Learning to Listen
Listen. Merriam-Webster says that it means to ‘hear something with thoughtful attention : give consideration.’ If we are to look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2.4), then listening, hearing with thoughtful attention and consideration, is a key part of the ministry that we owe to one another.
The Challenge of Listening
We are very familiar with ‘talking over someone’, but perhaps less familiar ‘listening over someone’, which may be more common. We hear what someone else is saying, but we listen to what we want to hear. We either presume to know what someone is saying, or we have already disregarded what they are saying before they have said it. We listen until there is silence, which we interpret to be an occasion (finally) to start talking, when in fact that silence might communicate more than their speaking, if we listen. Listening is the first obligation we have to one another, and it is perhaps more important than speaking.
Caught up in the Glory of the Listening God
Before we can turn to our listening, we must grasp how the Gospel shapes our listening. The gospel reveals to us that God is a listening God. The Word is the eternal utterance of the eloquent God, and so it has listened to him from all eternity, in the bond of perfect communion in the Holy Spirit. We get glimpses into this in John’s gospel. John 3.32-34 says, “He [Jesus] bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.” The Word that utters the words of God, is the Word that has heard the words of God. Again, John 8.26, ‘I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’ In return, the Father hears the Son (John 11.41), and the Spirit hears the Father and the Word, and so speaks (John 16.13). Eternal eloquence is matched by eternal listening.
This gives us a glimpse into the life of God, who is from eternity the perfect listener. Salvation reveals who God is, and is rooted in who God is. It is because the Son listened to the Father, and the Spirit listened to the Father and the Son that we have salvation, and in that salvation, we are brought into a life of listening. Remarkably, because of and in Christ, God now listens to us; he lends us his ear.
Caught up into Listening to God
The Christian life is first a life of hearing with thoughtful attention. The gospel teaches us to be hearers. Jesus said to his persecutors that “the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.’ Those who have his word abiding in them, then, are those who listen to the divine witness, and believe in the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ. In God’s grace, he enables us to hear the testimony from the Father about the Son, and believe in him, and so the entire Christian life is one of listening to God, being attentive to his word. Listening to others begins first with learning to listen to God. Listening to God should be attentive, not presumptuous, and never talking beside or above.
Listening to others begins first with learning to listen to God. Listening to God should be attentive, not presumptuous, and never talking beside or above him.
Caught up into Listening to Others
God shows his immeasurable love in speaking to us in his Word and by his Spirit, and in turn by listening to us in love. We are godly then, when we turn to our neighbor and listen in love. Often we think speaking is the most important help we can offer, but listening is crucial. Christians are sometimes so busy talking that they are the worst listeners. Sad. We must follow Christ by listening.
Just as listening to others begins with listening to God, when we stop listening to others we will soon stop listening to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, ‘But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words.’1
The irony of not listening well, and speaking instead, is that you are actually not even speaking. It becomes simply ‘spiritual chatter’ and ‘clerical condescension’ because you are never actually speaking to others, only yourself. In order to speak helpfully and lovingly to another, we must first be attentive, so that we are actually speaking to that person. This is definitely hard. It requires a good deal of death to self, humility, and much love. But, “We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”2
The irony of not listening well, and speaking instead, is that you are actually not even speaking. It becomes simply ‘spiritual chatter’ and ‘clerical condescension’ because you are never actually speaking to others, only yourself.
Before we speak, we must listen. If we desire to speak the Word of God to others, we must first listen to that Word, and listen to our neighbor’s word. If you want to be worth being listened to, then listen.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954), 98.
- Ibid, 99.