If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.–Proverbs 18:13
What if I told you that we are not entitled to critique something or someone until we have demonstrated understanding of what we are critiquing? If we took this little rule to heart, it would probably change the way we typically evaluate and talk about the world and people around us. How easy (and self-gratifying) it is to evaluate, criticize and pick apart people and ideas–to be quick to form and give our opinions on various issues–only to later look like a fool because we really do not know what we are talking about.
The Bible warns against developing such habits, however, and graciously helps us to steer clear of speaking of things about which we know very little. As the above verse indicates, it is actually foolish and shameful for one to “give an answer before he hears.” But what does this actually mean?
Well, if we give a little thought to this verse, the meaning becomes clear rather quickly. Think about your own experience. Recount times that you have opened your mouth to give your opinion on something, only to find out how wrong you actually were about the subject, and how much better it would have been to be “slow to speak and quick to hear” (James 1:19) so that you could have received more information. It has happened to me more times then I would like to admit. So, what are the practical implications of this warning to not answer before we hear?
1. We must give ourselves to actively listening to others. We know what it’s like when we are talking to someone and you can tell that they have not heard a word you are saying but are only waiting to pounce and give their thoughts on the subject. Or let me bring it closer to home. You know how easy it is to nod your head act like you are listening when in reality you are only planning what to say next. This is not only inconsiderate, it keeps us from true understanding and will actually increase our chances of giving foolish answers. For kindness and wisdom’s sake, we should give ourselves to actively listening to others–to focusing on what they are saying and seek to understand it–not merely using their time to talk as an opportunity to think of what we will say next.
2. We must learn to be patient and wait for all the facts. Take the situation with Joseph and Potipher’s wife. If all we had was the circumstantial evidence: Joseph’s garment was in Potipher’s wife’s hand, she had a credible story, and even some “witnesses,” we might be ready to condemn an innocent man (see Genesis 39:1-23). But our “answer” would have been dead wrong because we were not patient to “hear” all the facts. Had we have waited, we would have learned that Joseph actually reacted in a godly fashion in the situation.
3. We must desire understanding more than giving our opinion. Listen to this indicting verse: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). Wow! If the habit of our lives is to parade our opinions rather than seeking to truly understand what we are talking about, we are nothing more than fools. On the other hand, a humble, godly person does not merely throw out his or her opinion, rather, they only speak with true knowledge and understanding: “In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly” (Proverbs 13:16).
So, as you look out on the world around you and seek to discern various ideas and teachings, give yourself to listening, to patience, and to real understanding. Then you will be wise and your mouth will be a fountain of life, and you will avoid the folly and shame that inevitably comes along with being quick to speak and slow to hear.