Recovering the essential skill of listening
“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” ~Proverbs 18:13
I’ve seen it time and time again. A young man gains solid biblical teaching from a sound, biblical, evangelical church. He immediately adopts the Ezra 7:10 mentality, becoming eater to study, practice, and teach the Word of God – formally or informally. Discipleship, counseling, and leading small groups becomes an ambition for his zealous soul. But rather than treating the sound doctrine he learns as lenses through which to understand the world around him more clearly, he stores them as bullets for his rifle. He then sets out on a hunting expedition, also known as his first discipleship or counseling where he is the mentor rather than the pupil. He braces himself, waiting for the buck – also known as the erred statement of the person with whom he’s meeting – to emerge from the forest trees. The moment of truth arrives when the buck emerges, and he does what a good hunter does: he fires and hits his target. The buck falls lifeless. The young hunter-minister stands proud of his great aim, having corrected his erred pupil with a series of theological bullets.
The problem, however, is that he wasn’t supposed to shoot the buck; he was supposed to study it. Don’t get me wrong; there is a place and time to shoot. But the man of God is a shepherd more than a hunter. He shoots at the wolves, and not at the bucks. And not at the eagles or the foxes.
People have asked me in the past what I believe is the most important skill in life and ministry, particularly in the realm of pastoral and biblical counseling. I always find it difficult to answer that question, but what I can answer is what I’ve observed to be the most neglected skill in the reformed, evangelical community – and even amongst pastors and leaders. And that is the skill of listening.
For a minister – be he a pastor, preacher, mentor, evangelist, or counselor – there is a time to teach and a time to listen. Ministers wholly committed to rightly interpreting and communicating the Word of God (and praise the Lord for this) often make the mistake of treating every time as a time to preach and teach. Their counseling and discipleship meetings become forty-five minute Bible expositions. But when you’re always teaching, you’re never listening. And if you’re never listening, then you’re never learning. And if you’re never learning, the Bible calls you foolish. And as a result, many people in church are hesitant to be honest about the reality of how they’re doing and what’s happening in life. Their to expose the critters of their heart, even the harmless squirrels and badgers, comes out of the fear that they’ll get rifled one after the other. I’ve surveyed a number of folks – particularly young men – about this very thing. Why are they afraid to be honest? At times, it’s pride. But the majority of the time, it’s because a previous attempt to be transparent about the realities of life has only triggered an barrage of counsel from answer-happy pastors. You can’t blame them. Why would they want to be honest with someone who won’t listen? I for sure wouldn’t. Would you?
For the record, the goal of a counseling and discipleship meeting is not mere comprehension of a person. The goal is, well, to give counsel or instruction. I’m not denying the importance of the didactic component in these settings. Helping involves more than hearing. But you can’t help when you don’t hear. Counsel and instruction – even if it is biblically sound – must be given as appropriate to a person’s condition or circumstances. There is such a thing as saying the right thing to the wrong person, or to say the right thing to the right person at the wrong time or in the wrong way. One of the antidotes to this is the application of skillful listening. Only when you put down the rifle and take out the specs will you realize that, at times, what you thought was a wolf really was a stray husky that looked like a wolf but is harmless to the sheep. Only then, will the rest of the critters of a man’s heart emerge for you to observe. Only when you listen will you truly understand. And only when you understand are you in a position to give counsel or instruction. Consider the following Scripture:
“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” ~Proverbs 18:13
“A plan in the heart of a man is like deep water, but the man of understanding draws it out” ~Proverbs 20:5
“A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind.” ~Proverbs 18:2
Study the buck. Don’t shoot it.