BIG MOUTH OR BIG EARS?
What does the balance look like between speaking and listening in our relationships?
The letter of James is not to everyone’s taste. Martin Luther, who made Jeremy Clarkson sound like a suave foreign office diplomat, described it as ‘a right strawy epistle’, by which I think he meant it lacked substance. For a man rightly devoted to justification by faith through grace, the letter of James for Luther looked suspiciously committed to finding acceptance with God through behaviour, not belief. In reality James shows that it is not enough to understand how we are saved, we must demonstrate it too. ‘Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven’, Jesus disturbingly once said. We can be comfortingly lulled by glowing words like ‘love’, ‘kindness’ and ‘compassion’ but it is like having cold water thrown over us to hear what James says these words mean in practice: ‘let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’ (James 1:19).
However strong and independent we like to think we are, the culture that surrounds us always helps to define us. Our world is full of fuzzy, ill-defined talk of love but is less enthusiastic about the detail. As a result it is truer to say that in Britain today we are slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to anger. And this is an unpleasant recipe for a community.
I wonder sometimes if extroverts read this bit about being quick to listen and slow to speak as some kind of diabolical biblical plot against them, for there is little doubt that extroverts get more words per minute in life than introverts, but this is too simplistic a reading of James. There is a case for people who naturally do a lot of talking to reflect on whether they are giving enough air-time to others, and I think we have all come across people who never shut up. If you haven’t, incidentally, it’s likely you are that person! Extroverts actually fulfil a vital function in sustaining conversation and community. All of us, whether we are quiet or verbose, should reflect on the balance we maintain between speaking and listening in our relationships. The cliché is true: we have been given two ears but only one mouth for a reason.
It has also been said that being listened to is so close to being loved as to be indistinguishable from it. There is such a deficit in listening in our world that when you come across someone who really listens to you, you can find yourself pouring out all kinds of long withheld emotions. There are so many hindrances to being a good listener. The worst is innate self-centredness, where a person is simply too preoccupied with themselves to be interested in someone else. We are also hindered by the clutter of modern life which is like tinnitus in our ears, distorting what we should be hearing clearly. And we are far too ready to use what someone else is telling us as a springboard for our own concerns, turning their anxiety into conversation about something similar that once happened to us. It demands unflinching discipline to listen to someone for an hour without interruption. Someone who tried that for the first time recently said to me that they couldn’t believe how tiring it could be just to sit there listening to someone else. I know I am flawed at this and have sometimes tuned back into what the other person is saying after a mental holiday in blind panic that I haven’t the faintest grasp of who or what they are talking about and like Basil Fawlty at his most desperate must try and redeem my social clumsiness without giving the game away. I can’t be alone in that. And listening is more than just having a grip on the content of what is being said. It is showing an intuitive ability to feel the story as well hear it – and to understand what is being left unsaid too.
James’ second exhortation – being slow to speak – is intrinsically linked to being quick to listen. In fact if we are quick to listen we have sown up the call to be slow to speak. There are occasionally some people who are so slow and measured in what they say that others find them as interesting as a European Union communiqué on convergence criteria. We should measure our words, but they needn’t lack spark, humour and imagination. Slow speech works best when it learns to edit out rash or hurtful comment. James, more than any other biblical commentator, saw the damage that some people cause with their tongues. Once spoken, a harsh judgment can be forgiven but it cannot be reclaimed and it is rarely forgotten. Newcomers to churches are often enthused by the welcome they get only to find, as they get more involved, that there is a nasty subculture of criticism in play. Churches that tolerate this kind of sin dishonour their Lord.
Finding the balance between listening and speaking tends to happen naturally when there is a good friendship. The respect and affection two friends have for one another forges an intuitive understanding of who needs to speak more at any one time. But we all have relationships broader than our close friendships and it is in this realm that the opportunity and the danger lie.
Every generation must make new interpretations of the call to Christian living. If James were writing today he might have commanded Christians to be slow to text and slow to email too. The whole point of electronic communication is its speed, but this often tempts us into expressing anger or criticism carelessly because predictive texting and instant messaging are so fast that it is almost like real-time conversation but without the inhibition of having to say it to someone’s face. We do well to sleep on those difficult messages we sometimes need to send, in spite of the expectation of an immediate response, because they act as a natural break on unreliable emotion.
James says finally that we should be slow to anger – and once again, if we can show ourselves quick to listen and slow to speak, this can be mastered. Britain is a very angry country in the little details of life. It is unedifying to see how angry people can get over trivial things but unsettling to realise how we are usually guilty of the same faults. The speed with which anger is becoming socially acceptable should be a concern, and coupled with the gratuitous and offensive nature of much public debate, presents a serious challenge to our communal welfare. There is a place for anger, but it is rarely right when driven by our own selfish impulses. Those who are at peace with God should know a better way and I suspect most of us have work to do here.
We have deceived ourselves socially into thinking that love is simply having warm thoughts about someone else. Instead it is entirely practical. We do not have to like someone to show love to them. We just have to do the right thing by them. Knowing when to speak, when to listen and keeping a lid on our temper.
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