On Listening (to Others)

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as the love of God begins with listening to His word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”[1]

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.”[2]

A lot has been written about listening to God.

Not much has been written about listening to others.[1]

This is unsurprising. We are called to listen to God and to follow the Spirit’s leading. It’s a big part of our identity as believers. And it’s often a skill that’s rightly encouraged in churches today. I can’t even count the number of sermons that I’ve heard on little Samuel listening to God’s voice from 1 Samuel 3 or the prophet Elijah recognizing a word from the Lord in a whisper from his cave on Mt. Horeb.

But listening to God is also a spiritual practice that can be done in solitude. And much of modern Evangelical teaching focuses on individual faith. That is, we often understand our religious expression as one between us and Jesus primarily, and only secondarily as something practiced in community. This is a mistake that I’ve written about elsewhere (see: Practical Ways to Fight Individualism).

It might also be the case that we focus so heavily on learning to listen to God because we simply don’t want to listen to others.

We might not express it in such blunt terms, but we often believe our opinions or perspectives to be the most important. We also often think that our own lives and experiences are the most exciting. This can be seen by the conversations that we have with others. When someone else shares an opinion we disagree with, isn’t it immediately tempting to think about all of the reasons that they are wrong? When someone excitedly shares a story with us, isn’t it tempting to interject with an even more exciting story of our own? And most of us are so used to half-listening that focusing all of our attention on the person in front of us makes us uncomfortable.

But, and as Bonhoeffer warns in the quote above, once we stop listening to the voices of others, we will no longer be (truly) listening to God.

God Listens to Us

In order to cultivate a desire to listen to others better, let’s begin by looking at how God listens to us.

The exodus event is central to how the Lord identifies himself and interacts with His people in the Old Testament. But before the burning bush, the 10 plagues, and the splitting of the Red Sea, God listened. In Exodus 2:22-25, it tells us that the Lord heard the cries of his people.

He listened, He saw their hurt, and He chose to act.

God’s listening is also very evident in the book of Psalms. In Psalm 34:4, the psalmist is delighted in the Lord who answers his prayers. In Psalm 66:17-20, the psalmist blesses God because of His attentive ear. King David says something similar in Psalm 139:1-4. The prophet Jeremiah also explains that those who call on God are heard (Jeremiah 33:3). And the author of Proverbs makes note that the Lord hears the prayers of the righteous (Proverbs 15:29).  

There are many occasions in the gospels where Jesus stops and listens to those in need. Despite a large crowd pressing all around him begging to hear him teach, Jesus takes the time to both notice and to listen to a women with no social equity (Luke 8:42-48). On a similar occasion, Jesus stopped and listened to a blind beggar who had been crying out for help within a large crowd of people trying to silence the beggar’s voice (Mark 10:46-52).

Listening to Others is Listening to God

If it is our goal to continuously conform ourselves into the image of Christ, we need to become good at listening to others.

God listens to us.

God also commands us to be attentive to the needs of those around us, and He explains that, in doing so, we are being attentive to Him.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells his listeners that when He returns in glory, he will ask those in judgement about their actions towards the marginalized. To quote it directly, Jesus states:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

In other words, it is impossible to separate love for God and love for people. And when we are attentive to people, especially those most in need, it is as if we are directly caring for Jesus himself.  

How do we care for others well? We first start with listening. That’s what the Lord did for his people enslaved in Egypt. That’s what Jesus did for many in the gospels. And that’s what we should be doing for others now.

Listen to Others Well

Listening to others is not easy. It’s a skill. It takes hard work, and intentionality. But as we’ve seen, listening to others is vitally important.

So, to conclude, here are a few practical ways we can begin practicing the skill of listening:

  • Don’t Half Listen – When you are listening to someone else, try to be completely in the moment. Just like Jesus did to those He encountered, show this individual that you are their top priority. Put away your cell phone, and attempt to minimize other distractions both externally and internally.
  • Pay attention to Verbal and Non-Verbal Language – Sometimes people will show you what they are feeling much quicker than they will say how they are feeling. Because of this, pay attention to non-verbal communication as well. Does this individual seem nervous or anxious? What is their body posture like?
  • Respond Well – It is important that you let the individual you are listening to completely say what they want to say before you respond. Don’t cut them off, even if you disagree with what they are sharing. It is also helpful to mirror back to them some of the words they have been speaking in way of summary and clarification. This both helps them recognize that you were truly paying attention and keeps you accountable. It is also much better to ask questions than to interject with a personal anecdote or opinion.
  • Set a Goal for Yourself – If you want to become a better listener, you will have to practice. I have gotten into the habit of trying to have three genuine conversations before or after my church’s Sunday service. And I try hard to not make these conversations ministry related or “me” focused. That is, I don’t interject or share related personal stories. I don’t have an agenda. I just listen to learn about and love the individual in front of me.

So again, if you want to become a better listener, you will have to practice. Because if we can’t really listen to the voices of others, we can’t truly listen to the voice of God.

[1] Do a Google search on “Christian listening” and almost all of the results will be about listening for the voice of God. Search for Christian books on listening on Amazon, and almost all of the results will be about ways we can listen for God’s voice. Search up church-created training material on listening, and it will all be about listening to God in prayer, and not about listening to other.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (New York, Harper Press: 1954), 97.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (New York, Harper Press: 1954), 97-98.

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