In James the apostle James tells his readers:
“Remember this, my dear friends! Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
(Quotations of Scripture in this article are from the Good News Translation of the Bible.)
Being quick to listen and slow to speak is an important principle that every Christian should be trying to follow in various areas of life. All of us have surely fallen into the trap of not listening properly and speaking too soon at times, and for many this is a bad habit that often trips them up.
When we speak before listening carefully enough, our words are probably going to be misguided and will frequently cause problems. This can happen in different situations.
Being slow to speak in anger
In the verse quoted above, the instruction to be slow to speak is immediately followed by another to be slow to become angry.
Being slow to get angry is a worthwhile thing to strive for in its own right. However, it also ties in with being quick to listen and slow to speak. All too often someone can lose their temper with a person, only to find out later that they had rushed to judgment and that the person was not in the wrong in the way they first thought.
Getting angry with people when they don’t deserve it can really damage relationships. Much of this can be avoided simply by being quick to listen and slow to speak.
Being quick to listen and slow to speak in giving advice
Another area in which this principle is very helpful is when giving people advice.
One of the marks of a good Christian counsellor is that they are good at listening to people. Another is that they don’t rush to give advice before carefully considering all that the person they are trying to help is saying. They will also be cautious about the usefulness of the advice they give, avoiding overconfidence.
Going to someone for advice and being given a quick-fire solution that will supposedly solve the problem easily is usually just going to lead to disappointment. A carefully weighed response is much more likely to be helpful. And this is more likely to happen if the counsellor has been quick to listen and slow to speak.
Being quick to listen and slow to speak when forming views on things
Being quick to listen and slow to speak is also an excellent principle to follow when we are forming our views on things.
For those of us who live in Western countries this means going against the grain of the culture, which encourages people to have views on things even when they have little knowledge of the subject matter.
It is true that there is a good side to this aspect of Western culture. People are encouraged to consider matters for themselves and not to unthinkingly follow the views of others. Nevertheless, it is seen as normal and appropriate for people to voice confident opinions on almost any topic they choose to, even if they know next to nothing about it, and this is very unhelpful.
As everyone will have seen or heard, news reports often have interviews with members of the public, asking them what they think about various issues and airing their answers. I am in my 40s and I have always taken an interest in what goes on in the world. However, on many occasions when I have felt that I don’t know enough about an issue to have much of an opinion on it, I have seen interviewees, sometimes children, giving confident opinions about that issue in a very simplistic way. And the interviewers usually seem to give the impression that these opinions are valid and worthwhile.
Of course, there are times when even the youngest or most unlearned people can have clear insight into God’s will on a subject, including on moral issues. But more often than not, people who don’t know much about a topic have poor opinions on it. And when Western culture encourages us to be quick to speak and slow to listen when giving our views on things, Christians should resist this.
Western culture is especially unhelpful in this area in the way it encourages us to think that holding strong views on things is a virtue. Someone who really knows what they believe is respected in a Western value system.
This idea is very misguided. What a person believes is far more important than how firmly they believe it. It is much better not to have a clue about something than to have a strongly held belief that is opposed to the will of God.
Being quick to listen and slow to speak when forming views on Christian issues
When we are forming our views on specifically Christian issues is another time when we should be quick to listen and slow to speak.
There are many Christians who always seem to have confident opinions on every area of Christian theology or practice and are not slow to say what they think.
I would suggest that if someone is confident about what is true in all or almost all issues where devout Christians disagree, something has almost certainly gone wrong. In 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul describes Christian insight in this life in this way:
“What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete – as complete as God's knowledge of me.”
In ancient times mirrors were made of polished metal, and when people looked into them they saw a hazy image. In this verse Paul is saying that here on earth there is much that we don’t see clearly. And this surely means that it is normal for Christians to be uncertain about various things.
It is true that the Bible is clear about many issues, and as we progress as believers we should be growing in our understanding and insight. But nevertheless, before we reach heaven we can expect often to be unclear about things. And whenever we are unsure about something, it makes sense for us to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
In addition to the examples I have given, there are surely many other ways too in which being quick to listen and slow to speak is a good principle to follow.
When we are too quick to speak, it is usually because we are failing to act in humility. Something of ourselves is pushing itself forward in a self-centred way. However, when we are listening, something other than ourselves has to be the focus.
The better we are at listening and the more we avoid rushing to speak about things, the more Christ-like we will become and the more we will be able to help others.