Blessed Are The Listeners

I recently told the story of The Wise Man and The Foolish Man (who build houses on rock and sand, respectively) in children’s worship, but forgot to add the line I wanted to include at the end:

In Jesus’s story, the wise person is the one who listens and follows, not the one who knows the most. Which means that even you (kids) can be wise, because anyone can listen to what Jesus says and follow it.

It isn’t a perfect fit, because “the one who listens and follows” is like the wise man who builds his house upon the rock, which he presumably does because he knows that rock makes for a firmer foundation than sand. The wise person has to know who to listen to, but once that’s in place, the wise person is the one who listens for and listens to the voice of God, and follows it.

Not the smartest person in the room. Not the one with the degree. Not the one who makes all kinds of pronouncements about what you should and shouldn’t do. Not the one with the “best” theology. A wise person can be and do and have those things, but those things aren’t necessarily a sign of wisdom. Nor are they sufficient as a proof of wisdom.

Listening and following are.

There is some of this in Proverbs, too. I’ve written before about how crabby Proverbs makes me (Spotten on Wisdom), but I appreciate this:

“But the wise, when rebuked, will love you all the more. Teach the wise, and they will be wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn more” (9:8-9, NLT).

The wise person is teachable.

Again, not the most knowledgeable, but the one who learns when faced with their unpleasant realities.

Proverbs 10:17 People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger.

I think of King David, a man with many unpleasant realities, but who God called a man after His own heart. When Nathan confronted him with his sin with Bathsheeba and Uriah, his response was simple, direct, and unescapable: “I have sinned against the Lord” (1 Samuel 12:13). Again, when he was fleeing the son who was trying to usurp the throne and a relative of Saul yelled curses at him, instead of agreeing to let his soldiers shut the man up, he says, “My own son is trying to kill me. Shouldn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it” (2 Samuel 16:11).

On the other side, I think of poor King Saul who, when he went about business as usual, was smacked down by Samuel:  “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to His Voice? Obedience is far better than sacrifice. Listening to Him is much better than offering the fat of rams” (15:22). Saul never really “got” that lesson, and lived out his kingship in paranoia and fear.

“If only you would listen to his voice today!
The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts…” (Ps. 95:7-8a)

Here again my theme for the year: softheartedness. We (you and me, both) cannot truly listen if our hearts are hardened to what God has to say. I daresay we cannot be wise if we are hardhearted.

Can we expand this listening as wisdom idea to encompass not just God, but God’s children — our families, friends, spouses, people we love, people who make us uncomfortable, people we disagree with, people who are different from us? I think we can. After all, it’s usually through our relationships that we are forced to confront our unpleasant realities. God doesn’t only communicate with us through the Word, but also through other people. How can we be teachable if we don’t have a listening attitude? How can we have soft hearts to God and hard hearts to God’s children?

What if we got better at listening than telling? At asking more questions instead of crafting tighter arguments?

Listening is intimate. We have to quiet our egos, our need to be right, our need for other people to acknowledge how right we are. Being teachable means that we know we need correction. We have to fight against our natural urge to defend ourselves. And then there’s the following. Being wise is not an intellectual state. We have to live out our softheartedness with other people and their unpleasant and glorious realities. These things are the heart of wisdom.

Moreover, these things are the fuel for the louder things we usually associate with wisdom: The demand for justice for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the debtor — all those who are considered “at risk” in or are ground down by our culture. The perceptive analysis of a state of affairs, whether in your own or someone else’s life, or in the life of the wider church, nation, or world. The call for us all to be more faithful and loving followers of Jesus.

Wisdom is complicated: listening and speaking, being teachable and teaching, all while softheartedly following God.

I’m writing this to, at the very least, remind myself to pursue the heart of wisdom and let anything I say, any argument I make, grow from its roots there.



Sputtin’ on Wisdom

Spotten is a great word from my youth. It’s a warning that the joking you’re doing about church/God/the Bible is teetering on the line between affectionate and offensive. The line, of course, is subjective, but I’ll try not to go too far. [finally got the correct spelling from my father: a Dutch word meaning blasphemy]

In late 2010, I started reading at Genesis 1:1 with the intention to read the Bible all the way through from beginning to end. I had no timetable. Which was good, because two and a half years later, I’m only at Proverbs 9. There were a few hiccups, a few months-long pauses, but with the kids back in school this week, it’s my chance to get back into routine. Sometimes, it’s a pleasure; it was this project that got me going on reimagining the story of David and Saul. And sometimes it’s a struggle to find “the personal application.”

Like yesterday. Proverbs 6 & 7 are all about keeping away from the immoral woman, on and on about the immoral woman. Sure, I turned this into a warning to keep away from ideas or people who will try to seduce me away from what I know to be right and good, but there was a nagging voice in my head, “As if the man would be pure as the driven snow if only the bad woman didn’t thrust herself right up in his face and offer herself to him.” Hmph.

And then today’s selection (Prov. 8-9) had wisdom as a woman standing at the crossroads and city gates yelling at people. I grew up in Toronto and lived in NYC for several years and this description made me think of homeless people I’d see on the street — dirty, smelly, hair matted, ranting. For someone whose fourth sentence is, “Let me give you common sense” (8:3), screaming at passersby doesn’t seem like the most common-sense way to get your point across.

So I’m not starting off in a terribly holy mental place. It didn’t get much better with, “Good advice and success belong to me. Insight and strength are mine. Because of me, kings reign, and rules make just laws. Rulers lead with my help, and nobles make righteous judgments” (8:14-16). This is fine when about wisdom generally, but put in the mouth of my mentally imbalanced woman ranting on the corner, not so much.

How about our crazy lady coming out with this? “Unending riches, honor, wealth and justice are mine to distribute. My gifts are better than the purest gold, my wages better than sterling silver!” (8:17-19). And then she gets all trippy: “I was born before the oceans were created, before the springs bubbled forth their waters….I was there when [God] established the heavens, when he drew the horizon on the oceans. I was there when he established the deep fountains of the earth….And when he marked off the earth’s foundations, I was the architect at his side” (8:27-31).

So I was constantly fighting with myself, smirking at my mental images and trying to rein them in so I could find the message in there.

And then came this, which smacked me between the eyes. “But the wise, when rebuked, will love you all the more. Teach the wise, and they will be wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn more” (9:8-9).

The typical image of the wise person, or the person with the gift of wisdom, is of someone with something to say that you need to listen to. The person may come across as haranguing (see above) or as gentle, but he or she always has a message to improve your life. This is utterly different. This is the wise person as the one who is teachable, the one who is open to correction.

Someone recently told me that I had the gift of wisdom, which really surprised me. I think of myself as having an analytic and occasionally perceptive mind. Now and then, there’s a flash of insight or connection and I do have something to say. But my faults are ever before me. The things say are not always well-thought-out and are sometimes hurtful in ways in didn’t intend. My desires and plans so far outstrip my actions that it’s embarrassing. I have so much to learn.

And that’s where the 9:9 passage gets me: I can pursue wisdom by being teachable. And Christianity being what it is, it won’t be information I’ll be seeking. It’ll be my way of life, my ability to follow through, my regular practice of opening myself up to what I read in the Bible and what I hear from God in all the ways He communicates with me.

So even when my snarkiness gets in the way of what I’m reading, God can still sneak in and teach me.