Text: Proverbs 19:20
Series: “Seven ‘Ups’ for the New Year”
Evagrius Ponticus was one of the most influential Christian theologians of the late fourth century, writing around the time of other great thinkers like Augustine, Eusebius, and Basil. The reason that his name is not as familiar among some students of church history as the others I mentioned is because Evagrius chose to pursue his faith and write down his beliefs as a desert monk in Northern Egypt, not in one of the intellectual centers in Alexandria or Constantinople or Jerusalem or Rome. As the story goes, when Evagrius was making transition from societal life to monastic life, he consulted a spiritual elder for advice on how best to make such a transition. And the elder answered with this word of wisdom: “If you wish to save your soul, do not speak unless you are asked a question.”
We all know from personal experience how our mouths can so easily land us in hot water, especially when we speak before we think things through. But what the elder whom Evagrius sought out was inviting him to see is how it’s impossible to have anything to say until one has first spent time in silence allowing both the ears and the heart to process what the mouth by itself can never understand. “If you wish to save your soul, do not speak unless you are asked a question.”
I sense the same counsel coming from the writer of Proverbs in the passage that’s before us this morning. Proverbs, as you know, is a book of wisdom saying, traditionally attributed to Solomon, considered one of Israel’s wisest kings, and the objective of these proverbs is not just to make us smarter; it’s to make us more faithful. It’s to make us more righteous. It’s to give us the counsel we need in order to save our souls.
Someone has said that a proverb is a short sentence that is based on long experience. I like that definition. It’s not just information being imparted in the Proverbs. It’s wisdom. And there’s a huge difference. The good Lord knows we don’t need any more information today; we’re drowning in information. And information comes at us fast and loud and too often in greater amounts than we can process. But wisdom? Wisdom is slower and deeper and much more lasting, which is why we are in something of a “wisdom famine” today. People want more information to be able to get ahead of the game, but it is only wisdom that will save our souls.
So, consider this verse from the 19th chapter of Proverbs: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” At the end you will have found your soul’s salvation.
Needless to say, the word that jumps out at me in this proverb is the word “listen.” The Hebrew word means more than merely hearing something, which is all taking in information involves. It means to attend to what we take in, to process it, and then to heed it so that it sets us on a course that makes us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually formed.
I don’t know that any of us is a “born” listener. I say that because of how so many times when we’re in a conversation with someone, instead of “locking in” on what the other person is telling us, we’re already thinking about what we’re going to say in return. And God forbid if there is ever a period of silence between us and another person because that’s just too uncomfortable. And so, when silence comes we try to fill it with some comment or remark or observation as quickly as we can.
We are not “born” listeners, and so in order to gain wisdom there is a real sense in which we must become “reborn” listeners. What does that mean?
The Bible speaks of Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith, as the one after whom we are called to model our devotion. And one thing we can say about Jesus. Jesus was a listener. I think about the time when Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well and truly listened to her sordid story, a response the woman had clearly not received from any other person in her life. I think about the time when Jesus came across blind Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho and asked him a most searing question: “What do you want me to do for you?” It was probably the first time anyone had ever paid any real attention to this blind beggar. I think about that time when the religious leaders dragged a woman before him who had been caught in the very act of adultery and demanded that Jesus condemn her to be stoned. You remember that story. What was the first thing Jesus did? He did nothing. He bent down and began drawing with a stick in the sand and kept silent. Only then did Jesus offer one of the powerful words of wisdom ever uttered: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” And after the religious leaders left in shame, what then did Jesus do? He listened to the woman. “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” And when the woman answered that no one had, Jesus showed her mercy and sent her on her way, wiser and stronger in soul. “Then neither do I condemn you; go your way and sin no more.”
And most importantly, Jesus listened to God. You’ll remember in the Gospel of Mark when after beginning his ministry with a flurry of healing miracles, his disciples, sensing the momentum rolling in their favor, somehow had lost track of Jesus and couldn’t find him. When they finally located him, they found him in a solitary place, a desert place. “Everyone’s looking for you,” they said to Jesus. But Jesus had understood the importance of going to such a place so that he might better listen to God (Mk. 1:35-37). And how, in the Gospel of John, did Jesus explain his wise counsel to the Jewish religious leaders who had demanded to know where such an unlearned, untrained Galilean rabbi had gotten his religious information, “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So, whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (Jn. 12:49-50).
I think you see the pattern that each of us needs to follow. Sometimes we cannot hear God because we will not stop to listen, which when you think about it might be one of the good things to have come out of this season of COVID where so many of our “normal routines” have been disrupted and we’ve been given a chance to ruminate, to reflect, and to listen to what God may have had for us to hear so that we might make progress in, as the writer of Proverbs says, “being counted among the wise,” among those who each day are being formed into the very image of Christ, who as the book of Colossians tells us, is the one in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Col. 2:3).
Richard A. Kauffman is a book review editor for the Christian Century magazine and a retired Mennonite minister. If you don’t know anything much about Mennonites, they are a peace-loving people who value the importance of prolonged periods of spiritual reflection, which means that they place a high priority on listening to God in the midst of their everyday activity. In an article Kauffman wrote for another publication, titled “Signs of the Church,” he lists about thirty short proverbs he believes captures a faith community that best bears witness to Jesus in a day when too many Christians tend to wear their religion on their sleeve. One of the “signs” got my attention as a preacher. It goes: “Talk only if you can improve the silence” (“Signs of the Church, Christianity Today, January 2007, p. 56).
In other words, if silence is for us the default instead of the exception, then perhaps we might see more clearly the way to gaining what we need to know in order to live life in all its abundance.
So, I invite you to join me in “clamming up,” which will for me as a preacher require a work of grace that might make me a reborn listener. For only then will we be able to improve the silence because of we have listened to God’s advice, accepted His divine discipline, and be transformed as a result so that at the end of our days we might truly save our souls and for all eternity be counted among the wise.