Three hundred years before Christ was born, the philosopher Zeno of Citium said, “The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk the less.” James had the same idea when he wrote: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath” (James 1:19).
Many people don’t realize the importance of listening, as far as the Christian life is concerned. Often our Lord cried out, “Who has ears, let him hear!” The parable of the sower makes it clear that fruitfulness of life depends on faithfulness of listening.
I have concluded that we really don’t know how to listen. There is something wrong with our whole approach to Bible lessons and Sunday sermons. For that reason, I want to make several suggestions – to myself as well as to you – that might help all of us get more out of the lesson or the sermon the next time we encounter the Word of God.
What would you think of a pastor or Sunday school teacher who came to church unprepared to preach or teach? Or perhaps the material was prepared, but the person was unprepared – weary, unenthusiastic, indifferent? You would probably conclude that the teacher or preacher was not taking spiritual responsibilities very seriously.
But how many times have you and I gone to God’s house unprepared to hear His Word? We got little or nothing out of the message and returned home in worse spiritual condition than when we left – and we probably blamed it all on the pastor!
To begin with, we ought to prepare ourselves physically. The workers on the night shift may have to come to church weary, but there is no reason why most of us can’t plan to arrive rested and at our best. A part of worship is presenting our bodies to God (see Rom. 12:1), and we should not give Him that which is incapable of sincere worship. The Christian who goes to bed too late on Saturday night is going to rob himself and God on Sunday morning.
A weary body is usually the sign of a foggy mind. We must prepare our minds if we are going to listen to God’s Word with any degree of understanding and enjoyment. I find that watching the news, reading the paper, or engaging in trifling conversation before worship all have a way of robbing my mind of the spiritual sensitivity I need to listen to God’s Word. The believer who spends time each morning in the Word and prayer is the one who is best prepared to worship. The soil of the soul must be readied for the seed of the Word. James had this in mind when he wrote, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).
We must pull out the weeds before we can receive the seeds. If you have children in your home, then you must prepare the whole family. Nothing destroys our ability to enjoy the Word like arriving at church in the midst of a family feud! Junior couldn’t find his shoes. Sister misplaced her Bible. Anybody who has raised children can add to this account ad infinitum.
When we parents are careless about our preparations for the Lord’s Day, we are telling our children in a subtle way that going to Sunday school and church and hearing God’s Word is not really important to us. Father usually makes better preparations for his fishing trips than he does for Sunday services!
Take extra time on Saturday to get things together. Teach your children the importance of preparing to go to the house of God. Our attitude must not be that of an army preparing for battle, but of a group of God’s people going to God’s house to enjoy his Word.
Preparation is essential to good listening. Yes, it demands discipline, including saying no to many Saturday-night invitations; but I think the results are well worth the sacrifice.
It requires concentration to listen and to learn. We must exercise our will and capture our thoughts and keep them under control. Human nature being what it is, we must expect to confront distractions and detours; but we must also yield our minds to the Lord and fight every effort of the Enemy to confuse us.
You would think that the saints would encourage each other in this matter of concentration, but such is not always the case. Quite frankly, some of the biggest distractions in a worship service come from the saints-and not just the teenagers as they giggle and pass notes, because the adults can be equally as distracting. Yet no matter what our situation, you and I must make every effort to focus our attention on the Word of God.
I find it helpful before the preaching begins to read the Scripture passage under consideration. I don’t try to second-guess the pastor and anticipate his outline. Instead, I allow God’s Word to speak to my own heart as I read and meditate. As the pastor speaks, I keep the Word before me and notice what it says. I pray for him that the Spirit will direct his words.
Concentration must be active, not passive. It is work! But it is blessed work as we share in the excitement of hearing the Word of God.
“But our preacher is boring!” somebody argues. “It’s hard to concentrate when the preacher isn’t saying anything.”
Sad to say, some preachers are difficult to listen to – either because they are poorly prepared or simply don’t know how to present the Word of God in an interesting manner. Some men preach only because they have to say something, not because they really have something to say; and that kind of preaching can be boring.
However, don’t be too critical of the preacher – and don’t compare him Sunday by Sunday with your favorite media minister! If your pastor is a dedicated man of God with a burden to share God’s truth, then concentrate on what he says, and God will give you what you need. Outlook helps to determine outcome. If your outlook is positive, not negative, then you will discover a blessing even in a message you may think is boring.
Often when I preach, I ask God to say far more to the people than I say. God’s message is not limited by the preacher’s outline. Many times the Lord has illuminated His Word for me in ways that the preacher in the pulpit never expected. As I have listened to the Word, the Spirit has “put together” truths He taught me the previous week; and the result has been a better understanding of God’s will for my life.
After all, real preaching is an act of worship, and listening to preaching ought to be an act of worship. We are not critics at a debate, spectators at an entertainment event, or passive pupils hearing a religious lecture. We are the people of God gathered to worship. We are not listening to “get an outline” or “discover a new truth.” We are there to worship God, to see Him “high and lifted up.” Preaching that obscures God is not biblical preaching, and listening that fails to bring us face to face with God is not true listening in the Spirit.
Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we must depend on Him to teach us new truths and remind us of truths we may have forgotten. When a congregation is “in the Spirit,” the Word comes forth with power and penetration. We experience what the little girl in London meant when she said to her mother, “Mother, is Mr. Spurgeon speaking to me?” The Word becomes personal.
Too often we focus on the earthen vessel instead of looking at the treasure. Don’t permit either the inexperience or the incompetence of the preacher to rob you of the message God has for you. Ask God to say to your own heart far more than the preacher says with his lips, and He will bless you.
The blessing doesn’t come because we hear the Word; it comes because we do the Word. Anything else is pure deception.
Good feelings are not a substitute for obedience. “Wasn’t that a great sermon!” says a worshiper. “I felt the Lord so near to me as he preached!” Fine, but the big test is not how I feel after church but how I act.
A parishioner said to her pastor, “You had a good sermon today until you got to all those therefores!” But the “therefores” are the reason why the sermon exists in the first place. God’s Word is a light to guide us, and we must follow. It is water to wash us, and we must bathe. It is a mirror to show us our blemishes, and we must be honest. It is medicine to heal our hurts, and we must apply it. We don’t just look at the Word or learn the Word; we must live by the Word (see Matt. 4:4).
Before we hear the Word, there must be preparation. As we hear the Word, there must be concentration and illumination. After we hear the Word, there must be application.
This is the only way to hear the Word of God and benefit from it.
“It was by the ear, by our first parents listening to the serpent, that we lost paradise.” said the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson, “and it is by the ear, by hearing of the Word, that we get to heaven. ‘Hear, and your soul shall live’ ” (Isa. 55:3).
After all, the fault may not lie with the preacher – it may lie with us, the listeners.
© 2005 Warren W. Wiersbe
© 1989 by The Good News Broadcasting Association, Inc. All rights reserved.
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).