Until I Listened

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Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
James 1:19-20

Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of people outside of my church. I was homeschooled, so the children’s and youth programs at my local church were my avenue for meeting people. Because of this, I’d heard of atheists and was familiar with the idea, but I didn’t know any, so I sadly viewed that people group with a bit of derision. I assumed I understood their worldview and could easily point out the holes in their logic. But I was actually quite afraid of them. I feared that if I dug too deep or listened too long I’d be swept away by their points. Because of this, I was slow to hear and quick to speak. I didn’t think through their positions; I simply echoed cliches against them. When I moved to college, however, I quickly realized how little I knew. It took meeting some atheists and befriending them to open my eyes to how ignorantly I’d approached their thought. Through many conversations and disagreements, I learned that my initial understanding of atheism was uninformed. I’d assumed simplistic arguments and believed stereotypes instead of engaging with real people with real arguments and real concerns. I thought I understood until I listened. While I haven’t been swayed by the arguments of atheists, I’ve gained a respect for their work and a love for them as people, people created in the image of God, people in need of a Savior.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
James 1:19-20

Growing up protestant in a predominately Catholic culture, I thought I understood Catholic thought. Many of my neighbors over the years were Catholic. We worked together and spent time together. However, we didn’t often discuss faith. I grew up with a naive understanding of Catholic theology. I assumed Catholics focused only on the secondary matters of the Christian faith, forgetting or missing the primary matters in the process. I assumed all Catholics were legalists, working for their salvation rather than resting in grace. I assumed they deified Mary and the saints and thus downplayed our need of Christ. I was quick to view them as examples of what not to do, quick to criticize a group I didn’t really know all that well. Again, I’d assumed simplistic arguments and believed stereotypes instead of engaging with real people with real arguments and real concerns. Then I had some conversations with some Catholic friends concerning faith and ministry, and I found I’d largely been mistaken. I saw genuine passion for Christ, genuine love for God and people, and genuine frustration over the same kinds of issues I saw within my own denomination. I thought I understood until I listened. While I may still disagree with them over some points, I disagree with actual people and positions instead of with straw men.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
James 1:19-20

I’m part of a denomination somewhat known for disagreements. Southern Baptists disagree with one another regarding styles of worship, methods of evangelism, approaches to preaching, interpretations of specific biblical texts, and more. We agree on primary points of theology and we unite on missions, but we leave room for peaceful disagreement and personal conviction in as many areas as we can. We prioritize cooperation. Still, disagreements can get heated. I remember many conversations among friends that were influenced more by anger than by love, more by attempts to win arguments than by attempts to seek truth. I hastily assumed that I comprehended different positions and that I could easily find the faults in alternative systems. However, as I studied more and talked with people from different camps, I began to rethink my earlier assessments. I saw merit in some of their arguments, and I reevaluated my own understanding of certain subjects. Through many conversations and disagreements, I learned that my initial understanding of each position was incomplete. Much of my thought was based on simplistic arguments and stereotypes instead of on actual conversations and humble interactions with alternative perspectives. I thought I understood until I listened. While I may still disagree with some interpretations of things, I can serve alongside brothers and sisters with whom I disagree because I’ve learned to focus on the primary issues rather than the secondary issues.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
James 1:19-20

In each of these cases, I began with arrogance and assumption instead of with humility and curiosity. I approached disagreement as I would approach a battle, planning to attack and defend rather than to engage and understand. I once saw these groups as a faceless entity. Now, however, when I hear one of those titles, I think of specific faces, particular people, individual souls.

I needed to learn how to learn, how to ask good questions and truly listen to answers. I needed to learn how to disagree well, how to discuss opposing or alternative views in order to understand rather than to prove myself. Doing so didn’t mean I abandoned my beliefs or my convictions. Conversation does not mean compromise, after all. But neither does it mean defeating an opponent. If I only approach others with the hope of winning a debate, I’m not sure I’m really loving my neighbor. Let us then be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Let us listen well and truly learn. Let us humbly disagree and peacefully discuss difficult subjects. And may we be better thinkers, better servants, and better ministers because of it.


Photo by Nitin Garg on Unsplash

Thanks to Jamie and Maci for reading over this post and offering feedback on it.

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