My classroom was the streets on the rougher side of town.
A few weeks ago I woke up early and went with some friends to a rougher side of my city, picking up trash and chatting with anyone who wanted to talk.
It seems insignificant to be the nameless group of random college students picking up smashed water bottles, cigarette packages, empty vodka bottles and wet cardboard. But as I walked 29th street and the surrounding area, I thought about what I was saying through my actions on that chilly, overcast day.
If I had driven through the neighborhood the day before and looked out my window, I would have been a little disgusted, afraid and unmoved. But as I leaned over to pick up a piece of wet cardboard and put it in my trash bag, I knew for certain that my outlook and my heart were changing from disdain to love.
What I didn't realize was that what I learned on the streets that day was a lesson that would start changing my life. A lesson that taught me that biblical communication is more than just spoken words — and it all starts in my heart.
The Heart's Treasure
"The way you communicate will reflect what you treasure in your heart," says Jeffery Forrey, professor and Chair of Biblical Counseling at Trinity Theological Seminary. If I treasure myself or the things I own, the words that come out of my mouth and the behavior that is acted out will say a lot about what's going on in my heart.
And that reminds me of this guy I know named Chad.
He's a great guy — in small doses.
I've had quite a few classes with him in college, and been in groups where he's present. And I always realize his presence pretty quickly, because Chad likes to make himself known. He always says a lot. At least as far as words go. He certainly seems to know his stuff, but he never stops talking long enough for anyone to have their say or consider what others are saying around him.
Chad lives in his own world where he is the lone spokesman.
What bothers me most about Chad is not how irritating I find him to be. What bothers me is that I see my heart — and it looks just like Chad's. It is difficult to set a good example of Christ to others in my speech. It's never easy to be very humble and gentle with others. It's not normal to be patient and "bear with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2). Those things just don't come naturally to me.
Proverbs 18:2 says that "A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions." That's Chad. And that's me. I find myself too often being that fool. The fool who's not listening to understand others, but is listening to hear himself speak. The fool whose heart issues are obvious to everyone but himself.
Here's the thing: I don't want to be that fool. At all costs I want to avoid behaviors which Proverbs 18:13 calls "shameful." I must stop and reexamine the treasure of my heart. If Christ is the treasure of my heart, I can't be acting like Chad. I have to allow Christ to guide my verbal communication and my behavior as well.
This struggle to make much of God and to glorify Christ is not only difficult in the words I speak; it's difficult in every facet of communication.
Part of communication is listening — and it can often times be the hardest part, because my sin causes me to desire to hear myself speak. I have to flee this fleshly desire and striving to cultivate humility by becoming attentive listeners." Becoming a biblical listener is the beginning of being an excellent communicator.
"To be an attentive listener," says Jeffery Forrey, "you must be humble. Do not demand or expect to be on center stage; do not call attention to yourself. Put the interests of others ahead of your own. Embrace Paul's counsel to the Philippians: 'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself" (2:3).
That's just not possible to do when your heart is so full of selfish ambition, vain conceit, and deceitfully wicked. Thankfully, Jeffery Forrey has provided us with some excellent ways to become an attentive listener in his article "Christian Communication."
- To be an attentive listener, you must be patient. Take note of those situations in which you are likely to be impatient. For example you might get impatient while listening because you are trying to accomplish too much at one time. To reduce that temptation when someone is speaking to you, remove yourself from enticing distractions.
- Do not attempt to do another task that requires concentration if you have indicated a willingness to listen to someone. In other words, if you say you are going to listen, do whatever it takes to listen. If you can't stop what you are doing, say so, but suggest a time to talk after you have finished your project so that you can give your undivided attention to the speaker.
- Probe for accurate and adequate knowledge of what the other person is trying to communicate. Guard against "spacing out" while someone else is speaking to you. In order to do this keep two questions in mind: (1) where is the speaker headed with his train of though? Follow the speaker's reasoning as closely as possible. Ask yourself (2) How does the speaker feel about what he is saying? What emotional impact is the topic of conversation having on the speaker. If there is a motivational component to what is being said, consider what ht person is trying to accomplish with his or her choice words. This ultimately communicates a concern for the speaker's interests.
- Ask yourself what kind of listener you are. Do you humbly put other people's concerns above your own in conversation? Do you patiently attend to people who want to speak to you? Do you seek accurate and adequate knowledge of what others want to convey? Or do you listen through ears of a fool?
Fleeing Petty Self-Occupation
Words are powerful. From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks, which leads me to constant evaluation of the words I'm speaking and how I'm listening.
I learned on that short trip to the rough side of Louisville that I could communicate clearly with no words. Through my simple actions, I was saying that I cared for that neighborhood. I care for those people. I cared enough to put on some gloves, grab a trash bag, and start picking up trash off the street.
The gospel demands I have a heart like this. I don't have to be picking up trash, but I should be ready and willing to do anything for others at any moment, anywhere. When it comes to communication, this can be as simple as listening and speaking with humility to my siblings, my parents, my friends, my grandparents, my teachers, my boss, my co-workers ... and remaining humble, even when someone cuts me off while I'm driving.
Because of what Christ has done on the cross, I realize that my efforts to attend to the needs of others first and foremost is not simply a nice thing to do — it is really essential to living a cross-centered life. And that's impossible with a heart full of pride and a desire to glorify myself.
"Into the darkness of petty self-occupation has shone 'the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God' (2 Corinthians 4:4)," says John Piper. "The Christian Gospel is about 'the glory of Christ,' not about me. And when it is — in some measure — about me, it is not about my being made much of by God, but about God mercifully enabling me to enjoy making much of him forever."
I'm ready to say to others through both my words and actions that I care for them even more than myself. The treasure of my heart is Christ, and I want this to be proclaimed in the overflow of my heart as I strive to make much of Him forever. I want to be a humble listener, and humble speaker, whose words and behavior declare what Christ has done for me.
It's remarkable how much of a difference picking up trash on the sidewalk can do to change the way you live. I think it might be time for another trip downtown.
Copyright 2009 Tim Sweetman. All rights reserved.