The Art of Christian Listening
Both in my personal life and related to apologetics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of hearing and listening to people. A mark of God-pleasing thinking is our willingness to cultivate Christian listening. This means non-aggressively hearing them and even welcoming their potential insights. Here I’d like to suggest some practical steps toward better listening. But first, unpack the Christian in Christian listening.
Why Christian Listening?
I call this the art of Christian listening for two reasons.
First, it is an art. Listening is a skill to be developed because it doesn’t come naturally. In fact, since we’re sinful creatures with the natural tendency toward intellectual and moral laziness, we’ll most likely struggle with this for the rest of our lives. That’s simply to say that listening well is part of our sanctification.
But there’s good news. The struggle can get easier. As we make the effort to apply ourselves in listening, we develop an internal sense of what we’re doing— even when we’re not conscious of it. This internalization of a skill is something with which artists are quite familiar. I’ve been cartooning since I was a child, and I couldn’t tell you what in the world I’m doing when I draw…I just draw. Shapes, lines, shadow, etc. These things are no second nature to me because I’ve developed a discipline by drawing for many, many years.
Secondly, this kind of listening is Christian because it is uniquely undergirded and supported by theological resources unique to the Christian worldview.
Here are some practical tips for becoming a better listener, supported by scripture. Nearly everyone will probably agree with these general guidelines, but only the Christian worldview provides us with a consistent theological foundation for these attitudes and actions. But before we jump into the positive, let’s address a major road block for Christian/ Non-Christian communication.
A Big Listening “Don’t”
A typical knee-jerk of many Christians is to dismiss all non-Christian thought as foolishness. This tendency usually stems from the biblical teaching (especially clear in 1 Cor. 1) that there’s a radical (from the Latin radix, meaning root) opposition between the deepest heart commitments of Christians and those of non-Christians. In principle, an absolute antithesis exists between the Christian worldview and all others. So, I can sympathize with the impulse behind the “knee-jerk reactions.” Christians take biblical passages such as 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 seriously.
And this is true… but it’s not the whole story.
Reactionary positions do not reflect a robust understanding of God’s “common grace.” I plan on posting something about this very soon but for now we note that doctrine of common grace teaches us that though all people are sinners, God nevertheless prevents sin from making us as bad (or stupid) as we could be. Tim Keller nicely summarizes it by saying, “Because unbelievers are created in the image of God, they are far better than their wrong views should make them. But, Christians, because they are sinners, are far worse than their right views should make them.”
Non-Christians do utter truths, and frequently God grants them greater insights into his world than his children. It simply isn’t biblical to reject genuine insights from unbelievers. Nor is it good reasoning (it’s called the genetic fallacy, i.e. dismissing a view because of its origin). Arguments must be accepted or rejected based on their own merits, not their source. Referring to the insights, gifts, and skills that God graciously bestows upon unbelievers, John Calvin said:
If the Lord willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and the other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.
Christian charity, sound scholarship, and winsome apologetics demand we closely and patiently evaluate non-Christian thought, both for the purposes of exposing its departure from Christ-centered principles as well as to gather from the Spirit’s gift of common grace.
So please, don’t just disagree with someone, look for their strong points, things you can agree with and build on. If you hear that Person X is wrong about something, look it up, listen to them, and even read some of their writing.
Show respect. The purpose of evangelism, and apologetics, and dialogue with others is not to have a shouting match. We all grant that much (I hope!). But too often apologists can come off as smug, not granting the unbeliever a fair hearing. But that very unbeliever is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), imbued with dignity and honor. Also, 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to be ready to not only to defend the faith, but also to be ready to do so with “gentleness and respect.” God commands that we respect even those that may potentially harm us (cf. vs. 14, 17). We do this to in order to “[keep] a clear conscience” that testifies to God’s wisdom (v. 16).
Sympathetically listen to other points of view. We’ve heard the criticism: Christian truth-claims breed dogmatism and arrogance. Is this true? Well, for some it certainly can be. Here’s another truth claim: arrogance does not grow in the soil of the genuine gospel of Christ. Arrogance grows in the absence of the gospel! According to the biblical vision of divine grace teaches us we’re not delivered because we’re wiser, more spiritual, or more ethical than others. We are Christians solely by grace, and not by our superior ethical life or intellect, we should expect others to frequently see things and know things we do not.
Follow the other person’s argument. Since we’re created in the image of God, we are rational beings. We have an uneasy relationship with the idea of believing things willy-nilly, devoid of some kind of reason. We need some rationale, some reason for committing ourselves to a worldview, cause, or ideology. In a real-life apologetic discussion do pay close attention to the other person’s rationale for their beliefs. Think through their major claims, minor claims, throw-away arguments (arguments that only “preach to the choir”), evidence, etc. Often others have not thought through these issues self-consciously. It’s our job to help them do so.
Assess claims. Now that you’ve heard and listened carefully to their points, assess them. Are they true? Are they false? Are they completely false, or is there some good to be built upon? What are the underlying assumptions of what they’re saying?
Ask questions. Doing this will both clear up anything that’s still fuzzy in your mind about what they said, as well as create an opportunity for the person you’re speaking to refine their beliefs in light of your questions and objections. All throughout the gospels, Jesus asks insightful questions both to make points and to clarify the positions held by others. We’d do well to follow His example.
When necessary, admit ignorance. It’s happened to all who try to seriously provide answers to skeptics. And it’s one of the hardest things an apologist can do (akin to a professional scholar saying, “I was wrong.”). These three words are difficult, but often times necessary, to say. Here they are: I don’t know.
These three simple words can signal either defeat or something else. I propose that ending a conversation at this point isn’t the death of apologetics, but can in fact be the birth of long term dialogue with a non-Christian friend. Here are a common of reasons that I think this is the case.
First, admitting ignorance reinforces a spirit of dialogue, rather than confrontation. After all, we aren’t gurus. We aren’t the source of truth, we only point the way. And often times, we need others to help us get there as well. Second, our knowledge of God, Scripture, etc., should be a natural development in the process of our sanctification. As we grow in our love and devotion toward God, so our knowledge of him and his ways will also grow. This growth in grace will not end in this lifetime, so neither is the process of learning. Lastly, admitting ignorance may serve to honor the fact that Christianity is lived by faith (a living trust in a personal God). Our trust in God isn’t an achievement unlocked only after solving all “riddles” and questions. The moment we reduce “true” faith to intellectual sophistication, we’ve sold the farm to the Gnostics (and that’s bad news).
We must reject truth divorced from charity. And we should embrace faith —trust in God’s word— working through love—taking the time to understand what others are saying (Gal. 5:6).