Thankfully, our distressingly common tendency to speak and get up in arms quickly hardly catches the Holy Spirit off guard. He knows us. Fellowship with him transforms our hearts day by day to resemble Christ and put the interests of others ahead of our own (Philippians 2:1–11).
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19)
I don’t suppose I need to convince you that the apostle is right when he says we should be “quick to hear.” You know that listening is good. Both your personal experience and our Lord’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” make the value of listening clear. Indeed, how will we ever speak words of Christ-centered hope and wisdom if we have not first listened attentively so that we might know what will be profitable to share?
But if it’s so obvious that listening is good, why is listening so hard?
Why We Struggle to Listen
Most of us already know what makes for good listening. A good listener does not interrupt. A good listener does not breathlessly wait to insert his own opinion the moment the other person pauses. A good listener asks wise follow-up questions, conveys genuine interest through body language and facial expressions, allows the speaker time to unfold his thoughts, and so on.
I appreciate these skills, and many like them we could name. If you’ve ever been really, attentively listened to and asked probing questions by a thoughtful and interested conversationalist, you know this for the enormous (and rare) privilege it is.
But I don’t believe a lack of skill is the biggest problem for most of us in our listening. Most people are already instinctively good listeners — when they want to be. Even a highly distractible child can become engrossed in listening to an interesting story. All of us pay attention, slow down, ask good questions, and hang eagerly on the answers when we care deeply about the subject matter or the one who is speaking, be it a close friend or a character in a show.
No, the real difficulty with listening well is, alas, the same real difficulty we face in many other endeavors in our lives: a lack of love. Listening is hard because loving is hard. We struggle to listen well, at least in large part, because our hearts and minds are not fully convinced that others are worth listening to. We struggle to listen because we struggle to love our Lord enough to treasure his beloved ones and the concerns that are on their hearts, concerns their words reveal (Luke 6:45).
Two Great Temptations
In the first chapter of James, we get the memorable verse quoted above, calling us to be “quick to hear.” James, in his usual pithy style, then names two great human temptations that prevent us from being quick to listen. We enter one of those many delightful moments where Scripture is completely accessible to a young child while simultaneously guiding an exploration of heart motives that even seasoned counselors never exhaust. What qualities does James oppose to the godly virtue of being eagerly ready to listen? A sinful quickness to speak and to become angry.
Quick to Speak
First, take “slow to speak.” On the surface, this seems obvious: it’s hard to listen when you’re the one talking. But James is giving us more than a truism here. Being quick to speak captures something much more basic, and more sinister, than merely being unskillful or saying too many words. To be quick to speak is, ultimately, to be selfish.