Getting Our Ears in Gear

I think the case can easily be made that no day compares to ours in the amount of opinion which showers over us each day and as for the avenues in which you can express your own (print, internet, radio, personal interactions). If value rises according to rarity, then never has talk been as cheap as it is now!

The abundance of talk can open doors for believers to speak God’s Word to the issues of our day and, hopefully, point people to Jesus Christ. But it also can suck us into worldly and careless use of our words—something that ought to cause genuine concern for us in light of the Lord’s warning about being accountable for “every idle word” and the wisdom of Proverbs that tells us “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise” (10:19).

In the course of my life, I have never seen a tool more susceptible to trouble on this point than the internet. Discussion groups, chat rooms, and weblogs have opened the flood gates of talk for anyone with internet access. It doesn’t matter what the topic or one’s qualifications for discussing it, the microphone is open and people line up to share their thoughts. The same is basically true for talk radio, although the flow is slowed a little by the number of available phone lines and the mysterious “call screener” (which often seems to mean a person who selects the most radical and outrageous callers!).

The overall effect of this phenomenon on our culture, and on the church, is difficult to measure, but it also is difficult to miss. Since controversy and conflict draw crowds, that is what abounds on talk radio and the internet. The “conversation” generally consists of a very disjointed flow of opinion and counter-opinion, with very little offered as proof or analysis. This kind of conversation has its place, but it also has real dangers. Idle words can be dangerous. Remember, “many words” makes “transgression unavoidable.”

Proverbs 18 contains at least two principles that can be helpful in a world like ours which is full of words. While Proverbs says a lot about our speech, these two texts mainly address our listening. By helping us listen better, they provide valuable wisdom for life and for speaking.

Listen First (v. 13)
“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”

The point of this text is that we must seek to understand a question before we try to answer it. It is probably best understood within the larger proverbial contrast between wisdom and folly. A fool is generally not interested in knowledge, only his own thoughts (18:2). He also rushes ahead without consultation and seeking knowledge (12:15; 19:2). People who do not restrain their speech, but utter all that passes through their minds, are even worse than fools (29:20). To guard your words is to guard your soul (21:23). Wisdom is marked by careful thought and restrained words; folly is marked by careless thought and impulsive speech.

Matthew Henry offers this insight into this text, “It is folly for a man to go about to speak to a thing which he does not understand, or to pass sentence upon a matter which he is not truly and fully informed of, and has not patience to make a strict enquiry into; and, if it be folly, it is and will be shame” (p. 895).

Why is this the evidence of folly and why does it lead to shame? At the root is pride. The desire to be viewed as having a full and quick mind leads a person to fire off answers before fully hearing the question or understanding the issue. Thoughtful silence or asking time to consider a matter is viewed by some as a weakness, so their pride pushes them to speak when they ought not.

Pride also produces inflated views of our own knowledge and wisdom, (“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him,” 26:12). Only a proud person assumes that he understands something before he hears it, so when we speak before we listen we reveal our arrogance.

The most obvious application of this text is to put our mouths in park and our ears in drive! The exception to this is when you ask questions to help you understand someone better or to make sure that you have understood them properly (“Is this what you mean?”). And to listen effectively, we will need to suspend judgment until we have gathered enough information to wisely make a call. Sometimes, amidst the information overload in which we live, we may have to accept the fact that we simply can’t assess things well enough to speak wisely about them. It might be better to express no opinion than a half-baked one!

Listen Fully (v. 17)
“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.”

The basic thrust of this proverb is similar to one we use in our culture, “There are two sides to every story.” The point here is that we should suspend judgment until we have fully investigated something. “This observation seeks to discourage hasty judgments, particularly in a legal proceeding. Appearances can be misleading, and so critical questions need to be raised to establish the truth or falsehood of testimony” (Longman, p. 358).

This is important to remember because we all possess a limited perspective. Not every disagreement is the result of intentional dishonesty. Sometimes it boils down to perspective—both are sincere in what they believe, but they are not looking at it from the same direction or with the same knowledge. It is unwise to simply accept the first version of whatever story you hear, even if it comes from a reliable source.

Often, sadly, the problem runs deeper than differing perspectives. Depravity being what it is, sinful people will yield to the temptation to state the case of things in ways that are favorable to themselves. Information is selectively chosen and carefully presented so as to give the best possible impression and to secure the desired result.

Whether intentional or not, half the story is more prone to error than the full story. Wisdom wants to hear the full story, or at least enough of it to exercise careful discernment. “The naive believes everything, but the sensible man considers his steps” (Pro 14:15). How can we listen more actively?

First, we can postpone decisions in order to gather more information. While not perfect, I have tried to follow the maxim that wisdom doesn’t come by rushing it. Someone who wants a decision immediately usually isn’t practicing wisdom, so I don’t feel any need to assist them in foolishness.

Second, we should be very clear with people that we cannot agree with them without hearing the other side of things. We don’t need to be rude about this, but should say something like “I have no reason to not believe you, but God’s Word tells me to make sure I hear both sides” and share this verse with them.

Third, we should learn basic principles for examining truth claims. What exactly is being claimed? What evidence and arguments are being made to prove this? Are these arguments valid? Are these arguments true?

Several years ago I was chided in a public forum for urging more caution in our speech with these words, “Yes, this is a talk-radio and anyone-with-a-keyboard environment where all of us can express how we feel about issues and events without having to worry about its correctness or our authority.” This is completely wrong from a biblical perspective. God’s children never are free from the responsibility to “worry about [the] correctness” of our ideas and words!

It is a dangerous thing when people, especially believers, adopt the notion that their right to say something is more important than actually having something truthful to say. These two texts in Proverbs go a long way toward refuting that false notion. If we all obeyed them, we would probably speak less. Given what Proverbs 10:19 says, that means we would probably transgress less too. More silence and less sin—sounds like a win-win solution to me!

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