Talk and discussion: Quick to listen – lessons from John Stott on grace under fire

As part of the centenary commemorations of the great pastor, Bible teacher and Christian leader John Stott, I delivered a talk reflecting on his life and legacy at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), which John himself founded decades earlier.

You can watch my talk below, which are then followed (at 54:38) by a discussion with Paul Woolley and Tracy Cotterell from LICC, or scroll down a bit further to read my presentation.

Quick to Listen – lessons from John Stott on grace under fire

It’s a wonderful privilege to have this opportunity to speak in celebration of John Stott’s life and ministry but I’m also conscious of the onerous responsibility I carry – especially how to convey something of the spirit, personality, vision and Christ-likeness of John Stott for those who never knew him.  I feel rather like one of the sons of Sceva in Acts chapter 19 when the evil spirit might have answered “Jesus I know and John Stott I know, but who are you….?”

I first met him as a medical student at All Souls in 1973. At first he seemed a rather distant and slightly intimidating figure in the pulpit. I was captivated by the power and the extraordinary detail of his sermons; I found myself furiously making notes during the sermons, trying to capture as much as possible. It was like drinking from a fire hose. I can still remember an early series of sermons on “Issues facing Christians Today”. This was the 1970s and the sermons were on topics like ‘labour relations and unemployment’, nuclear disarmament, divorce law reform and so on.

I had never heard sermons like this. Stott was taking verbatim quotes from the newspapers and commentators of that time and carefully and persuasively showing how Christian truth could engage directly, demonstrating the relevance and the power of Christian thinking. I can still remember the impact of those sermons and his example of careful, respectful and thoughtful engagement with the secular commentators. It’s a model I’ve tried to follow over the subsequent 40 years of my life.

Later on in the mid-1970s, I am now a third or fourth year medical student and to my utter astonishment I receive a message from the rectory. Would you like to come and have a cup of coffee with me? My first reaction is alarm – being asked to see the headmaster in his study. I am solemnly welcomed into his tiny bachelor flat, just 2 rooms and a kitchenette, where he offers me a cup of instant coffee and a digestive biscuit.

And so started a friendship which lasted for more than 30 years. He became a spiritual father to me as he was to so many others. We walked together, sharing our lives and hearts through triumphs, tragedies and health crises from the 1970’s until his death in 2011. And his friendship, vision, modelling and gentle godly influence were to become a defining factor in my life, changing the direction of my career, my preoccupations, my priorities and my ministry. As I look back now over the decades, so much of what I am passionate about, so much that continues to preoccupy my time, my activities and my thinking is because of him. 

How did he have such an impact on me as he had on so many others? It wasn’t primarily because of his intellect, his knowledge of the Bible, his extraordinary memory for people – it was because of who he was. Yes, he was deeply impressive as a preacher and as a public figure, but the truth was that when he was in private, sharing his heart, and there was nobody watching, he was even more impressive. As you got to know him it became obvious that he lived and prayed in the way he preached. His authenticity, his humility – his concern, interest and love for people who didn’t count. 

Rico Tice in a recent blog described an incident which occurred as John Stott was on his deathbed. The doctors had said that he was dying and Rico was there at his bedside in the College of St Barnabus. This is what Rico wrote, “I sat with him, and at one point read through John 14. He barely acknowledged me. But when one of the Filipino cleaners at the home came in to say goodbye, with a monumental effort John took his hand and rose up out of his bed to kiss it, before slumping backwards. As I shut my eyes, I can see him giving everything he had to serve the person who had the lowest status. He was a Christian servant to his last breath”.

Of course John Stott wasn’t perfect. He could occasionally be impatient and brusque, particularly if he felt let down by those he trusted, or if he was confronted with people claiming to be Christian leaders who were arrogant or uninformed.  

But perhaps the first lesson I learnt from him about being a witness for Christ in a hostile secular world was that it’s not about how clever your arguments are or the brilliance of your apologetics strategy – it has to start with personal authenticity, honesty and humility. It matters much more who you are as a person than what you actually say. In particular it matters how we treat those who oppose us.

The title of my talk comes from James 1:19 “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” and it fits perfectly with John Stott’s example and practice.

I’m going to take three of Stott’s recurring themes which have profoundly influenced me in my attempt to be a witness for Christ in the world of medicine.

Listening

Salt and Light

Incarnational mission

Listening

Listening was a constant refrain. Listening to God, listening to the world. Listening to fellow Christians around the world. But beneath the emphasis of listening was an attitude of respect. It’s the quality of respect which undergirds the desire to genuinely listen and not just to pretend. Respect for God and his word certainly. Stott often talked about humbling ourselves before God’s truth and allowing it to exercise authority over our thinking and behaviour.

But also respect for the other, especially for those who oppose us and all that we stand for. Respect for their humanity, for their creation in God’s image, for their life experience, for their suffering, for their intellectual integrity, and for the grace of God in their lives.  Stott believed firmly in the Reformation concept of common grace, the God who gave good things to the righteous and the unrighteous. I can remember him preaching on Matthew 5 – our heavenly Father who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

So respect for the other leads naturally to careful and detailed listening to what they say, a desire to understand. In one of his books he spells out what listening involves and I’ve slightly paraphrased his words.

First, there is the need to enter into other people’s thought world. We need to try to see the world through their eyes, to understand how they have come to the beliefs and commitments that they hold. God made them rational beings and we need to try to understand their reasoning.

Second, we need to enter other people’s heart world, the world of their angst and alienation, to weep with those who weep. In everyone there are hidden depths of pain. We can reach them only if we are willing to enter into their suffering.

These are the words of Vinoth Ramachandra, who was a close friend and a member of a reading group that John Stott led. “One of my vivid memories was going with a small group of young people to watch a film by the renowned Swedish existentialist Ingmar Bergman. Stott was so deeply moved by the film and by its depiction of the pain of broken relationships that he insisted on taking us all to a nearby church where he knelt before the Lord’s Table and poured out his soul in contrition over all his flawed relationships…..It is such integrity and vulnerability that leave an indelible impression on young people’s minds.” And, says Vinoth Ramachandra, “it is the memory of Stott’s character, far more than his books or preaching, that I recall whenever I grow discouraged by the hypocrisies or arrogance of so many in leadership positions today.”

Dialogue

Closely linked to listening was the concept of dialogue. Stott spoke repeatedly about the importance of dialogue. It’s interesting that 50 years later dialogue seems to have become a deeply unfashionable idea both in evangelical circles and in the wider world. This is what Stott says about dialogue. 

“It’s a conversation in which each party is serious in their approach both to the subject and to the other person, and desires to listen and learn as well as to speak and instruct. In the Bible the Living God repeatedly enters into dialogue with other people – Where are you? What do you want? Why are you so afraid? Who are you looking for?”

True dialogue is a mark of authenticity, a genuinely Christian approach to others must be human, personal, relevant, and humble. In dialogue we share our common humanity, its dignity and fallenness and express our common concern for that humanity.

Dialogue is a mark of humility, as we listen to the other person our respect for that person as a human being made in God’s image grows. We realise we cannot sweep away all their convictions with a brash, unfeeling dismissal. We have to recognise that some of their misconceptions about Christianity may be our fault – and that because of us they are rejecting a caricature of the truth. As we listen to the other person we may have uncomfortable lessons to learn. We may have to repent of a lingering sense of our superiority.  Our desire becomes not to score points or to humiliate the other, but to enter into their experience.

Dialogue is a mark of integrity. As we listen to the other we listen to their real beliefs, problems and experiences, and we divest our minds of the false images we may have harboured. We are determined at the same time to be honest and to be real. Our goal is that out of our dialogue, our respectful engagement, the truth should emerge. But says Stott, as a Christian I know that Christ is the truth and so I long for Christ himself to emerge. But since Christ makes demands on all I may well find that my own understanding and commitment are revealed to be inadequate. So the dialogue will be challenging to myself as well as to the other person.

Here’s Stott again “It is a matter of personal integrity that I respect (there’s that word again) the freedom and dignity of the other person, of my dialogue partner, and I do not expect of him or her anything that I am not willing to ask or hope for myself.”

How different this is to the vicious and polarised interactions we so often see in the national media, in social medial and in the so-called culture wars. How much have we as Christians been infected by the spirit of the age which encourages attack, shaming and humiliation of our opponents?

I had the privilege of observing Stott as he modelled respectful dialogue in many different contexts, both with Christians of many different traditions and with those from an entirely secular background. I saw how he spent so much effort trying to understand, asking thoughtful questions, requesting clarification. This was not just an opportunity for him to go on about his own preoccupations – he wanted to listen and understand.

It is a model that I have tried hard to adopt in the opportunities I have had in public debates and private conversations with academics, medics, activists and politicians in the public square.

I have had the privilege in engaging in many public debates on controversial and painful issues of neonatal intensive care, euthanasia, reproductive technology, fetal pain and so on, and I have tried to put in practice, however imperfectly, what Stott had modelled.

His concept of dialogue has also had a major effect on the way I have tried to work and teach others as a doctor – I have tried to develop and popularise the concept of “expert-expert relationships” as a model for doctor-patient or doctor-parent collaboration. This has become a fundamental part of my clinical teaching to doctors, health professionals and medical students.

So what have I learnt about respectful Christian dialogue, as I have tried to practice it in many different environments?  

Dialogue is costly. It takes hard work, intellectual and emotional effort. It involves work of detailed research and preparation. Stott prepared meticulously before public debates and engagements. As a result he often knew far more about his dialogue partners, their background and their thinking, than they did about him. Dialogue takes time and patience. But it also can be emotionally very challenging as my prejudices, preconceptions, narrow-mindedness, and hard-heartedness are being revealed.

Perhaps it’s understandable that many Christian preachers and apologists don’t wish to follow this path. The traditional approach of just ‘proclaiming the truth’ seems so much easier. ‘This is the truth of the Bible – take it or leave it.’ But it’s not what Stott modelled, and I believe it is not the Christ-like way as we reach out to a secular, cynical and hostile world.

Sometimes my attempts at establishing genuine trust and a meeting of minds have been more successful than I expected.  Somewhat to my surprise over a period of years I built up  a genuine friendship and level of trust with a very senior and influential spokesperson for the pro-abortion lobby in the UK. We took part in private consultations as well as a number of public debates and were able to model a thoughtful and respectful dialogue in place of the usual polarised pro-life/pro-abortion conflict. And I was very moved when this person shared with me in private some of their own personal struggles and questionings.

I was also able to develop a good friendship with a senior atheistic philosopher at UCL and we modelled respectful debate in sessions on medical ethics for medical students.  

But I have also found on other occasions that, sadly, some people seem to be filled with so much anger, contempt and even disgust for Christianity that they refuse to engage in genuine conversation. Their aim seems to be only to destroy, to humiliate, to caricature and to triumph by any means.

So genuinely listening to our opponents is costly, difficult and frequently rebuffed. But it is the way of Christ.

The themes of Salt and Light

As I have reflected on my own understanding of the calling of Christians in the secular world, I have been reminded again of how central the salt and light metaphors in the Sermon on the Mount have been in my own life. Stott himself returned repeatedly to these two metaphors in his writing and preaching.

a. The salt of the earth (5:13)

You are salt of the earth. This means that, when each community is itself and is true to itself, the world decays like rotten meat. But the role of Christian people is to penetrate into society, to act as a preservative. to counteract and oppose the hidden processes of decay.

Here are Stott’s words “Of course God has set other restraining influences in the community through his common grace. Chief among these are the state (with its authority to frame and enforce laws) and the home (including marriage and family life). Nevertheless, God intends the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society to be his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people.”

The effectiveness of salt, however, is conditional: it must retain its saltiness. To be effective Christians must retain their Christlikeness. If Christians become indistinguishable from the rest of the world, they lose their influence.

The preservative effect of Christians in so many areas of UK society.

Whatever social and professional groups I have had the opportunity to enter in the UK I have discovered there are Christians quietly acting as salt, penetrating, permeating society. God has his people in every segment of UK society. The NHS has Christians working on every hospital ward and in every clinic and department. And for every one overtly identifying as a Christian there are three or four fellow-workers who have been deeply influenced by Christian ethics and morality. Although there are deep structural problems within the NHS I have no doubt that it would be far far worse if it was not for the thousands and thousands of Christians who are quietly acting as a preservative. And similar points could be made about many other areas of UK society in the 2020s

And Stott pressed home the point.  If society is decaying around us, if it is obvious that there is decay and putrefaction, then who is responsible? Answer, it is us, Christ’s followers, who are failing in our calling to be salt.

b. The light of the world

Here is Stott expounding the passage in Matthew 5 – “What this light is Jesus clarifies as our good deeds. Let other people once see your good deeds, he said, and they will glorify your Father in heaven. It seems that ‘good deeds’ is a general expression to cover everything Christians say and do because they are Christians, every outward and visible manifestation of their Christian faith.”

John Stott frequently emphasised the importance of persuasion. “We have no liberty to impose our views and opinions on other people. But in a democratic and open society we have the precious freedom to seek to persuade others, to marshal arguments and evidence in favour of a Christian thinking and Christian behaviour.”

He warned us not to be content with seeking to address issues where Christian responses were obvious and the arguments were easy. Instead he encouraged us to go for the most difficult areas, the most challenging and threatening questions – because it is precisely there that we discover the extraordinary power, depth and relevance of Christian truth. This has become a guiding principle in my own Christian journey and it has led me more recently to try to develop Christian engagement and thinking in areas such as artificial intelligence, neuroscience and transhumanism: because I see these areas as some of the most challenging and dangerous threats that humanity will face in the future. And Stott taught us that it’s in the dangerous places that Christians should be active.

Light penetrates dark places. It reveals truths which powerful people want to keep hidden. Being light means standing up for the vulnerable, being a voice for the voiceless, and a defender for the defenceless.

Trying to be light in some dark places will get you into all kinds of trouble. I became a specialist in the field of neonatology because I loved children and it was an exciting, and rapidly developing area of scientific medicine. It was only afterwards that I realised that I was in the midst of an ethical maelstrom. I was part of a team of doctors, scientists and nurses who were trying to ensure the survival of premature babies at younger and younger gestational ages – we saw many babies surviving at 23 and 22 weeks – weighing 500g or less. And yet just one floor away, in the fetal medicine unit, late abortions or feticides were being carried out at 24, 28, 32 weeks and beyond. And much to my surprise I became the go-to paediatrician who was asked by my colleagues in the fetal medicine unit to speak to parents who were considering having a late abortion because of a fetal abnormality.

I haven’t time now to talk in any detail about many of the ethical challenges but the issue of abortion is one that has haunted my professional career and public engagement. As a ‘baby doctor’ I have found many opportunities to engage in the issues around abortion in a way that is different from the standard pro-life/pro-choice binary debates. But the area of abortion is also one that has caused me perhaps the greatest opposition and at times deeply personal attacks.  

Some years ago I gave evidence to a Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament on the scientific evidence about the survival of premature babies, which was very much in my area of expertise. I presented the evidence of increasing survival at 22 and 23 weeks of gestation, both at my own unit at UCH and from other units around the world. Since the existing law allows abortions for any reason up to 24 weeks gestation, my evidence was seen as threatening to the status quo. Over the next 2-3 days it became apparent that there was a concerted media attack on me from BBC news outlets and more than one broadsheet newspaper. One newspaper carried a regular series called “Junk Science” in which they highlighted various charlatans and snake oil merchants. Lo and behold, I was that week’s junk scientist – I was guilty of elementary statistical errors, and was well known to be a Christian. I was clearly manipulating and falsifying evidence for ideological reasons.

A well-known MP spoke privately to the Provost of UCL and accused me of “misleading Parliament”. The following day I was summoned hurriedly to the Provost’s office to explain myself. It was obvious that my position and future employment were in jeopardy. By God’s Providence it turned out that the Provost was an academic lawyer and prior to my interview he had already briefed himself on the verbatim accounts of the evidence I had. He told me, “I can see you’re evidence was truthful and you were acting in good faith. It’s clear to me that these attacks are politically motivated. The university will back you and your right to academic freedom.” A press release was put out from the university and within 48 hours the media circus had moved elsewhere.

But it hurt me that not one of my colleagues or senior paediatricians across the country were prepared to support me in public, although most of them knew that my evidence was accurate. Some provided personal support in confidence. When you find yourself in the firing line you find out who your true friends are.

We’ve looked at 1. Respectful dialogue and 2. Salt and Light

Thirdly and finally, Incarnational mission: seeing the incarnation of Christ as both the model and the motivation for Christian engagement

Here are Stott’s words. “The incarnation was the most spectacular instance of cultural identification in the history of mankind. For the Son of God did not stay in the safe immunity of his heaven, remote from human sin and tragedy. He entered our world. He emptied himself of his glory and humbled himself to serve. He took our nature, lived our life, endured our temptations, experienced our sorrows, felt our hurts, bore our sins and died our death.

Now he sends us into the world, as the Father sent him into the world. In other words, our mission is to be modelled on his. Indeed, all authentic mission is incarnational mission. It demands identification without loss of identity. It means entering other people’s worlds, as he entered ours, though without compromising our Christian convictions, values or standards.”

Stott’s teaching on incarnational ministry has had a profound and lasting influence on my own understanding of my medical calling. I was called to be Jesus to my patients. To be the hands of Christ, the presence of Christ, with those who were bleeding, suffering, dying. To care as Jesus cared. To weep as Jesus wept. To wash feet, to serve and do the dirty jobs that no-one else wanted to do.

So instead of medical power games, “Don’t forget I am the consultant, you are the patient. I am in charge, I make the decisions, you are vulnerable, dependent, fearful and powerless”.

Instead it had to be “We are the same you and I. I too am a human being made out of dust. I too understand what it means to be fearful, to suffer and to lose a loved one. I am here to walk this path with you, to offer you my wisdom, expertise and experience, and to covenant that I will never abandon you, whatever happens.”

It was a constant theme of Stott‘s teaching on mission “As the Father has sent me – so I am sending you.”  Sent to serve, sent to care, sent to seek the lost.

Final reflections

Stott’s vision of Christian engagement was framed in the 1970s and 80s. But the world has changed radically since then. Is his vision still relevant for the world of 2021 and beyond?

1. Polarisation and tribalism

Sadly it seems that genuine dialogue, respectful listening, and the meeting of minds is even less common in the public square than it was 50 years ago. The quality of political and moral debate seems to have become more intemperate, coarsened, hostile and polarised than before.

Unfortunately there are aspects of this polarisation within the Christian community too. There seems to be a greater tribalism and often deep suspicion, mistrust and incomprehension between members of different Christian tribes. How often do we see thoughtful, respectful and genuine listening taking place between Christian leaders of different groupings and traditions?

I am reminded of the words of GK Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” The same could be said to Stott’s ideal of respectful listening and dialogue

2. Open hostility to Christianity

In the public square, orthodox biblical Christianity is increasingly dismissed as morally inadequate and even repulsive. Homophobic, racist, patriarchal, hypocritical, abusive, oppressive. The hermeneutic of suspicion has had a corrosive effect on trust in Christian leaders, and this has been amplified by recent scandals in the UK and USA. Can Stott’s emphasis on persuasion, arguing, marshalling arguments still carry relevance in this increasingly hostile environment?

3. ‘Truth decay’

Deepening levels of mistrust in all forms of authority and the rise of bizarre conspiracy theories mean that it is not possible to find agreement on even the most basic of truth-claims. Over the last year we have seen many extraordinary things. The replication, transmission and mutation of a physical virus across the world has been matched by an online pandemic of disinformation and lies which have also replicated, mutated and spread worldwide. And paradoxically it is turning out to be easier for us as a society to control, resist and vaccinate against the physical virus than to control and resist the spread of disinformation and truth decay.

Tens of millions of people in the USA who call themselves evangelical Christians say they believe that Donald Trump actually won the presidential election in November, despite all the objective evidence to the contrary. And equal numbers say they believe that coronavirus risks have been exaggerated and that vaccines are part of an evil conspiracy.

My conviction is that in the confused and confusing world of 2021, John Stott’s model of how to engage in the secular world is even more urgent. In particular, when words cease to have the impact and meaning that they used to carry, then the way we live, the quality of our caring, the authenticity of our actions – these can still communicate the unchanging good news of Christ to a hurting world. My own belief is that it will be the incarnational ministry of ordinary lay Christians – being the hands of Christ, the presence of Christ: humble, respectful, sacrificial service –  that will be the principal means of sharing the Good News, of being salt and light for Christ in this confused and confusing world.

1 comment on “Talk and discussion: Quick to listen – lessons from John Stott on grace under fire

  1. Dr Mark Pickering

    Thank you very much John. What a refreshing and inspiring example, and so relevant today as we seek to think, speak and act like Jesus in the confused and hurting world we live in.

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