The Holy Act of Shutting Up
“Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak…” James 1:19
Ever been around someone who couldn’t stop talking? They are so enraptured with what they are saying that they can’t even find time to take a breath. After a while you stop hearing words and just hear the annoying hum of incessant talking. In some cases this talking is understandable, especially in cases of people who are very lonely and spend most of their time without anyone to hear them. However, in most cases incessant verbal vomiting isn’t quite as understandable, and it has some consequences.
Unfortunately, I have found this problem of endless talking to be common among pastors, especially young ones. As a relatively young pastor myself, I also have become deeply aware of my own struggle against it. Whenever I am not intentional about listening first I too spout off about all the things I want to say without any thought to whether the people I’m talking at are interested in them or not. It is an area where I have improved but still have so far to go. This issue is problematic for Christians, and maybe especially pastors, for a few reasons.
First, the personal root of endless talking without interaction in interpersonal settings betrays an underlying pride and vanity. It communicates that what I have to say is inherently more important than what the other person or people in the group have to say. In this approach a person situates themselves as the teacher and the others as learners. In reality, conversations are often best when we place ourselves in the posture of learner.
Second, one-way diatribes entrench poor patterns of interpersonal interaction. When a person is talked at for a long period of time in an interpersonal setting (not a lecture setting which is a monologue by nature) they will likely respond in one of two ways. The first is to withdraw from the conversation, sending signals of annoyance or indifference to the one speaking. This response doesn’t lead to deeper communication. The second is to interrupt in order to be heard. This leads to poor listening as you are primarily thinking of what you will say and looking for an opening where you can jump in.
Third, it is dehumanizing. When I speak at you and do not listen, I am using you as an instrument for my need to be heard rather than engaging you as a person and understanding your perspective. This monologuing method of conversation (which is not truly conversation) communicates that I don’t want a relationship with you, only an audience to hear me. This reduces the other to less than he or she is meant to be.
Fourth, and especially important for pastors, it keeps you from being able to truly care for people or lead them toward spiritual growth. I cannot really walk with someone in discipleship (whether for ten minutes or ten years) if I know nothing of them. I may be able to impart some insight, but I will do it without any reference to how it will impact them. True effectiveness comes with sensitivity to the Holy Spirit in the midst of listening to the other first and only speaking after that. Monologuing is not an act of care but of domination. That is especially problematic for pastors.
Shutting up can be a holy act. Listening before seeking to be heard. Expressing compassion and understanding before contributing or expecting something in return. The posture of listening allows us to engage our world, friends, family, and even enemies in a more Christlike way.