I want to share one response of one of God’s people to God’s word this week. This week someone texted me:
On my walk this morning, I opened my podcast app and found your sermon at the top, “Wisdom and Suffering in the Christian life.” And I thought, “Alright, speak to me Lord!” And through your sermon, he did! “Suffering is our friend if godliness is our goal. […] Suffering is to turn weak Christians into godly Christian’s who will be found faithful on the last day. […] You cannot mature as a Christian without experiencing suffering on God’s terms.’ This is just what I needed to hear. “Has my quota of suffering made me bitter or better?” Well, from today, I want to start considering it pure joy.
That is what a transformed life looks like.
Some time ago I sent a church-wide email asking the women of MBM one question: “How do you want the men in your life to love you?” Over 80% said the same thing: “We want them to listen to us.” So what do women want? It’s really what we all want. It’s what God wants us to be: someone who will listen. There are 61 commands in 108 sentences in the book of James: more than any other book of the bible. Here is one of them: listen. James 1:19:
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (NIV)
This is how we know we love God and people: being quick to listen and slow to speak. That is also what God is like. With God as our Father and Jesus as our Lord, we are dearly loved brothers and sisters. Our heavenly dad listens to every prayer you pray. When you are half asleep, when you are racked with guilt and shame, when asking for wisdom in suffering after sulking for 20 years, God bends his ear to your request. He is quick to listen, and he expects us to be quick to listen.
Let’s apply this word to listening to each other and then to God’s Word.
We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak to each other. But there are some things that listening is not.
Listening is not giving someone a pep talk: Jesus loves you and so do. Listening is not saying nothing. Shy people are not good listeners because they are shy. Listening is not waiting for the person to finish talking. One husband thought that listening meant waiting for his wife to stop talking so that he could talk about what he wanted. He now understands, and his wife noticed the difference straight away and felt loved. Listening is not just factually summarizing what the other person said. Listening is not about finding answers to other people’s problem. Many of us guys are looking for solutions a lot of the time. The listening is the solution. God wants you to be quick to listen.
Listening is tuning in to what the other person is saying and feeling, being with them in their story. It’s seeing it from their side. It’s an active process, where your mind and heart are involved. It is what you are called to do even if you are tired, anxious, or bored. A good listener tries to reflect back what they have heard: “is it like this for you?”
When was the last time someone said back to your attempt to listen, “That is exactly how I feel?”
I remember one man speaking of his surprise that, since he learned to be slow to speak and quick to listen, that he noticed that people open up to him when he gave them a chance to speak. It was a revelation.
We become better witnesses for Jesus the better we listen. You’re not a good listener because you think you’re a good listener! You’re a good listener because people tell you you’re a good listener. It’s the only test.
So this week, why not ask two trusted people in your life this question: “Am I a good listener? Am I quick to listen and slow to speak?”
This is crucial for our growth groups. We don’t want to gag God by everyone talking except God, so we need to spend time in the bible. But if you are a ‘talker’—desperate to be the first to answer all the questions—this is God’s word for you: shut up! Allow others to speak.
I was once in a bible study looking at this verse. There were three guys—a Lebanese, an Assyrian, and an Aussie—who were always competing to answer all the questions, like it were contestants in a quiz show. Then these words convicted them, “be quick to listen, slow to speak”. So they made a pact to not say one word in the next bible study. Two thirds of the way into the study they pleaded to be allowed to speak! But they noticed that their silence had allowed other people to talk.
The passage says “quick to listen and slow to speak”. But it does not say, “Don’t speak!” God gave you a tongue, so use it for his glory. You have been given the power of words to encourage. You can’t encourage by always being silent.
Some growth groups die because some say too much. Some growth groups die because some say too little.
We need to be quick to listen when it comes to God’s word. Are you listening now? Right now, we are all supposed to be working very hard in listening. I am responsible for being clear, engaging, and faithful. You are responsible to listen and apply God’s word to you. If you are distracted, then pray that God will give you the ability to listen. Bring a note book. Take notes. Some find it helpful to doodle. Find ways to listen to God’s word. Find the best translation that you can understand. Consider using our prayer journaling booklets called “Undivided Attention”. Rewrite a verse using fresh words. Write up a verse and meditate on it all day. Use a pen to mark up your bible. Try to memorize scripture: Psalm 119:11, “I have hidden your word in my heart so that I will not sin against you.”
So what is the link between being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?
With people, you won’t jump to wrong conclusions. You won’t misread words and shoot from the hip. You will give time for the other person to say their words without pouncing on them. As you listen to God’s word, you will discover that anger never does any good, James 1:20:
because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (NIV)
Anger has a 100% failure rate. Your anger is always worse than the thing at which you are angry. If you are prone to anger, use the Bible verses listed in the growth group studies on anger and meditate on them.
For 15 years I had a prayer card with a series of statements about my anger. Each day I would tell myself, “Ray, you have never won by losing your temper. You have always regretted losing your temper. It never does any good. It grieves God’s Spirit. It grieves those who I dump on. Remember the last time you lost it to see if it’s true.
We act like little gods on the last day handing out final verdicts. But we are not. Anger in whatever form—outbursts, sulking, sarcasm, violence, passive aggression, swearing, blasphemy, slander, and gossip—never, never, never, achieves what God desires. What it does produce are children who are afraid of their parents, wives who don’t feel safe in their own home, husbands who are profoundly disrespected, workers who are scared of going to work, Christians who are afraid of their ministers, and friends who walk on egg shells. Proverbs 29:11: "A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control."
This is why God says to get rid of it, James 1:21:
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. (NIV)
Let God’s word do its work in your heart. The same gospel word which talks of God turning his anger away from us is the same word which tells you to turn your anger away from others. God left his anger at the cross, so why don’t you? This is the word to which we need to be quick to listen.
But listening is not enough. As important as listening to others is, as important as listening to God is, it won’t mean one thing if you don’t do what it says, James 1:22:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (NIV)
There are some things in the Bible that are hard to understand This is not one of them! Jesus and the average Australian can smell a hypocrite a mile away. Daniel Doriani starts this section of his commentary (p. 134) on James with this story:
I was once part of a large-team mission project. Most of us stayed in the same house, so we were together many hours a day. One man rose first daily. We spotted him on the porch, reading his bible at sunrise. One evening, he told me, “I am excited to go to bed each night because I’m that much closer to my time alone with God in the morning. I can’t tell you how close I feel to God.” I felt like a spiritual dung beetle next to this lion of the faith. Months later, our spiritual lion was in legal trouble for getting drunk and doing things that were both sins and crimes. Worse yet, he had been doing such things for years. Our spiritual giant was a giant hypocrite.
Talk is cheap. Some refuse to listen to God’s word. Others only want to listen God’s word. That is why our vision at MBM is to see lives transformed—not just informed—through Jesus Christ to the glory of God.
You know how it feels when you tell someone in your life what hurts you, and the person says, “I’m sorry” and they promise they won’t do it again, but nothing changes. And it hurts. God is saying, “I’m no different”. Too many of us leave God’s word back at church, or Bible study, or on the pages of the Bible.
It’s easy as Christians to get into that comfort zone. You tell yourself, “I don’t need to change anymore. I’ve done my quota of repentance. That is like me saying, “I’m 58, I’ve been driving for 40 years, I’ve done my quota of turning on the blinker when I drive.” That’s ridiculous. For as long as you drive, you put on the blinker.
We never stop listening and doing God’s word. Repentance is life long. This is very important to those of us who have been Christian for a long time, especially us men. So when I said at the beginning of this talk, “Go and ask two people to see how good a listener you are, were you listening? Will you really do anything to be a better listener to either God’s word or to God’s people. Or is it just another nice idea that won’t make it home with you today. Listening without doing equals nothing.
How ironic that the week I preach on being slow to become angry I get so frustrated on the phone with the Optus representatives to the point where I spoke badly to two of them. I did apologize, but that day I wept over my recurring sin. I felt the need to resign as your pastor. This is not a game. We are playing for keeps.
There must be no ‘listen’ and don’t ‘do’. There must be no ‘do’ and don’t ‘listen’. James says that listening and not doing is like looking in a mirror for a moment and forgetting what you look like. James 1:25:
But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (NIV)
Notice that doers are blessed. Obedience is where true happiness is found, as we look intently in God perfect law and don’t forget it. It’s in the ‘doing’ that joy is experienced. The law is more than commandments. It’s God complete precious word, perfect in every way. No matter how hard it is to hear, it will always set you free—but only if you obey it.
‘Doing it’ is what marks out true religion. As evangelicals we avoid using the word ‘religion’. We prefer to say that we have a relationship with God and not ‘religion’. ‘Religion’ usually means worship made by men and not God. But the word Religion is not the problem. It’s what you mean by it, James 1:26:
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. (NIV)
In one sense, the problem is not religion but worthless religion. True religion is defined for us in three ways: first, sins of speech; second, sins of purity; and third, sins of neglect. James 1:27:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (NIV)
We see this, for example, in the inspiring story of Bec and Steve from our evening congregation, who for five years experienced the the grief of infertility, but who then chose to foster with a view to adopting, and who went from having no children one day to the next welcoming into their family and being responsible to foster parent two precious children. We are called to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. There is nothing more spiritual than such practical love.