In a previous post, I made the point that in any human communication, there is both a sender of the message–speaker or writer–and the receiver of a message–hearer, listener (to hear and listen are not the same), reader, and while both ends of the communication are responsible for accuracy, I want to apply my explanation of accountability. Since verbal communication is more complex, common and misunderstood compared to written, this post will emphasize the verbal. As I said previously, both the speaker and the hearer are responsible for their attitudes about the message, but only one party is accountable for the results. The speaker and the hearer have different goals: the speaker may want to educate, coach, sell or promote, influence, or encourage, for example; the listener may want to be educated, coached, or encouraged, but rarely wants to be influenced or sold to. In the latter case, the hearer is either not listening, or is arguing, or misinterpreting.
My primary argument for why the hearer is more accountable for the result of the communication than the speaker was: If the speaker knows what message he wants to deliver, he is still unlikely to be aware of all the nonverbal cues that the hearer may either be picking up or reacting to. It’s a well known phenomenon that most of what gets communicated is nonverbal. Who can be accountable for being aware of the nonverbal cues? Especially if he actually isn’t sending the cues that the hearer is responding to; after all, more of what we respond to is triggered by past experiences and interpretations, often not even connected to the speaker. If the speaker is trying to encourage, but the hearer is angry at what he thinks the message is, what is more likely, that the speaker really wants to criticize and offend, or that the hearer is getting emotionally plugged into emotional baggage from past interactions or facial expressions or tone of voice? I am speaking as a person who is very impervious to getting offended and very low drama. If you are the opposite, you probably believe that the speaker is more accountable.
The most likely interactions to be successful–both ends of the communication achieving their goals–would start with the speaker responding to a request from the listener for education, coaching, or encouragement. Theoretically, this kind of communication should be successful almost all the time, but even here it’s quite possible that the message the listener thinks they got is different than the speaker intended. Parent to child or husband to wife interactions, for example, are loaded with “emotional baggage” and behavior patterns, no matter how much love there is. Therefore, what hope is there for successful communication between a caring speaker and a reluctant, or resentful, or resistant hearer? There is hope, and to demonstrate, I am going to take as a model various communications in the Bible, specifically the Book of Acts (of the apostles).
After the four gospels presenting the “lifecycle” of Jesus Christ–Matthew, Luke, Mark and John–comes Acts, written by Luke, a physician and the most precise of the apostles. He begins by summarizing “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” The rest of the book is a combination of the actions and proclamations of various apostles and the effects of both. It is filled with the most difficult of interactions, mostly preaching by the apostles (speakers) to folks who were hostile or indifferent to, or confused by, their messages. Yet this most difficult of human communications got through to many listeners, since this new religion and the church–it’s congregation–grew exponentially.
Granted, the apostles were able to do significant miracles, and the Holy Spirit softened many hearts, but someone still had to deliver the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.When Peter met a magician named Simon, who had witnessed miracles done by the apostle Philip, and who believed his message, you might think Peter would be gentle with him, when he offered Peter money to give him the power to baptize with the Holy Spirit. After all, magic was Simon’s living, how could he understand what he was asking for? But Peter said, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” Acts 8:20-24. Did Simon get offended? No. “And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” Acts 8:24.
But when Paul, who was generally a more conciliatory apostle than Peter, met a magician named Elymus, he said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Acts 13:10-11. Why was he so harsh? “But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” Acts 13:8. “Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” Acts 13:12. Two apostles with harsh messages, two magicians with bad motives. Perhaps Paul knew that his demonstration of power would turn the heart of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus to the gospel, but if so, it was not in the text.
When Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish council for preaching, they were admonished to stop mentioning the name of Jesus. “And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened.” Acts 4:21. How did Peter and John react? They prayed for even greater boldness. “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:29-30.
Paul delivered the same message in the synagogues of Thessalonica and Berea. In the former city, “But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar…” Acts 17:5. “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Acts 17:10-11. I believe that, based on the preceding messages, the Bible is implying that the hearers were more accountable for receiving the messages than the speakers.
In the following instance, Paul initially tried to establish rapport with the audience by complimenting their desire to worship: “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’. Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” Acts 17:22-34.
Some still mocked, others believed and others remained interested. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit will call those “appointed to eternal life” and it will be an “effectual call”, that is irresistible. The apostles were speaking, the Holy Spirit was calling, and some hearers became listeners, then believers.