Sometimes, an intellectual response not only misses the mark but also comes across as unloving. Tim Barnett explains why it’s important to work on being a better listener when answering people’s questions.
I know, for me, one of the things that has been kind of a struggle, and that I think I’ve grown a lot in over the last number of years, is being a better listener—trying to understand where a person is coming from.
I’m reminded of Colossians 4:5–6, where it says, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt.” And then it says, “So that you will know how you should respond to each person.” Not each question. Because we can go to the internet and find all the answers to the questions.
When we’re talking with people, we’re not talking to a question; we’re talking to a person who has all kinds of experiences, and all kinds of feelings and emotions, and all those things that need to be taken into account. So, when I’m talking with someone, say, about the problem of evil, I could launch into my four-part response that I would give in a talk or something like that. I know a lot of apologists who would do that because that’s what you were trained to do—that’s what you heard in a talk, and so that’s the information you want to present to someone. And you know what? There may be a time and place for that, but oftentimes, we need to stop and just, maybe, listen to where the person is coming from. Why are they asking that question?
I think I heard Sean McDowell say that when someone asks about the problem of evil, his first question is, “Well, how has evil impacted your life? How are you suffering?” Because if the person, say, has just been diagnosed with cancer or something, then obviously giving some kind of intellectual response is going to totally miss the mark, right? It could come across as unloving. “Wow. I talked to this Christian. They were so cold. They told me this Bible verse or whatever that just missed the mark. What I wanted was that Christian to sit with me and listen and maybe, you know, wrap their arms around me as I cry.” Or something like that.
So, know your audience and the lay of the land. That involves listening. I think we need to do better at apologetically listening. I give a sermon on Acts 17, and one of the things that stands out to me when Paul enters Athens is that he sees. He’s just looking around. He must be listening to what’s going on. What are they worshiping? And he’s able to see that, hey, these guys have all these gods, and there’s an unknown god. All that happens because he’s got his ear to the ground. He’s listening, and he’s able to respond accordingly. And so, I hope I keep growing in my own marriage, you know, personally, and then, of course, in my profession and apologetically just being a better listener.