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As the Covington Case and Others Proved, We Must Listen Before We Judge

As people of faith, it pays to be considerate and judicious

The most important tool I have at my disposal as a pastor is the Bible, which I accept as the inspired Word of God.

I have more than 30 copies of the Bible in my study, but there’s something unique about the primary Bible that I use for all of my preaching and pastoral counseling.

Open that Bible, and you’ll find a special Scripture that has been typed out and taped to the inside cover. To some people, it might seem odd for a pastor to take a single verse out of the Bible and display it on the very first page.

But that special verse is there for my own protection and benefit. Over twenty years of pastoral ministry, this one verse has not only steered me away from many foolish controversies, it has also spared me from the humiliation of putting my foot in my mouth as I minister to people.

The verse taped inside my Bible comes from King Solomon’s pen in Proverbs 18:13: “To answer before listening — that is folly and shame.” These are wise words, and their meaning is simple: Don’t give an answer or draw a conclusion before you’ve listened closely. Failure to do so could result in your embarrassment and shame!

Never before was the wisdom of this Scripture more evident than in the national controversy that erupted last week with the male students from Covington Catholic High School, and their showdown with a Native-American elder named Nathan Philipps.

Within a matter of hours, dozens of media outlets, news commentators, and outspoken Hollywood celebrities condemned the students’ behavior as cruel or racist. National outrage swept across television and Twitter.

Even the Catholic school’s head bishop chimed in, saying that the “behavior [of the students] is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.”

But after further review, of course, the video evidence proved that the students from Covington were not the real instigators. The students didn’t approach Mr. Philipps; he approached them.

Once the whole truth came out and the students were vindicated, numerous individuals and media outlets were forced to backtrack and issue public apologies. CNN’s S.E. Cupp and Hollywood actress Jamie Lee Curtis were among them. By last Thursday, even the bishop issued a formal apology to his students for rushing to judgment.

As I watched this controversy unfold, I couldn’t help but think of that verse taped to the inside of my Bible.

How quickly might this national controversy have died out — or better yet, not even begun — if the wisdom of God’s Word had been practiced?

Upon entering the room, only then did I learn my kids were playing together — and that what I actually heard were belly laughs and screams of delight. What an embarrassing mistake.

Isn’t it also true that many everyday people are sometimes guilty of rushing to judgment on other matters without having all the facts yet? How often have we reacted rashly without having the whole picture?

More than once as a dad, I’ve stormed angrily into our living room, ready to discipline my two youngest children because I thought they were fighting over a toy. But upon entering the room, only then did I learn they were playing together — and that what I actually heard were belly laughs and screams of delight. What an embarrassing mistake.

So how can we put Proverbs 18:13 into practice, avoiding the embarrassment and shame of rushing to judgment?

Start by embracing these six strategies:

1.) Listen actively. Listen, listen again, and listen some more. Then respond.

2.) Ask follow-up questions. Seek a deeper understanding of the person or situation.

3.) Don’t rush to judgment. Fight off the urge to reach an immediate conclusion.

4.) Don’t impugn people’s motives. Judge by what you can see, not by what you can’t.

5.) Give people the benefit of the doubt. Think the best of people until they prove otherwise.

6.) When in doubt, withhold your verdict. Keep investigating and get it right. Then speak.

We live in complicated times, where firestorms of controversy can be ignited by the smallest sparks.

Thankfully, God’s Word gives us the divine wisdom we need to extinguish many of these fires before they even start.

Pastor Ryan Day is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he has served for 20 years. He is also the featured Bible teacher on the “Preaching for a Change” weekly podcast.

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