LEARNING TO LISTEN
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Benjamin Franklin decided to take stock of him self one New Years, and try to figure out why he seemed to alienate people, and why he lost friends so easily. He discovered that one of his major flaws was that he was not willing to listen to others. He had all of the answers and was arrogant. He did not need to listen to other people's foolish opinions. Franklin did an amazing thing; he learned to listen and became one of America's most famous diplomats. His whole life and the history of America was changed by his learning to listen. He wrote, "A pair of good ears will drink dry a hundred tongues. He learned that when you talk you only say what you know, but when you listen you learn what someone else knows.
In spite of the fact that listening is such a vital part of learning and life, it is perpetually on the verge of being a lost art. Ralph Nichols from the University of Minnesota, who has been a leader in promoting in the art of listening in his book Are You Listening?, says people in general do not know how to listen. The reason is because nobody is training their ears anymore. For centuries the ear was the key to learning. All through the Bible times this was the case. We could spend hours just looking at all the references to the ear in the Bible. It was by means of the ear that the wise sought knowledge. It was the constant battle of God to get His people to incline their ears to His Word. God told Jeremiah, "Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem." Dozens of texts lament that God's people have not inclined their ears unto the Lord. They have ears but they hear not is the sad note in the Psalms and the Prophets.
One of the most frequent sayings of Christ in the Gospels is, "He that has ears to hear let him hear." This is also one of the most frequently repeated phrases in the book of Revelation. It is by listening that we are to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Reading has only been the primary source of learning for the last couple of centuries. But because of the dominance of books people have ceased to think of the ear and have gone overboard in training the eye. We think the Bible days are long gone and that we have progressed beyond the need to focus on the ear. Ralph Nichols and many other scholars have revealed just how wrong modern man is. We spend 3 times as many hours in listening as we do in reading, but we are not trained to listen. Forty five per cent of our communication time is spent in listening, but we do it poorly because we have only trained the eye. We graduate from our eye training schools, and then go off to an ear oriented world, where listening is the key to success.
Many people no longer read after they graduate, and for the rest of their lives they are most influenced by what they hear. People on the jury decide the fate of others by what they hear and not by what they read. We tend to vote based on what we hear from the candidates and not by what we read. Nichols has been a leader in the movement to get listening clinics developed to help people learn to develop the art of listening. Acts 22 is an excellent basis from which we can learn how relevant listening is for the Christian. I counted nine examples of listening in this chapter. Everyone in it is involved in listening, and their destiny id being determined at this point by how well or poorly they listen.
I have not read the whole book of Acts with this idea in mind, but a quick survey convinces me that the entire book revolves around the theme of listening. Good listeners hear God's good news and they repent and receive Jesus as their Savior. Bad listeners block their ears and refuse to hear God's Word, and they do foolish and evil things that leads to judgment. When Stephen gave his testimony Acts 7:57 says, "At this they covered their ears." Then they rushed upon him and stoned him to death. Story after story in Acts reveals people listen and are saved, or they don't listen and are lost. Heaven and hell lie in the art of listening. We see it again in Acts 22, and the first point we want to look at is,
I. THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING.
If we are going to take it seriously that listening is one of the keys to a better life and a happy New Year, then we need to establish just how important it is. This chapter would not even exist if Paul had not worked hard at getting the mobs attention so he could speak. He says, "Brothers and fathers listen to my defense." Paul is a man who has a hunger to be heard, and such a hunger cannot be satisfied without somebody who is willing to listen. One of the great hungers of the human soul is this hunger for a listener.
Seneca the ancient said, "Listen to me for a day-an hour-a moment. Lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence, O God, is there no one to listen." This is a common theme of the Old Testament as men of God cry out to God, "Give ear to my words O Lord, incline thy ear unto my cry." When men had nowhere else to turn they begged God to be a listener. Everybody needs a listener. But as important as this need is, there are not many people who give it a place of primary importance. John Godfrey, the lonely old man in Tayler Caldwell's The Listener says, "Nobody has time to listen to anyone, not even those who love you and would die for you. Your parents, your children, your friends. They have no time!" Time, of course, is what it takes to be a good listener, but listening is so low on our list of priorities that we seldom take the time to listen.
We live in a world where masses are starving, and not just for food, but for attention. Their deepest longing is for a listener. Jamie Buckingham, and outstanding author and pastor, once suspected that nobody was listening as he gave announcements. He tested the people by saying, "The baptism service for tonight is canceled because there is an alligator in the tank." Only one 8 year old came up after the service and offered to help catch it. Nobody else in his large church even batted an eye. A man went to a psychiatrist and said, "Doctor, I don't know what's wrong with me. Nobody will listen to me. My employees won't listen to me, my children won't listen to me, my wife won't listen to me. Why is it that nobody will listen to me?" The psychiatrist responded, "Next!"
This is a joke, of course, but its no joke when it is a reality.
This comes from an actual court case. The defendant said, "Judge, I want you to appoint me another lawyer." The judge asked, "And why is that?" "Because the public defender isn't interested in my case." The Judge looked to the public defender and asked, "Do you have any comments on defendants motion?" The public defender responded, "I'm sorry your honor, I wasn't listening." An un-measurable amount of the conflicts, confusion, sorrow and suffering of the world can be traced to the fact that someone was not listening.
These devout Jews of our text found Paul in the temple. They were there to pray to God, and now through Paul God was answering their prayer by giving them the greatest news ever preached to man, but they were not listening. Someone very briefly summed up much of the history of the relation by God and man by two big questions. Man says, "God, I have prayed and prayed and prayed. Why don't you answer? And God says, "Man, I have answered and answered and answered. Why don't you listen?"
The rest of Paul's life and the history of Israel could have been so different had God's people only listened. A watch was lost in a bin of sawdust, and after the others looked for it and gave up a small boy tried his luck. When they came back he had the watch and they asked him how he could have ever found it? He said, "I just sat down and listened." I know this would not work on modern watches that don't tick. But it is a principle that will always work when it comes to hearing the Word of God. Listening is the key to hearing what God has to say. By not listening people lose life's best messages. When Peter preached at Pentecost 3 thousand Jews were saved because they listened. Paul preached here and no one responded because they refused to listen.
Listening to God's Word brings us into the kingdom, and it is by listening to it that we grow and become sanctified. That is why Jesus says to the churches in Revelation over and over, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit has to say to the churches." To doubt the importance of listening is to reject the overwhelming testimony of both the Old and New Testaments. Don't take listening lightly, but make it a point to become a better listener, for it can make a world of difference in your life. It did for Paul. He was converted by what he heard. He says in verse 7, "I fell to the ground and a voice say to me, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Those with him did not hear the voice. They heard some sound but not the message. Paul heard and responded by saying, "What shall I do Lord?"
Paul was on a new wave link from that time on. He was marching to a different drummer because of what he heard. We don't have time to look at some of the minor characters in this chapter, but we just want to point out that they made a big different because they listened. Ananias listened to God and invited Paul into the Christian world. The soldier listened to Paul and saved he and his commander from great penalty by not flogging Paul as a Roman citizen. A careless listener could have gotten them both executed. Listening wisely is the key to why every hero in this chapter was a hero. Poor listening is the key to why every angry member of the mob was a loser. Listening does not sound like much of a topic, but it is a major league subject. Good listeners make a major impact on the world.
Dr. Harry Levinson of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas said that listening is one of the least understood and practiced principles of human emotions. He wrote, "It is the key to helping a person who is constantly distressed." If there were more good listening in the world, there would less stress, divorce, suicide, and less need for medicine and therapy. In other words, one of the major problems of our world is lack of listeners. A Christian woman in analysis was asked why she didn't just talk to some of her church friends. She answered, "Well, that would probably be all I'd need if one of them would really listen to me. But do you have any idea how quickly my church friends tune me out and begin talking about themselves? It's embarrassing to have to pay for it, but to have someone give me 50 minutes of undivided attention does me a world of good."
Ruth Bell Graham expressed in poetry how God can be our Listener.
Lord, when my soul is weary
And my heart is tired and sore,
And I have that failing feeling
That I can't take it any more;
Then let me know the freshening
Found in simple, childlike prayer,
When the kneeling soul knows surely
That a listening Lord is there.
The church needs gifted listeners, however, because of the importance of listening to the well being of the body of Christ. We need to be heard by another human being even when we know God had heard us. Next we see,
II. THE IMPEDIMENTS TO LISTENING.
If it is so important to be a good listener, why are we not all into it? What are the obstacles to being a good listener? The mob in our text illustrates a good number of the impediments to listening. The first is that the mouth will not shut. People who are forever talking are very poor listeners. Back in chapter 21 this crowd of Jews was shouting and making such an uproar that the Roman commander could not get any meaningful communication going. Now in chapter 22 verse 22 the crowd again broke loose with such racket that Paul's message was cut off in the middle. They refused to listen, and they choose to use their mouth rather than their ears. This is a major impediment to good listening.
James 1:19 says that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak. This crowd was in reverse, it was quick to speak and slow to listen. The mouth is one of the major problems in being a good listener. God did not make the ears to close, but He did make the mouth to do so, and this implies that there is a time to speak and a time to be quiet. It is always time, however, to listen. Wilson Mizner, an American Industrialist said, "A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something." President Johnson had a plaque in his office that said, "You ain't learning nothing when you're talking." That may not always be the case, but it usually is. Learning comes primarily by listening, and if we are always talking we are not likely to be learning very much. Eisenhower was considered one of our most successful generals because he learned the art of listening to his subordinates.
The crowd of Jews at Pentecost held their tongues and listened to Peter to the end. The result was that 3 thousand of them were saved. This crowd was so busy shouting and abusing the speaker that they did not let him finish his message. The result was that they remained in darkness. You can't have your ears and mouth open at the same time and be a good listener. God put our ears right out in the open, but He put our tongue in a cave behind pearly bars, and perhaps the point of our architecture is that we ought to listen twice as much as we talk, for talking is an impediment to listening.
This mob did stop their screaming long enough for Paul to share his brief testimony, but as soon as he mentioned the word Gentiles their ears turned off and their tongues took over again. We see that the second great impediment to good listening was their prejudice. You cannot listen to a message when you have already rejected the message before it is delivered. The word Gentile was a red flag word to these Jews. As soon as it popped up their anger took over and they wanted Paul dead. They ceased to listen to Paul and began to listen to their prejudice. Anger is another impediment to listening. People who are angry are not people you can enjoy communicating with because they are not listening. It is folly to argue with an angry person, for reason is worthless in a context of non-listening.
Prejudice is not subject to reasoning, for it is not based on reason but feeling, and you cannot throw facts at feelings and expect a change, for the feelings will not listen. People who are prejudiced already have their minds made up. They have programmed themselves not to listen to any evidence that threatens their prejudice. This anti-listening strategy is very effective in the prevention of change and growth. It allows prejudiced people to be in a world flooded with evidence contrary to their views with a sense of tranquilly because they have the capacity to never listen to any of it. This is why you can have clear cut communication in speech that does not lead to clear cut communication. It is because there is no effective listening.
When Paul said Gentiles he was saying God's plan, purpose, fulfillment, and universality, but when the Jews heard Gentiles they heard betrayal, contamination and blasphemy. Talking is only half of communication.
Without the other half of listening, you do not have communication. I like this way of saying it that has been around for many years. "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." This impediment of pre-judging what is meant cursed these Jews. They missed God's best. This impediment has caused all kinds of problems in the world.
On October 30, 1938 at 8:00 P. M. CBS broadcast the famous radio program "The War Of The Worlds" with Orson Welles. There was a clear statement before and after that one-hour program that it was all fiction. Local stations reminded people during the breaks that it was all fiction. But the American people were so poorly trained in listening that their prejudice took over. They heard what they thought was being said and not what was actually being said. The result was panic for many. A study by Princeton revealed that people who did listen just relaxed and enjoyed the program without stress. One out of 6 of those listening were not listening to the message but to their own inner fears. People missed so much of what God sends their way by means of His works and His word. They, like these Jews, are pre-conditioned to hear only what they want to hear, and they block out all that God wants them to hear.
Charles Kellogg the noted naturalist was walking on Sixth Ave. in New York City amid the throng and the babble of noise and honking. Suddenly he stopped and said, "Listen! Do you hear that?" His friend asked, "Hear what?" "That cricket," he responded. His friend laughed and said, "How could anyone hear the song of a cricket in all this bedlam?" "Come with me," Kellogg said, and he led him down a basement stairway, and there in the wall was the cricket singing his song. "How do you do it?" his friend asked. He said, "Come back up to the street." He took a dime out of his pocket and tossed it onto the sidewalk. Scores of people in the crowd stopped in their tracks and looked toward the dime. "You see," explained Kellogg, people have their tuned to dimes and dollars. I have mind tuned to the sounds of nature." The point is, you hear what you are listening for. If you don't want to hear the truth of God, that very attitude will be an adequate impediment to prevent your hearing.
The Word of God is everywhere being sounded forth in our culture, but do not be deceived, for sound is not communication without listening, and there are so many impediments to listening that the crowds today are just like those in Paul's day. They do not hear, and so they remain lost. That is the tragedy of the impediments to listening. The third thing we want to see is-
III. THE IMPROVEMENT IN LISTENING.
If you add the first point on the importance of listening to your life, and subtract the second point of the impediments of listening, you will equal point three and see an improvement in your listening ability. Paul did this very thing. He had all the same impediments, as did this mob of Jews. He was not listening to God or His Word. But once Christ got his attention on the road to Damascus we see him make rapid progress in his listening.
When Ananias came and said to him, "Brother Saul, receive your sight, "He was instantly able to see. He was all ears to any word from God, and Ananias told him he was chosen to hear words from the mouth of God. When he returned to Jerusalem, and was in the temple praying, he heard God again. Paul was becoming a sensitive listener, and that is why God could use him so effectively. The Lord loves a listener, for they are the key channels of His Word in the world.
What Paul soon learned was that his success in doing God's will depended upon people who had improved the art of listening in their lives. If you read the rest of Acts, you will see that good listeners were the key to Paul's survival and ministry. In chapter 23 Paul's sister's son over heard a plot to kill Paul. He told Paul and Paul sent him to the Roman commander. He listened to the boy and the whole plot was changed, and because this Gentile listened Paul's life was spared. Later a couple of Gentiles did not listen to Paul, and because of it a whole shipload of men almost died. Paul did find that most Gentiles listened to him, and the result was that he was protected and greatly blest. God was using listening men to help his special listener accomplish His purpose in history. Paul spent the rest of his life listening the needs of the church and urging them to listen to God's solutions to their problems.
William Barker in his book A Savior For All Seasons tells of how Seiji Ozawa, the conductor of the Boston Symphony, was rehearsing one Saturday morning. His friend sat in the auditorium enjoying the music, but he was puzzled when a man got up from the audience and walked up to the platform and whispered to Ozawa. This happened three times, and each time Ozawa would let this man interrupt him. He wondered why he would permit this man to break into his conducting like that. Later he learned who the man was. He was the composer of the piece. Ozawa was listening to the creator of the music so that he could perform it like it was created to sound. Only by listening could he lead his orchestra to make it sound like the composer intended. That is what made him a great conductor, and that is what made Paul a great Apostle and servant of Christ. Paul gladly let God interrupt him at any point to lead him in a new direction. If Paul did more for God than most, it was because Paul became a master in the art of listening.
We can all improve our listening by listening to what would improve us. This means we must be open to the voice of God and be listening to His Word. The point of Sunday School and church is to give people and opportunity to listen to God. These are key times to listen and hear what God may have to say to you. But real listening is just not hearing words, but it is interpreting the words and asking how they apply to you, and how you can respond to them. "Lord, what will you have me to do," was Paul's first response to the voice of Christ. That is real listening. And that is the improvement in listening we all need to work at.
A businessman once said, "I go to church regularly, but I cannot keep my thoughts on worship or the sermon. A thousand things I must do the next day rush into my mind like commandos landing on a beach, and I find myself planning and scheming rather than listening." His preoccupation became an impediment to his listening, and the only way he will ever improve his listening habits will be for him to grasp the importance of listening. Only when we see how vital it is to what God wants us to be will we be committed to learning to listen. May the essence of this prayer be yours often:
That I may do my part;
That I may never miss
Thy voice that comes to chide
To comfort or to guide
Lord, give me only this
A listening heart.