The Gospel Discipline of Listening

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:1-2)

This proverbial couplet expresses a simple wisdom principle: surround yourself with wise people and listen to them. Most of us hear that and say, “Good nugget. Ok, I’m gonna try to listen to people today.”

But Proverbs is designed to do more than give us fortune cookie sayings that we strive hard to apply. Proverbs is still a part of the story. It is an extended, poetic, reflection on what it means to live within the context of God’s redemption. “How might we live in this world in light of who God is and what he has done?” So behind all these wisdom sayings there is a gospel-motivation behind them—a motivation based on the good news that God has worked redemption through Jesus.

What is the motivation for this gospel-discipline of listening? The gospel reveals that “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10-11). The gospel reveals that the depth and riches of unsearchable wisdom belong to God, not us (Rom. 11:33). The gospel reveals that our hearts are terribly sick—dead, in fact—and do not have the capacity to produce a sound, wise life (Mark 7:21-23; James 4:1). Simply put: we do not contain the resources within ourself to live the kind of life we ought. That’s reason enough to listen.

I’m not a good listener. Listening is hard for me not because I lack information about quality listening skills. I don’t listen to others because I want to self-justify and self-protect. I want to present myself as one who has all the answers and knows my situation perfectly. When I listen to someone, I submit myself to them. Listening means esteeming someone higher than myself. For me to listen, I admit to the speaker (and others) either that they are more important than I am or, in terms of hearing counsel, that I need them. The speaker becomes “big” and I, as listener, become “small.” Let’s be honest: I don’t like this. So I often resist surrounding myself with others who are willing and able to speak into my life and situation. My heart is deceitful. It tells me, “Seek your own desire! You have all the resources you need to succeed!” It’s deceptive and damning.

My heart is against me here, and so is yours. But that’s not all. So is our culture. It largely whispers (often shouts), “Do not to listen to others! Be yourself. Have it your way. Just do it.” More than marketing slogans though, the general wind of culture blows these words into our faces everyday: You are in charge of yourself and you don’t need other people. This, too, is deceptive and damning.

How do we know when we are slow to listen and “take pleasure in understanding”? When other people talk, we prepare our response in our mind rather than seek to understand in order to articulate a faithful paraphrase of someone’s words back to them. Here’s another way: we do what we want to do even if multiple people have counseled us otherwise. It doesn’t take long to see that this happens more than we’d like to admit.

Yet here’s the good news. The gospel does more than expose our sinfulness and foolishness and our lack of listening. It establishes us in Christ, who is true wisdom and the true speaker of God’s word. Being established in Christ also establishes us in a community of people who belong to Christ. Therefore, when the truth of the gospel takes root in our lives we move out of selfish isolation (i.e. not being a listener) and into community with the tri-unity God and his people. When the gospel takes root, we understand and come to terms with this reality: we don’t know everything, we don’t perfectly apply and obey God’s commands, and so we need help. A gospel-centered life necessarily means we seek to be a listening people.

This is not restrictive. You don’t become a doormat when you live this way. It’s actually freeing. How? The gospel frees us from the damning delusion that we have all the resources necessary to live life as we ought. It calls us to a discipline of listening to God’s Word and his Spirit, and listening to God’s people, of whom we are a part for our upbuilding and encouragement. In the gospel, Jesus calls us to listen to him: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15). In the gospel, we are called out of self-delusion, self-justification, and self-protection and into the safe-confines of a community of that speaks the truth in love so that we might become more like Jesus (Eph. 4:15 et al.).

As gospel people, we aren’t in isolation. We are united to a Trinitarian God and his people. By God’s grace, I don’t want to be a fool who isolates and seeks my own desires, but one who “grows small” as a humble listener. It’s the wisest, best, most freeing to live. Progress is slow, but I’m learning. I want this kind of life. How about you?


3 Points and a Cloud of Dust

I’m fairly new to this whole preaching thing. Don’t get me wrong, I have preached and taught for several years–I served with Campus Crusade and as a pastoral intern at our last church. But I have not preached on a regular basis week-in and week-out for several years in a row. Even now in my new role at Grace Chapel, I’m not our primary Sunday preacher. This week, I will have preached four times. That’s nothing. I’ve heard it takes about preaching about 100 times to really feel like you are in a groove. Yikes.

Since I’m preaching this Sunday, I spent time today thinking through how to organize my sermon. Now, when it comes to sermon organization, there’s no shortage of opinion. Whether you are a preacher who preachers or the faithful member who listens each week, you probably have a preference of how a message should be structured. On second thought, I should not say “everyone” has an opinion. After my first sermon, a man in our church, named Joe, said that his wife particularly enjoyed my message. He said, “She was so happy that you were well organized! She told me, ‘It was great! He had three points!’ She said she followed along easily. I said to her, ‘Three points? I didn’t notice no three points.’ But, you know, she’s an English teacher, and I coach wrestling.” Obviously, Joe does not have an opinion about sermon structure!

Yet, whether people realize it or not, the way a pastor structures his message is of utmost importance. Good structure may not always help a sermon (content may be bad, may lack passion, etc.), but it will never hurt a sermon. My structured helped Joe, even though he didn’t notice.

I’m still trying to find my own particularly way of structuring messages, and while no message should be structured the exact same way, I’m learning how to keep my messages simple, and, yes, tethered together by points. I realize that some passages, particularly narratives, may not lend themselves to this approach, but in general, I’m more convinced of “point preaching” as I learn to preach and as I talk to the people who actually listen to the sermons. Call it three–or two or four or twelve–points and a cloud of dust, if you want. It may sound boring and cliche, but when a sermon is road-mapped with points, people can track easily. And when people track easily, they are much more likely to be helped by what the preacher says.

WIth that in mind, here’s two personal reasons, as a preacher, why I lean toward using points and two things to keep in mind when preaching with points (you see what I did there?):

  • Why #1: Preaching with points helps me make sure I know what I’m going to say and then forces me to say it. Preaching with points focuses my attention more narrowly. I am less likely to go on tangents and just blabber if I have points that I want to make sure to communicate.
  • Why #2: Preaching with points can help draw out the heart in a passage. I am more likely to sound like a running commentary if I just “move through” the text verse-by-verse.
  • Keep in mind #1: Let the text determine your points’ substance and the number of your points. The Scripture text drives the way a sermon is structured. Do not force the text into your structure, or else you have undermined the whole point of faithfully preaching the word of God.
  • Keep in mind #2: If you use points, make sure to make them clear to your hearers. One of the reasons (not the main one!) people forget what they hear in sermons is due to the fact that they do not participate in any other activity like it in our culture. Don’t burden your audience. Be helpful by clearly telling and reminding them what you want them to hear.

This isn’t the only way to do it. You can certainly do all of these with narrative preaching–I just find it harder for myself (go ahead and call me a Westerner, I can take it).

What’s most helpful for you when it comes to structure as you preach or as you listen to sermons?


What is Preaching?

When you listen to a sermon at church, what do you hear? In his book Transforming Conversion, Gordon T. Smith has some very important words for all Christians to keep at the forefront of their minds:

Preaching is not about urging hearers to work harder, try harder, and do more so that they are more faithful. They cannot do so; the depth of the human predicament makes this impossible and thus futile and (rightly) results in much cynicism about the Christian life—better put, it is cynicism about a false conception of the Christian life. Rather, preaching is about drawing the people of God into the grand accomplishment of Christ in the cross and the resurrection so that they can participate in this life, rest in the wonder of the gospel, and know the transformation that comes through the ministry of the Spirit. Yet in this [the people of God] are not passive! Rather, they need to be involved in active response comparable to one who attends to the subtle yet sure movements of a lead dancer (93).

If you do not leave a sermon in awe of Christ’s grand accomplishment in the gospel and assured of the grace of God at work in you through the Spirit, but rather leave wondering how in the world you will do what the preacher just told you to do, then you did not hear a Christian sermon. You may have heard positive thinking, good advice, or straight-up law; but you did not hear gospel preaching. And lest anyone think that this produces an anti-obedience or anti-effort Christianity, remember Smith’s final words: true Christian sermons aim at active, faith-fueled response, just like a good lead dancer’s initiative.

Let’s respond by praying for our pastors to proclaim Christ, not just talk about Christ. And let us also pray that we respond to Christ’s gospel and the Spirit’s work in us with grace-driven and faith-fueled effort to the glory of God.