Learning to shut up
Learning to shut up
27 September 2017
‘Speaker’s Corner’ in Hyde Park, London, is a space that celebrates free speech. Orators are welcome to speak on any subject they please. People like Karl Marx and George Orwell were frequent visitors, and riots even broke out there in 1855. So, when I was in London it was on my bucket list to visit—I expected to be wowed by a rich heritage of debate.
It turned out to be a deeply demoralising experience. A bunch of Christians were yelling over Muslims, while Muslims yelled over Christians. A few others ranted about their particular soapbox. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘Has anyone, ever, changed their mind from listening to these guys?
I recently read an article in Christianity Today by Christine Herman, who was talking about the power of arguing with our mouths shut. Fundamentally, she highlighted the difficulty in changing someone’s mind—and the important role in listening in this process.
But it was the first part of her argument that struck me. She states: ‘Both common sense and research confirm this is true; it is very hard to change a person’s strongly held beliefs—religious or otherwise.’
As I chewed this over, I thought of myself. And—in all honesty—I can’t think of too many things I’ve changed my mind about over the past decade. There’s superficial things—I now like Brussel sprouts, avocado and peanuts (just not together). I enjoy drinking coffee. I like to read fiction.
But with the big things—morality, values, ethics—I can’t identify too many big changes. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It is important to have convictions and to be steadfast in belief. But as I reflect on this, two things stand out to me.
Number one: I don’t need to fear other ideas and perspectives—but instead, should be able to listen to them.
Jonathan Dodson, author of the book The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing, says, ‘A big part of people feeling loved is being asked questions. And a great way to love is to ask questions.
I love it when people ask me questions about my hobbies, experiences, career and life. But, I hate it when people are doing this with a tone of comparison, or are doing this while distractedly checking their phone!
Conversely, when I am listening to someone whose opinions are different from mine, I’m loving them well. And when I am doing this from a posture of grace, I have the opportunity for one of two things to happen.
Firstly, I am in a position to learn truth. It is both arrogant and naive to assume I have a monopoly on the truth. Listening to another may help serve as a nudge toward truth—and as a corrective for me. I need not fear this difference, but instead should seek to listen and understand.
And secondly, I am in a position for my own beliefs to be developed. When we put a muscle under tension, it grows. It seems to be the same with ideas—when we challenge our ideas and seek to listen to others, it may place our values under tension. This isn’t a bad thing. If our perspective is true, it will be strengthened.
It’s an amazing truth in the Bible that people’s faith developed in dialogue with God. They would debate with him—sometimes crying, sometimes shouting, sometimes speaking, sometimes whispering. And God would reply—in dreams, visions, words, events and through his Word. This God was named as ‘the one who sees’. The one who hears.
The story of Hagar and Sarai (in Genesis 16) is both one of the most damaged and poignant in the Bible. It culminates in the pregnant slave Hagar running away from her owner Sarai. An ‘angel of the Lord’ finds Hagar in the desert, and Hagar gives God him a new name, El Roi—‘The God Who Sees Me’.
It’s an audacious act, to name God. But he is an audacious God—one who listens to the views and beliefs of the speaker. He listens. He sees us.
Often, in the Bible, God urges people to dialogue with him. And it was through speaking and listening that change would occur. Faith was deepened. New life was breathed. Repentance occurred. So why do we think that we don’t need to listen?
Minds Are Tough
Number two: I recognise how hard it is to have my own mind changed, so why do I sometimes assume others will change their own with ease?
And why am I frustrated when they don’t? The older we get, the more stuck-in-our-ways our neurological pathways become. And changing minds is a literal God-sized task.
Listening is the way we participate in change. Instead of assuming we know why an agnostic, atheist or Muslim believes what they do, we listen. We inquire. We recognise that their position appears just as logical to them, as ours does to us. We seek to understand their point of view, before we share ours. We share well, and respond honestly to confusion and weaknesses our posture may have.
This is not natural to me—and appears not to be natural to many. M. Scott Peck said, ‘You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.’
So, I encourage you to listen and listen well. Not just to the Facebook articles from those you already agree with, or from your friends who share your point of view. But listen to the differences. Ask questions and love. Seek to understand—and when you speak, do so with love and prayer.
Travelling with Scott
But if there is one thing more difficult than understanding another viewpoint, it is admitting the wrongs in our own viewpoint. Aren’t we supposed to be sure of what we hope for? (Hebrews 11:1).
Well, we are sure of Jesus. And part of the Christian life is to grow in our understanding so we become more and more like Christ—more loving, more empathetic, more just, and more willing to listen.
This can be dangerous, because when we listen, we have to be ready for the possibility that we find our own viewpoint at fault, not theirs. About a decade ago, I read M. Scott Peck’s A Road Less Travelled. It was one of the most painful books I have ever read. In it, Peck proposes a profound lack of responsibility in most Westerner’s lives. He writes:
Since they deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil, on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others.
These chilling words reminded me of the words of Jesus:‘Before you take the speck out of your brother’s eye, take the log out of your own.’ When we fail to take the advice of Jesus, we see a whole lot of speck-filled eyes around us. But when we heed his advice, we discover that often, the specks we see are fragments of the log sticking out of our own eyes.
Therefore, listening well may be the most eloquent argument we can make for our faith.
This article first appeared in the New Zealand Warcry.