In the previous blog, I provided an overview of how Christians are to receive God’s written word. This has to do with our attitudes toward the Bible. In this post, I want to say a word about hearing and listening.
In James 1:19, we find that believers who willingly submit to God’s Word must be quick to hear (1:19a).
In the ESV, the opening phrase is rendered, “know this.” In the NIV it says, “take note of this.” In the NASB it’s translated, “This you know.”
James is using an imperative statement. The imperative is like a verbal highlighter that underscores what the writer is about to say. James grabs the reader’s attention in such a way that it requires action on our part.
He says, “know this…” because there were and are Christians who don’t know how to receive God’s Word profitably. This is something every Christian needs to hear.
James loves these Christians. He calls them “my beloved brothers.” He isn’t writing in anger, but he’s pleading, he’s urging like a concerned father for their progress in the faith.
There are spiritual dangers James urges believers to avoid. These instructions relate to receiving God’s Word, both publicly and privately.
The first key to receiving God’s Word (in verse 19) is the determination to be “quick to hear.” The idea behind this phrase is that of an eagerness to learn.
When we read the Bible for personal study, “quick to hear” describes how our heart should be toward God’s Word. In the private setting, we hear with our eyes as we read the Bible. Hearing can be active or passive. Passive hearing is when you’re not trying.
Every day, I passively hear train whistles in the background, especially at night. At home, I passively hear dogs bark. I don’t try to hear these sounds, but I do. But James is calling for active hearing… where we strive to hear with an eager heart.
Likewise, when I listen to a sermon, “quick to hear” means my heart is prepared to listen, my mind is awake and fully engaged, but not to criticize or to pass judgment on the text, but to receive instruction as the Spirit applies the truth to my own life.
This attitude presupposes the desire to be taught. Sir Winston Churchill revealed something about himself when he confessed, “I am always willing to learn, although I’m not always willing to be taught.” Many of us can relate to that sentiment.
There is wisdom in knowing that we need to be taught. Learning requires a high degree of listening (or taking knowledge in rather than putting information out) where talking is restrained on the part of the learner, except in interactive contexts, and only then when it’s absolutely necessary to facilitate learning.
I remember in seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks said, “When I was a boy, my father taught me to take every opportunity to stand in the presence of wise men and to always keep my mouth shut except to ask a perceptive question.”
In Proverbs 10:19 Solomon wrote, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
The ability to keep silent is a prerequisite to learning. The more proud and foolish a person is, the less willing they are to retrain their lips and listen to others.
In a book published back in 1970, Dr. Paul Tournier wrote: “Listen to the conversations of our world, between nations as well as between couples. They are, for the most part,dialogues of the deaf.” That’s a description of people who are “hard of listening.”
Why is listening – being quick to hear – so important to receiving God’s Word?
When James wrote these words to the dispersed Jewish believers throughout the Roman Empire, apart from the OT, there were no canonical Scriptures for the New Testament at this early date in the church’s infancy. James was first in terms of writing.
The epistles hadn’t been written yet and even the gospels hadn’t been written yet. Therefore, all instruction in the gospel of Christ and in doctrine was oral as believers met from house to house. They met to listen to the apostles’ teaching conveyed orally.
Listening became a matter of spiritual life or death. Those who didn’t listen didn’t receive God’s truth. Those who don’t know how to listen to God’s Word in any era become spiritually weak and divisive. Listening is still spiritually vital in our day.
Very little can be learned by a person while they are talking.
Pastor Kent Hughes made this insightful observation on “quick to hear.” He wrote:
All of us have had “conversations” in which we are speaking, but the vacant eyes of our “hearers” and their body language indicate that they do not hear. Sometimes our listeners are “on another planet,” sometimes they are so self-consumed they cannot listen, other times they are so intent on what they want to say next that they are not catching a word we are saying. And to be honest, we are often like this ourselves.
Let’s learn a lesson from this observation. Being quick to hear is the first key to receiving God’s Word with humble eagerness… and it’s the only way for us to grow spiritually.
Love in the Truth,