Speaking and Listening Better: An Invitation

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Proverbs 15:1

Quick: What do the two types of wood in the pictures below have in common?

One is soft, smooth, and round: 

The other is jagged, sharp, and menacing:

Answer: Pretty much everything. They are the same wood – long-dead pine – and they’re located only yards apart.

These trees grew in the same West Michigan soil. They were warmed by the same sun and watered by the same rains. But they ended up looking completely differently. What happened?

The wood in the first picture – as you can see – wound up in the water. Spun and submerged by the lapping waves of Lake Michigan, these beams became tender and soft. Over time, the splinters wore away, and the ancient hardwood yielded to velvet.

The stump in the second picture was exposed to another force: fiercely blowing sand. Over the years, the tiny dune-grains, like so many airborne razors, bit away at the wood. Sharp places grew sharper. Acute angles became more severe. The mighty tree decayed to a tormented tangle of wooden knives.

One wood, two dynamics. Two radically different outcomes.

This is the story of fallen trees and fallen people.

It’s brutal out there. Our unique political moment has turned each news cycle into a white-hot free-for-all of ideological spin and open hostility. Our tribalized society, fragmented by so many causes and concepts, is eating itself alive.

For a week, we smash and scorn on immigration policy. After that, we torch-and-pitchfork our way through the true meaning of the Second Amendment. One after another, reproductive rights, taxation, environmental protection, and sexual ethics take their turn pry-barring our Twitter feeds, editorial pages, and families.

Decorum and decency are passe. Almost everybody believes that the situation is so dire, and that the foe they face is so evil, that no manner of invective is off the table:

“This is no time for civility.”

     “Don’t you dare try that whataboutism with me.”

          “Jesus got angry, too.”

               “This is why we have profanity in the first place.”

We are so much jus ad bellum and so little jus in bello. There are no rules, no brakes, no time-out chairs. We’re mad and we’re not going to take it anymore.

I think many of us gird our loins for battle believing that we are addressing these complex questions with fresh nuance and insight: Sure, lots of people are already talking about this, we reason, but I’ve got something to say, and I think it will prove decisive. Load up the social media, I’ve got the blue shell.

But in a deeper place I think we know better. When was the last time you heard someone say, “You know, it was that 413th Facebook post that I read – the one with the extra exclamation points and the orange angry-face emoji – that really convinced me”?

Proverbs 15 knows better, too. Head into the fray with your verbal sandblaster and you’re likely to turn the other into a bundle of blades. Approach tough questions with empathy, patience, and grace and you might actually get somewhere.

The author of this Proverb has concluded that really moving people doesn’t hinge on one’s ability to formulate a worn-out thesis with greater precision or zeal. Peace and meaningful change actually come through trusting relationships. And trusting relationships are predicated on gentleness and tact.

A wise mentor once told me that the best way to exegete messages offered under the heading “God told me that…” is to check whether the message rides in on the Fruit of the Spirit. Is the word brought with patience, kindness, and self-control? Messages of God, he noted, are delivered in accord with the Spirit of God.

This is so helpful: Self-expression that manifests the Holy Spirit’s fruit is pivotal to moving the hearts of people.

So also is listening well.

The call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) is one of the most vivid and challenging passages in Scripture. After an elaborate recruitment, the newly minted prophet of God is warned that his message – while desperately needed by the nations – will be largely without effect. The Lord says to Isaiah:

“Go and tell this people:

“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
    be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
 Make the heart of this people calloused;
    make their ears dull
    and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

This passage has always baffled me. Why does God commission Isaiah to such high work (and with such a pyrotechnical ceremony), if the people’s hearts will be calloused, their ears stopped, and their eyes blinded?

Then the other day I made another observation: This passage, almost word for word, is repeated in another place in the Bible: Matthew 13:14-15, when Jesus explains why he teaches in parables.

Then, it’s repeated again, in John 12:37-40, when the people would not believe in Jesus despite his miracles.

Then, it’s repeated again, in Acts 28:25-27, when Paul preaches to skeptical Jewish leaders in Rome.

Why does the Bible rehash, pretty much word-for-word, the same confounding lines in four different locations? Why go on and on about how deaf, sightless, and ignorant everybody is?

Why? Because it’s chronic. Because we’re such bad listeners. Messages goes in one ear, get radio-staticked by our presuppositions and biases, and land on our hearts as distortions and troll-jobs. Happened in the Old Testament, happened in the New Testament, happens today. We aren’t good at this, world without end.

And as a result, we aren’t healed in the way that we need to be. We might not even come to the recognition that we need healing at all.

Don’t miss this: I’m pretty sure that the people in Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time and in Paul’s time tuned out their prophetic messages under the impression that they already knew what they needed to know. They were steadfast, immovable. But the reality is, the hearers had mistaken conviction with stubbornness.

I recently saw this billboard pictured online – a message intended to encourage men to get screened for different kinds of cancer. It received an addendum:

So funny.

So true.

The sin of stubbornness is a determination to remain sick when others are trying to make us well. It claims the moral high ground via tactics that run counter to genuine Biblical counsel. In the end, stubbornness can’t even see itself: I’m not stubborn; I’m just doing my best to help all the backwards people get it right.

Four times, the same lines. Four times, nearly word for word.

Our ears our stopped. Our eyes have cataracts. Our hearts are bent akimbo.  And the fight wears on.

Perhaps this is the church’s moment to present the fruit of gentleness and peace. Perhaps we ought to speak words full of grace, seasoned with salt, not the other way around. Perhaps we can lead the way by listening better. Perhaps we can be most convincing by being mostly compassionate.

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