The Case for Being Closed
I was raised in a church tradition that almost discouraged openness. We were taught (by some very well-intentioned people, I should say) that we have to be careful what we allow ourselves to be open to. After all, evil (the devil) was around every corner. That’s Biblical, right?
1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)
8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
Isn’t this all we need to establish a policy of closing ourselves off to people who scare us, ideas that threaten us, and places that might soil us? I don’t think so at all. This passage was specifically addressed to “young men” in the church, and Peter is warning them to keep control of themselves. No doubt you can imagine many ways in which young men often struggle to maintain self-control. Peter is warning these young men not to be foolish. There are legitimate dangers and evils in the world. Young men tend to not realize this, and often approach the world in a foolhardy way.
Openness as a key aspect of spiritual maturity
But nowhere does Peter ever suggest that we not remain open, or that we refuse to listen to people who have ideas that we disagree with. In fact, openness is a key aspect of mature spirituality. The person who always half-listens to people, and then tunes them out as soon as they say something he/she does not agree with will never move on to maturity. Mature spirituality is always open. This does not mean that the genuinely mature person will agree with everything they are told. What it means is that they don’t rush to judgment. They feel no need to make an immediate pronouncement of things as black or white, right or wrong, complete or incomplete, beautiful or ugly, appealing or appalling.
Every appropriate No begins with a Yes
This hesitancy among the mature to rush to immediate decisions and judgments is not lack of backbone or indecisiveness. It is character. The wise person knows that there is good in all things and bad in all things. When we habitually rush to pronounce people and ideas bad or good, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, we are refusing to see the whole picture. In fact, it is probably not incorrect to say that the only appropriate “No’s” begin first with a “Yes.” That is, before we can say a valid “No” to something, we have to have really listened — been open to the person or idea in front of us — allowed them to truly speak their mind and be heard. How many times have you heard politicians debating one another and sensed it was a waste of time, because you know neither of them is open to being swayed by the other, but each is merely trying to prove his/her point? That is how we communicate with each other 95% of the time. Anytime someone is talking to you, you are not truly listening unless you are open enough to allow this person the possibility of changing your mind.
Carrying the Tension
Have you ever had the experience of trying to share something exciting with someone, but you were “shot down” before you even finished what you had to say? As soon as the listener felt uncomfortable with your idea, or disagreed with it, or felt it would be harmful to you or someone else, they felt compelled to cut you off and correct you. Don’t you hate that? Everyone does! Maturity means remaining open; carrying the tension we may feel while someone puts forward an opinion or idea we do not like; postponing judgment and comment until we have truly listened, truly been open, truly tried to see the world from that person’s perspective. When we are doing this, many times we will realize there’s simply no need to agree or disagree at all. Most of the time people aren’t seeking our agreement or disagreement — just our loving openness to them, which we give by listening in silence.
What is the most important quality of an effective doctor, teacher, or counselor? They must be a good listener, and to truly listen well requires openness. When people leave a counselor’s office feeling deeply heard and deeply safe, they feel deeply loved. Love is extending ourselves for the benefit of others. The best way to love is to listen, and the only way to listen is to develop a habit of remaining open.
CHALLENGE: This week, as people are talking to you, monitor yourself for feelings of discomfort or disagreement that might normally cause you not to remain open but to interrupt, jump to an opinion or judgment, or even roll your eyes dismissively. You can feel that welling up inside of you, and my challenge is to catch it before your eyes roll, or your head shakes, or your mouth opens. Be open. Let the person talk. Listen to their idea. Don’t sit and cultivate your list of objections. Practice withholding your opinion entirely unless someone specifically seeks it out. In this way you will cultivate genuine openness and people will come to see you as a great listener. When you are seen by people as a great listener, people will feel loved by you.