably smarter. And she doesn’t really need me to solve the problem. What she’s really looking for is for my love, my support, my understanding, my compassion. Not a quick solution.

You know, that’s our human nature to respond quickly, to react. We’re more concerned with being heard ourselves than in hearing others; more likely to seek our own interest than the interest of another. And yet God’s way is the exact opposite of that. If God just responded immediately, can you imagine? We’d do one sin. Done. You’re gone. That’s it. Over. But our God is slow to respond. He takes time to watch us, to listen to our story, for us to understand and to discover where we’re going and what we’re doing. It takes time for us to come to understanding, time for us to work through our mistakes as well as our good choices. Time for us to come to him. And he’s always listening to us, always ready at any moment to forgive us for our mistakes, forgive us for the life we’ve lived, ready to support us, to lift us, to hold us up by His Holy Spirit. So my point for us today is this: the way we listen and respond should be different as believers. Listening first. And responding, acting out of real understanding.

And James tells us also that this is the way it should be. Quick to hear when someone is speaking, but slow to speak, slow to respond, slow to anger. And we find this in James 1:19, where James says, no this, my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. I know it says beloved brothers here, but the word contained actually means both brothers and sisters. This is a command for all believers. And what James is doing is he’s telling us, this is not your natural tendency, and yet I’m giving you this command. This is the way you should seek to do it. Our tendency is to listen just long enough to feel comfortable speaking or to jump in. We’re thinking of our world and even others in it, from our own perspective, for our own benefit. And we tend to let emotion rule our response to become upset or angry quickly, often without the full story or without understanding.

I think road rage is a great example of this. I have, to be fully honest with you, in the same driving trip, cut someone off and given them that little wave you do. You know what I’m talking about? Where you like whoops. And expected them to be completely understanding and fine. And minutes later someone cut me off and I was instantly upset. What are they doing? Why are they doing that? Why can’t they pay attention? I’m so willing to expect other people to understand where I’m coming from, what my world is, and yet so quick to be unwilling to offer the same back.

God’s design for relationship and for life is not me-centered. It’s not a world wrapped around me. It’s other-centered, other-focused. And if we look at the life so clearly displayed by our Savior, it’s so obvious that that’s the way it’s meant to be. Jesus could have focused on himself. He could have come and just had as much fun as he wanted and then gone back to heaven and not done anything for others. And instead, his whole ministry, his whole life was built around understanding that we had need of him and that we were important and he was willing to sacrifice everything for our sake, to put everyone else ahead of his own desire and his own life. James wants us to emulate this example, to live our lives, putting others first. Now, if you’ve been around couples counseling at all or if you’ve read anything about healthy relationships, you know about active listening. And that’s what James describes for us here. And active listening is a series of steps that each person should take when having a conversation in order to actually pay real attention to the other person, to take the steps we should take in order to really understand where the other person is coming from, what they’re saying and what they’re trying to get across.

And the basic premise is actually very much the same as what James describes. Instead of constant interruption or halfhearted listening, active listening is when we show the other person right from the beginning that we are paying attention, that we’re listening to them. You turn your body to the other person, you relax, you open up, you look at them. And instead of responding immediately, instead of giving your own point immediately back, we spend time saying, yes, I hear what you’re saying. It sounds like this is really bothering you. It seems like this is what you’re saying. And we can ask clarifying questions. But none of this is us jumping back in with our answer, with our response, with our worldview or our point. None of it is an emotional response, quick response to what is being shared. Remember we’re to be slow to anger, slow to respond. Instead, this is genuinely seeking to first understand the other person: where they’re coming from and what they’re saying. And now, as they finish sharing, even then, if we’ve been patient this long, we think, okay, now it’s my turn. I’m going to jump in. I’m going to say what I want to say. And yet, even here with active listening, the point here is to take a moment to reflect on what the other person has said, to really try to understand their point of view or their story or their situation before we respond.

And then finally, there comes the action phase, the end of we’ve understood what they’re saying. We’ve understood where they’re coming from. We’ve made them feel heard. So we respond. And yet, even here, as I’ve learned, the response is not always for me to provide a solution, but to act out of love and empathy, to show the other person, not just with our words, but with our actions, that we actually care about what they’ve said, about what they feel, about who they are. Out of this, we create a plan of action that there could be a response. It could be us providing things. But out of that, we ask, Is there anything that I can do to help you? Is there any way I can make you feel more heard? Is there something that I’m not understanding still? Now I know this sounds like a lot of work, but once it is practiced and done well, there is no greater gift in conversation and in relationship than you can give another person than to truly make them feel heard and understood. For them to see you genuinely taking an interest in who they are and what they are saying, in taking the things that they’ve shared to heart, taking the time to understand, and to follow up with action that can be seen. And when we don’t do it this way, when we follow our nature, James seems to suggest we’re going to not hear the full conversation. We’re going to not understand, and we’re not actually listening. And if we’re slow to listen and quick to speak, we’re going to speak over the other person. We’re going to fail to understand it. And it is out of misunderstanding where our emotional responses come in, where our anger comes in, our frustration, and the person being spoken over – that’s a really quick way to frustrate, to anger someone is to make them not feel heard. And not being heard, and being talked over causes again, this frustration, this anger. And why do we not want this quick emotional response? Why do we not want that anger to be the result of our conversations? James says (James 1:20) “For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”. Our goal as believers is to seek out the righteousness of God, to seek the things that will bring his righteousness into our lives, into our relationships, and into our conversations. And quick speaking and slow listening will never end in growing relationships, in more grace and more love. It’s only going to lead to further hurt, further separation. Not reconciliation, not mercy. And yet this response, this behavior comes out of our human nature, a part of who we are as people, has fallen human beings. It is just a part of our sinful, me-focused traits that lead us to respond and to act this way. We’re often filled with pride. We want to be seen by others as the one in control, who has the answers, the solutions to life. We want others to think well of us, to think, Hey, there’s a guy that knows what he’s doing and knows what’s going on.

So how do we overcome this? If this is our human nature, how do we step beyond this? How do we live and act in the way that James is telling us to live and to act? We can only overcome our human nature. We can only overcome our tendency by replacing our human desire and our human nature with something better. And so James says (James 1:21) Therefore, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness”, put away those things, and instead “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”. There’s hope. There’s an alternative. There’s a way to do this that follows God’s pattern for our lives rather than our human nature. And James is giving us a practical vision of what that looks like, where instead of living in pride of what we know or what we can control, we are humbly accepting God’s instruction, God’s wisdom, and that instruction, that wisdom, that gospel news that we find in our Bibles is able to save our souls. It’s able to replace the human nature, the sin nature that’s in us, and give us instead God’s wisdom, God’s nature, and even life that leads to life beyond this life. And in fact, by the way, James words this the ability for us to even listen to others in conversation here that he just described, our human relationships in order for us to be able to do that, it’s only achieved when we first listen to the Word of God, when we first listen to God in that same way, that quick to listen and slow to respond, taking time to understand God’s wisdom and God’s word for our lives, and meekly accepting it into our hearts to allow it to change us. And without that first step, the suggestion here is that we’re going to be unable to step outside of our human nature. We’re going to be unable to truly put another person first. And here too, just like with earthly listening, this heavenly listening follows the same steps that James laid out. We shouldn’t just think that we understand after hearing a little bit of the word; instead we should be quick to hear. We should take time to understand the Word of God. Time to absorb it. Time to let it change us. That means we take time to ingest it, time to understand; we ask questions, we paraphrase, we listen more than once. And also, just like with earthly listening, this heavenly listening doesn’t end with knowledge. It ends with action. With something that actively changes how we live and how we behave and who we are. And James says it this way (James 1:22) “Be doers of the word, not hearers only deceiving yourselves”. We don’t just read the Bible. We don’t just listen to Scripture in church on Sunday. You know, part of Proverbs 8 that was read for us earlier tells us that the wisdom of God is better than silver, better than gold, better than jewels; in fact, better than the totality of all that we could desire on Earth. Think about the vastness of that. Every possible good thing on this earth that you can desire all put together. And God’s wisdom is bigger and better than that.

And that’s why we’re blessed when we take God’s wisdom to heart, when we absorb God’s wisdom accepted into our lives, when we put it into practice and how we live and how we behave. Because God’s wisdom, Proverbs 8 said, is wisdom that leads to a future beyond this life. Now, if you hear God’s wisdom and ignore it, then James says, the only one you’re fooling, the only one you’re deceiving is yourself. No matter how much we think we can fool other people, that we have the answers, that we know the right things to say. There’s always someone who knows the truth, the only one that matters. And God always knows what’s in our hearts. If we think we are gaining something by pretending to be good Christians, by pretending to listen to the word, think again. Listen to how foolish James says this is (James 1:23-24) “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror, and he looks at himself and goes away and immediately forgets what he was like. How foolish.

You know, I have to be honest with you, this hits a little closer to home than many of you may realize, and probably not for the reason you’re thinking either. I don’t know what I look like. Ok. that’s a little bit of a stretch. I know facts about what I look like. I know I have hazel eyes. I know I have a short, reddish brown beard with a little more gray in it than I’d like. I understand that the hair up here is slowly getting thinner, and thankfully Kate doesn’t point it out too often. But I could stare at myself in a mirror all day long., and at the end of that day, I close my eyes and see nothing. Now, admittedly, I’m self-diagnosed on this, something Kate also likes to point out from time to time. But the thing that I believe I have is a medical condition called Aphantasia, which means I am unable to intentionally create a visual image in my mind. When I close my eyes, all I see is black. That’s it. I can’t create any image. I can’t call any picture to mind. I can’t recall the images of things I’ve seen. I remember facts about things just fine, but I’m unable to imagine what things look like. And as I thought about that, I thought that was something that was true for everyone. That I was just normal. It’s always all I’ve ever known. And I’ve just very recently come to understand that that’s actually not the case that most people actually see something when they close their eyes. And so I started thinking about the things in my life and the things that are true for me. And I’m like, how has this affected me? And I realized this is why I am such a terrible drawer. I cannot draw anything, I mean, I do a pretty mean stick figure, but if you want more detail than that, you are you are looking at the wrong guy. So of course, there’s a there’s a wide spectrum of visual ability. And if you’re curious at all about where you fall on this spectrum, there’s a simple test to get started. So I’d like you to close your eyes, and then I’d like you to imagine in your mind’s eye a red square.

Ok, you got it? All right, now open your eyes. Which square up here most accurately represents what you saw. I heard a lot about the first two. Two, three, four and five are actually the most common things, and six is actually apparently pretty rare as well, pretty hyper visual. And then two is kind of in between where you’re starting to not have much visual ability at all. And then there’s me stuck very, very squarely in the one box with absolute. Sorry, that was a bad pun. I know, but. But I see absolutely nothing. But if you want to understand what the experience that James is actually talking about here, have any of you ever looked at your watch or your phone to get the time and then looked away and realized you still had absolutely no idea what time it was? What about what about hopping up to go get something and you walk through a door frame and immediately have no idea what it was you got up to get? I call that one door frame syndrome. This is what happens to me. I do these things. I glance at my watch or I walk through the door without intentionality. I’m not putting my full focus, my full effort into remembering what time it was when I look at my watch or remembering what it was that I got up to get, and that’s really what James is describing here.

Someone who looks at their face even looks intently but isn’t really doing it in order to be able to remember what they see. That’s not the purpose. The purpose is just to look and to see. The foolishness for us, what James is trying to get at is for us to glance at the Word of God, to even read it, but without intention. The word is meant to change our lives. It’s meant to help us to grow and to become the people that God wants us to be. And if we’re just glancing at it, if we’re just hearing it and then putting it out of our minds, then it’s not doing for us the good that it’s meant to do. It’s pointless, it’s foolish. And instead of bettering ourselves, instead of receiving any benefit, we’re simply deceiving ourselves. We’re not growing, not using the Word of God as it’s meant to be. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no one who forgets, but a doer who acts, he or she will be blessed in his doing. There’s a glimmer here of the character of God that Steve Ansell described for us in his message last week. A God who doesn’t seek people, who just shoot for close, for there and about. We see a God who is looking for those who do exactly what he wants of them. If we do exactly what God wants, there is blessing here. But the blessing comes from us following God’s steps, following God’s pattern, doing it God’s way. And if we do that, if we’re willing to do that, then James says there’s a blessing behind the things that we do to serve God.

So first, this person must be someone who actively chooses to look into the word. This is intentional with purpose, not just overhearing the word in church or on the radio in your car. It’s not reading the Bible in order to get through a yearlong reading plan, or to be able to say you’re a good Christian who reads their Bible. No, this person desires to look into the word, seeking to grow from that reading.

Second, this person is not just looking anywhere for growth. You know, there are so many good self-help books and YouTube videos that tell us how we can be better people. And some of those are wonderful things for good earthly growth, for earthly gain. But there is only one source that we can come to for heavenly gain. There’s only one source that’s going to bring us lasting benefit, not just for this life, but for the life to come. This is someone who wants to grow and knows that Jesus and his word are the only way to do it.

Third, this is someone who perseveres, who continues in this choice. It is someone who, day by day, seeks to grow through what God has said, who examines the Word and their own face in the mirror, and asks, where does this face? Where do I differ from what God would have of me? Where is my life not lining up with what I see in Scripture? Interestingly, the Greek word translated perseveres also is used to mean continuing as in remaining alive. Whether or not James meant us to take this definition, we see all throughout Scripture that when we truly accept Jesus and accept His Word, that is our reality, we will persevere. We will remain alive in him forever.

Finally, this person not only looks intently and continues doing so but chooses to do something with what they found. Instead of hearing and quickly forgetting, this person seeks to live out the truth of the wisdom they have gained. They seek to know and be and do the things that they find in the wisdom of God. You know, in choosing to be his disciples, our whole being, all of us must become involved. Our knowledge should begin to change, which helps to change our nature and even our action.

So what does this look like practically? How can we tell when our lives are aligned with what James wants for us? 1st James tells us what is not like. It is not someone who claims to be religious. As someone who knows all the right words. And you know what? That was me for a long time in my faith journey. I knew exactly the words to pray on Sunday morning. I knew exactly the words to say in conversation at church so that everyone around me would think that I was such a good Christian. And it meant nothing, in the rest of my life. I was deceiving myself, thinking that I was doing any good by sitting in that chair on Sunday morning, deceiving myself, thinking that my right words would mean something. James says if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Jesus ran into these kinds of people constantly while he was here on Earth. We see over and over again the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, speaking grand words and coming up with all kinds of new commands of things that people should be doing, looking down on others who were not exactly like them. They were so proud of their religion. And yet Jesus looked at them and called them whitewashed tombs and snakes. They were quick to speak to others, quick to condemn, quick to judge. But they failed to examine their own hearts. They failed to listen to the words of their shepherd. And when their shepherd spoke, they did not know his voice and they did not follow him. Not only is it not this person, but James says the religion of everyone who lives this way is not religion at all. It is not exactly the religion that God wants us to participate in. If it is religion that gains knowledge and pride and tells everyone “and their mother” all about all that they know without it actually changing their hearts. It’s not those who throw Bible verses at people in pain without taking the time to understand that pain, to empathize with them without knowing and understanding or caring what they’re going through. It’s not those who wave angry signs of judgment at others that they have not spent a single moment getting to know or understand. It’s not those who say the right things but live a completely different kind of life. Can you imagine how much respect you would have for me and my word if you came here on Sunday morning and heard me speak these words, and then came to find out I was robbing my tenants, cheating on my taxes, mistreating my wife. You wouldn’t listen to me. You wouldn’t respect me. You wouldn’t think that I had answers for you or things that you should learn or know.

So what is action that God does see as good worship, as good religion? What is it that God the Father would like to see as a response from us as we read His word and understand who he is and who he would have us be? (John 1:27) “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world”. James’ summary here for us is twofold. First, it’s how we will think of and treat others around us. Visiting orphans and widows is about compassion for people who are hurting and in need. There’s a reason why this is part of our mission statement here at Calvary. We believe in compassion for people around us, people who have need of someone to step into their lives, to hear them, to understand them, and whether the other person is a believer or an unbeliever, whether they agree with us politically or whether they hold a different idea about something than we do. None of that is here. James says we are to hear and listen, understand and have compassion on these people who are hurting. And they just need us to come into their lives and show them what life can be like with Jesus and with His Word. Because there is nothing in our lives that worked to change us except for that. For the Word of Jesus, for the life of Jesus and for the life of those who follow him well, who came into our lives and showed us that there was a better way.

Now, this is where the second part of what James gives us comes into this. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is to keep ourselves unstained from the world, to be focused on hearing from him through his word and in prayer, and seeking to replace our sinful nature, our sinful desires with Christ-like nature and Christ-like desires, to separate ourselves from the things of the world that pull us in the wrong direction, not from people, but from things that lead us into temptation, into the wrong way. And then, instead of living like the world, we can live like the word. And we will shine among the world. Like stars in the sky. Showing the world the only way to live that really matters. The way of wisdom.

Please join me for a moment of prayer. Father, I’m so grateful for your word and for the life that your son Jesus demonstrated for us. I just ask that you would help us to live the way you would have us live. To be other focused, other centered, to think about the needs and hurts and life of others ahead of our own. And we know this isn’t possible in our own strength. So I ask that you would fill us with your life, with your spirit, with your way. Help us to absorb meekly your word and replace it. The sinful nature in our lives. I thank you, Father, for this example, for this life, and for the word and the wisdom that we have in you and ask it all in your name. Amen.

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