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Going off Half-Cocked

Wisdom in listening before answering

Proverbs 18:2

2 A fool has no delight in understanding,
But in expressing his own heart.

Proverbs 18:13

13 He who answers a matter before he hears it,
It is folly and shame to him.


Are you a fan of antique firearms? Are you a seventeenth century pirate? If either of these apply to you, then you very likely understand what it means when musket or pistol “goes off half-cocked.” 

Half-cock is when the position of the hammer of a firearm is partially–but not completely–cocked. Weapons such as muzzle-loaders and single-action revolvers have this feature. With a musket, for example, this is a position during the loading procedure when the weapon is normally considered “safe.” However, if the firing mechanism is faulty (or the weapon is dropped) the gun can go off prematurely with an explosion of flame, noise and a deadly lead bullet. 

For more information on this interesting, and sometimes deadly, feature of antiquated firearm technology, here is a short video clip courtesy of the National Park Service and one of the rangers of the Moore’s Creek Battlefield in North Carolina.

If you are a Revolutionary War soldier or swashbuckling pirate, having your musket discharge before you are ready can spoil your aim at a Redcoat, or ruin your surprise attack against a treasure-laden Spanish galleon.

Long before Blackbeard sailed the bounding main, Solomon applied this hazard of weaponry to describe a form of “premature exclamation.” We are talking about one who interrupts while another is speaking. Solomon captures this person in Proverbs 18:

2 A fool has no delight in understanding,
But in expressing his own heart.–Proverbs 18:2

Are you an “interrupter?” Do you know someone who habitually talks over others? Someone who cuts in while another is talking can be a lifelong damager of friendships, or at the very least a frustrating person with whom to communicate. 

This habit can turn an ordinary conversation into a full-contact sport. You will begin a conversation, or start to give an answer to someone and after a few words they will jump in and take the conversation in a completely different direction. 

Or perhaps they are simply itching to tell you that you are wrong about whatever you are speaking about, and before you can get your explanation out, they interject to put you down. The feeling can be akin to tossing a football, only to have it intercepted by an opposing player and carried off down the field toward their goal.

Sometimes this can be a person who likes to “one up” others and seek to top whatever is being said with a better story or claim than theirs. Interrupters can even be making attempts at sympathy, for when you tell them your troubles they can stop you mid-tale to gush about how sorry they are–and perhaps share some terrible thing of their own in order to relate to you in your misery. 

This can cause major problems for the interrupter and the person seeking to share what is in his heart, only to have it trampled underfoot. This is bad manners, and as Solomon warns, it is a form of destructive foolishness:

13 He who answers a matter before he hears it,
It is folly and shame to him.–Proverbs 18:13

I must confess something to you: I am a serial interrupter. Over the years, I have been made aware of this sinful impulse of mine by those patient and loving enough to share their observation of this behavior with me. 

For me, interrupting seems to have come in two main forms, both stemming from the same source: anxiety and fear. In the corporate world, my manager or team leader would often come to me for routine coaching sessions. This could be an annual review, or even to address an error I had made. I would find myself nodding during their feedback, and if it contained criticism I would be quick to seize a pause in the conversation to begin to offer explanations or provide solutions. 

Generally, a manager would be grateful that they had an employee who seemed so eager to correct issues, or seize the initiative to improve himself, but in knew that it stemmed from a desire to make the criticism stop, or avoid a solution that I could not abide. 

In another, more destructive way, I have caught myself interrupting listeners during a small group bible study or Sunday school class that I was teaching. Sometimes people volunteering answers or sharing their thoughts in class can go long or take unpredictable bunny trails. My desire to stay on track with time and the lesson has sometimes led me to interrupt, or to abruptly cut someone off in order to continue teaching.

When this was lovingly pointed out to me, I immediately felt ashamed and even horrified that I had perhaps hindered someone’s path to greater understanding of their faith and scripture. 

Tim Keller pulls no punches in his view of such behavior. “Interrupters have no real need to let the speaker finish,” he says. “They aren’t responding to you, so much as airing their own opinions.”

Commentator Bruce Waltke hits even harder. Not only does he plunge his knife deeply, he gives it a twist:

Fools intend to impress others with their opinions, but in fact they expose their folly. This proverb warns against having a closed mind and an open mouth.–Waltke, “Proverbs”

Do you have a closed mind and an open mouth? Do you feel the need to make sure that your opinion is heard at every meeting, and during any discussion? Do you, too, rush to interject and shut down an opposing voice?

Or maybe you do this because you feel lonely and unheard, and as soon as someone expresses interest or shares their news with you, you are overwhelmed with gratitude and flood them with your cares and concerns. 

Good conversation, the mark of a good teacher, and the habit of a true friend is that of one who can listen as much–or more–than he speaks. It is by this process that you can begin to truly learn from others. Author Ernest Hemingway encouraged good listening as a rare commodity: 

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.–Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was a prolific writer of novels and short stories in which he captured raw human emotion, and in many cases seemed to write the very thoughts of his readers on the page before them. No doubt this was in part due to his listening to the tales of many people from his travels in the world.

American president Calvin Coolidge share his own advice about listening:

It takes a great man to be a good listener.–Calvin Coolidge

President Coolidge wasn't nicknamed “Silent Cal,” for nothing, I suppose. He must have been a world champion listener.

Speaking before listening, or before you have received all of the facts from the person with whom you are speaking can also be telling in another, more troubling way. To interrupt others, or to speak without listening to them, can also be a sign of prejudice.

This is a sin on a deeper level, and the result of “pre-judging” others. Often we will consciously or even subconsciously dismiss the opinions or the words of others simply because they do not fit our own bias. 

You can be biased against other races, or classes of people, and reflect this in immediately dismissing whatever they are trying to say. Men do this to women, women do this to men. Older people do this to young whippersnappers, and young people do this to old fogies.

In the process, valuable information may not be shared, feelings may be hurt, and relationships damaged beyond easy repair. There is a high cost to speaking more than listening, where the lives and hearts of others are concerned. 

Are you tempted to stereotype others? It can be difficult to put down that voice in your head that urges you to dismiss someone’s words due to race, sex, age, or even religious denomination. Your desire to preserve your own familiar understanding of things, or perhaps memory of past hurt by another of their group, can lead you to miss out on deepening your understanding–or even an opportunity to share the gospel.

Jesus seemed to be unfazed by interruptions. His disciples seemed to continuously interrupt him with questions and their need for explanations. Everywhere Jesus went, he was followed by crowds, particularly those who brought their sick loved ones to seek healing. Sometimes Jesus did not even have time to sit and rest or get a meal:  

31 And He said to them, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. 32 So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves.–Mark 6:31-32

Jesus took plenty of opportunities to be alone or to escape to quieter places, even climbing into a boat to give Himself some breathing room while He continued to teach: 

1 So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.–Luke 5:1-3

How do you respond when someone interrupts you? Do you have a “chronic interrupter” in your life? Do you shut down when they walk on your words? Or do you seize the ball of this “full-contact conversation” and allow the discourse to continue? This can be difficult to do, but Jesus seemed to welcome such opportunities: 

17 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”18 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.–Mark 10:17-18ˆ

When the rich young ruler interrupted Jesus, our Lord could have been annoyed, or even offended that someone would seek to dominate His time. Instead, Jesus seemed to gladly receive him and take the time to teach both him, and His own watching disciples. 

Can you do this? It can take grace and courage to do so, but in the end, the reward can far outweigh any frustration you feel in the interruption by another. Pray that Christ will give you this grace to overcome, and turn the conversation to His glory. 

If you realize that you are too quick to seize control of a conversation to turn it to your own interests, you may have cause to repent. Seek the wisdom of Christ to show you when you do this, so that you may mortify this sin (Colossians 3:5), and put to death the root causes that lead you to do this, or even to be prejudiced against others. The forgiveness of Jesus is far bigger than this habit, and with His example and His Spirit, you can overcome–and thus avoid shooting off your mouth in an accidental discharge of impatient, or anxious words.


The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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