Becoming a Selective Listener—In the Best Sense

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Our so-called “information age”—when information has become the going commodity—involves voluminous data, assertions, thoughts, and opinions whizzing both from and toward us online. Within this environment, not only do false teachers exist—as in historical times—but they have now inherited the power to ask for attention through greater reach, even paying for more influence. 

Has ever a time existed when selectivity about whom we follow for spiritual guidance been a more vital skill? 

Unwise Listening

Regardless, this is not a new challenge. Even many years ago, Reformer John Calvin recognized a human propensity toward being unwise listeners. He noted

Men, of their own accord, choose to be deceived rather than to be properly instructed […] the world will have ears so refined, and so excessively desirous of novelty, that it will collect for itself various instructors, and will be incessantly carried away by new inventions.

Following Calvin and his wariness for theological ingenuity, to cultivate biblically-formed, selective listening skills can be considered a duty. In fact, being a passive listener does not appear to be a biblical category—and by “passive listening” here, I mean falsely believing that I am not choosing the messages I am influenced by because they come toward me online, outside my seeking. Instead, being swayed by fancy-sounding, yet sub-biblical teaching is, according to Calvin, a choice.

Selective Listening and Scripture

Psalm 1:1 shows a progression for falling away from the truth of Scripture: walkingwith wicked counsel, standing in the way of this counsel, and then openly sitting in congruence with evil. Again, Calvin writes that Psalm 1:1

…shows how by little and little men are ordinarily induced to turn aside from the right path. They do not, at the first step, advance so far as a proud contempt of God but having once begun to give ear to evil counsel, Satan leads them, step by step, farther astray, till they rush headlong into open transgression.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 reveals a similarly flawed pattern—listening to teachers who are not sound, taking action by turning from truth, and, finally, wandering off altogether. 

Both patterns begin with listening. 

When commenting on Psalm 19 and then on 2 Timothy 3:16, D. A. Carson laments that too often, our selective listening ironically applies to the Scriptures themselves:

Many people choose snippets and themes that soon constitute a grid for eliminating the rest [of Scripture]…Worst of all, Christians invest so little time and energy in learning what they claim to be the Word of God that it falls away by default.

The danger in contemporary evangelicalism is not formal rejection of Scripture, but an unrealistic assumption that we know the Bible while in fact we press “on” (in reality, slouch backwards) toward endless conferences on leadership, techniques, tools, gimmicks, agendas.

Becoming a Selective Listener by Knowing Scripture

Following from Carson’s thoughts, listening well to the full counsel of Scripture (Acts 20:27) grows wise listeners with the ability to select influences well. If you do not know where to begin, here are some thoughts I have collected while learning from others in my family, church, and Bible college/seminary on delving into further study of the fullness of Scripture:

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1. Check your assumptions.

Begin your study of Scripture with an assumption that God is perfect and that, therefore, his holy words are always and absolutely best. If you come across a verse or concept that seems “off” to you, assume that your understanding can grow, rather than conjecturing a problem with God’s word choices or character.

2. Be a learner.

Go straight to the passages that are most challenging for you, and be prayerfully willing to engage in a learning process that humbly gleans from the wisdom of those who have already spent their lives in study. Everything changes when we become Christians—we are reborn into new people, and are given spiritual sight and hunger for God’s Word. Becoming Christians does not automatically make us experts on Christ and his Word, but propels us toward learning. So building Scriptural knowledge and wisdom is simply part of walking with Christ. 

3. Look back to different times.

Do not be overwhelmed with the quick, current Christian publishing environment—thinking you need to keep pace. While having present-day books is important (especially for putting theology into today’s language and for responding to current theological challenges that were not historically encountered head-on), not to mention enjoyable, becoming separated from the theological problems of one’s own generation often best comes through historical works. Read classic, doctrinal resources—primary sources. Some ideas of authors are: Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, or Carl F. H. Henry. 

4. Find a scholarly mentor.

If possible, search for a scholarly mentor who loves the gospel and is versed in the historic tradition of the Christian faith. Pursue this so that (1) you can ask questions about difficult areas of interpretation and viewpoints that differ from yours, and (2) you can be introduced to areas of thought outside of your context of which you would not have known to inquire. 

But first, ask a potential mentor about his or her beliefs. Here are some ideas:

  • Does he or she convey the full gospel message including the unpopular aspects—like repentance, the reality of hell, God’s holiness and wrath, and the necessity of receiving it with the kind of grateful response that leads to growth in righteousness?

  • Can he or she affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy?

  • Is he or she committed to a literal, historical-grammatical hermeneutic?

  • Who are his or her theological influences, and similarly, what does this person believe about the gospel and Scripture?

  • Does he or she see the significance of describing differing viewpoints with accuracy?

If this kind of relationship is not available to you, “mentors” come in various forms; I have been shaped through pages of books, words of sermons, and lectures in the classroom or through recordings. Through these means, mentors can be numerous. For no scholar stands alone; faithful Christian scholars consider themselves part of a wider, conversing community—ideally seeking to challenge, correct, and steer each other collectively into the best possible exegesis. Much can be learned from listening in to these kinds of conversations through multiple sources.

Gladness in Growth

Transferring the plentiful information available to us into wisely-held knowledge almost invariably produces a keen awareness about how much one has yet to learn, and how little is already grasped. Do not take these thoughts as a reason for discouragement, but a cause for gladness that you have a concrete indication you are following those ahead of you. 

Keep following; I will too.


This post was originally published at Unlocking the Bible.

MainLianna Davis