My friend Andrea and I walk our dogs every week together. I typically have my dog on an “e-leash” so I’m very careful to make sure people around me know I have complete control over my dog when it appears he is off leash. We decided to take a new neighborhood route one day. As we passed one house my dog stopped to sniff a small sign at the edge of the grass. It said, “Keep Dogs Off Grass.” I gave my dog the command to heel and he quickly took up the short distance between us. The homeowner bolted from the far side of his car and commenced yelling at us. “Get your dog off my grass!” We were both taken aback at his aggressiveness. My first response was to get my hackles up and yell back, “He wasn’t on your grass.” Andrea, in a nicer tone, confirmed this to the owner. But he wouldn’t let up. He yelled at us as we walked by. And I yelled back. The war had commenced. Salvos were lobbed. In the midst, Andrea became the peacemaker. She had the peace of mind to realize this was not the hill to die on today. She started saying, “Ok sir, have a nice day.” He continued to yell at us while we were about 4 houses away. My anger was apparent. And I realized I had failed gloriously that morning’s first test.
James’ admonishment sounds so simple. And yet I would guess amongst millions of Christians our failure rate in accomplishing this is fairly high.
Think of how much those millions of Christians could change the world if we accomplished just this one act. Proverbs 16:32 says, “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.” Now, being of warrior spirit I struggle with this. But I realized the ingredient that makes a difference – anger. When God sent out Joshua to take cities he didn’t tell him to do so in anger. In fact, many of the actions he directed him to take were strangely non-warrior like such as marching around cities in circles and blowing horns.
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin; Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” God knows we get mad. But he also tells us to be careful and not also take that anger and sin. When Jesus cleansed the synagogues of “thieves” he was more sad than angry. He wept to see what Israel had become. Think of the destruction and affliction Jesus could have wrought on everyone! But instead He cursed a tree. If Jesus – the most powerful being to grace the earth — could restrain himself can’t we tamp down our anger at the grocery store clerk for taking a bit too long? Or the person who doesn’t immediately bolt forward at the green light? All the while our cross necklace dangles around our neck.
But let’s back up a bit. James first tells us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.” How many of us, while someone is talking to us, are working on our own story or rebuttal in our head as that person speaks? What we miss are opportunities.
#1 Opportunity to Show Empathy
We can tell when someone is really listening to us. It’s called active listening. According to Mat Apodaca in his article, “How to Practice Active Listening,” active listening involves using many of our senses. It means giving your full attention. You need to show the other person with your body language that you are truly listening. He says doing this builds mutual trust, it boosts self-confidence, we have less miscommunication, have fewer arguments, and are more productive. Here’s his steps to active listening:
- Maintain eye contact
- Don’t fidget
- No interrupting
- Watch for non-verbal clues
- Restate and clarify
- Use some encouraging words such as, “and then?”
- Probe for more information
- But keep your talking minimal
I had invited a friend out to lunch awhile back. I wanted to try and recover our relationship. We had grown apart in various ways and it had come to a head with some back and forth justifying of our hurts. As we sat across from each other I looked for ways to bridge our gaps. Topics we could both agree on. But the entire time she kept looking down at her phone that rested in her lap. She murmured responses. I finally asked her if something important was going on that she needed to keep reading her phone. Her two younger children, around ages 15 and 13 were at home. They were bickering and sending her text messages. No one was dying. No one was hurt. I realized she not only wasn’t interested in the conversation, she wasn’t interested in our relationship.
#2 Opportunity to Hear from God
When we find ourselves listening to people who are angry, hurt, sad, or fearful we so often want to help. We might share our own past situations or try to convince that person to think or feel differently. But we always end up coming from our own view of the situation. Our wheels are whirling for solutions to their problems, or how to get them to stop being angry at us. With all that jumbled up thinking going on it’s awfully difficult for the one true voice to be heard. God can see all solutions. He knows exactly what to say, and more importantly what not to say. Charles Spurgeon says about praying continuously: “We need to have such confidence about our prayer life that prayer becomes like breathing, effortless, that we do it every moment we are alive.”
How many times have you left a conversation and later thought, “Oh, if only I had thought of that then!” When we are actively listening, we can be more like a super highway. Sending your friend’s, spouse’s, child’s, co-worker’s, stranger’s, words straight up to God. Acting as more of a conduit for God’s instruction, rather than the encyclopedia of all things of how to do (fill in the blank) right. You might just hear God remind us of Jesus’ words:
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”Luke 6:27
Had I been listening to the angry neighbor I would have heard a few things: 1) He has had issues with dogs on his grass. 2) He really loves his grass, a lot. 3) Love him
#3 Opportunity to Find A New Solution
You really cannot have a relationship with someone you don’t listen to. That includes God. If we want to transform our relationships, we need to hear what people and God are saying. Ecclesiastes 5: 1-2 says:
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.”
When we offer up our own solutions, based on our own limited thoughts, they are made within a small framework. But God knows all and sees all solutions. We so frequently want to hear our own plans and arguments because we still want to control everything – even God.
In 2 Chronicles 20, the ruler Jehoshaphat was faced with destruction by the Moabites and Ammonites. He gathered up various advisors to discuss solutions. You can only imagine the various types around the tent. The warrior, demanding they strike first. The appeaser, begging for them to send out an ambassador to beg for mercy. The fearful, worried they were all going to die. But verse 3 says, “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord.” He resolved. He made a conscious decision, after listening to everyone to then listen to God. And God came up with a solution that not one of those in attendance had even dreamed. To not fight, but instead to take up their battle positions, standing firm and have faith in God. The king then appointed men to sing. Yes, sing. And they watched God destroy the enemy.
It is our faith that God loves us — God wants the best for us that we must first rest upon. With that as our anchor we can know when we actively listen we show the same love and empathy we receive from God. When we are slow to speak it is because we are listening for God’s voice to channel through us. And when we keep our anger in check we honor the God that thankfully does not condemn us each time we fail.
When was there a time that you either realized you had failed gloriously at this lesson or when you were successful? How did you feel after?