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?