“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom.10:17).
When St. Paul wrote about faith in his letter to the Romans, he boldly proclaimed that to grow in faith one must hear God. This hearing takes the form of reading the Scripture and encountering Jesus through the intervention of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This hearing is deeply rooted in our desire to know Jesus and to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and it requires a willingness and openness to God. In this way, St. Paul really isn’t saying anything new; he is only affirming that the practice of ‘good listening’ applies to our faith journey as it does to our personal relationships.
St. James wrote, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (1:19) Here St. James speaks to ‘best practices’ for human interaction in which hearing is the first and primary response and reflects the attitude and desire of the person. Without the ability or willingness to hear (truly listen to) God or each other, we will not grow; worse, being unwilling to hear reflects much deeper issues of self-image and mutual respect.
Too often, we are the opposite—slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger. Additionally, our desire to be heard over the willingness to hear often takes the form of a broken conversational pattern—interruption and not listening becomes the standard. In our sin, we would rather trust in ourselves than another, rather amass our own righteousness than receive another’s, rather speak our thoughts than listen to someone else. The counselors in the Book of Proverbs identified this issue long ago and did not go gently with their reflections: it is the fool who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing their own opinion” (Proverbs 18:2), and thus “gives an answer before they hear” (Proverbs 18:13). “The purpose in a person’s heart is like deep water,” says Proverbs 20:5, “but an individual of understanding will draw it out.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran Pastor and Theologian, wrote in Life Together, “…Listening with half an ear presumes already to know what the other person has to say.” This, he says, “is an impatient, inattentive listening, that . . . is only waiting for a chance to speak.” Janet Dunn, in her article How to Become a Good Listener, published in The Discipleship Journal, echoes Bonhoeffer: “Unfortunately, many of us are too preoccupied with ourselves when we listen. Instead of concentrating on what is being said, we are busy either deciding what to say in response or mentally rejecting the other person’s point of view.”
Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “Half-eared listening despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.” Poor listening rejects; good listening embraces. Poor listening diminishes the other person, while good listening invites them to exist, and to matter. Bonhoeffer writes, “Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”
Good listening goes hand in hand with the mind-set of Christ (Philippians 2:5). It flows from a humble heart that counts others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). It looks not only to its own interests, but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4).
Our inability to listen well to others may be symptomatic of a chatty spirit that is droning out the voice of God. Bonhoeffer warns, “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. . . . Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
God wants more of the Christian than just our good listening, but not less. There will be days when the most important ministry we do is square our shoulders to some hurting person, uncross our arms, lean forward, make eye contact, and hear their pain all the way to the bottom. As Bonhoeffer says, there are many times when “listening can be a greater service than speaking.” Dunn adds, “good listening often defuses the emotions that are a part of the problem being discussed. Sometimes releasing these emotions is all that is needed to solve the problem. The speaker may neither want nor expect us to say anything in response.”
One of Dunn’s counsels for cultivating good listening is to, “put more emphasis on affirmation than on answers. . . . Many times, God simply wants to use me as a channel of his affirming love as I listen with compassion and understanding.”
In this way, good listening is a great means of grace in the dynamic of true Christian fellowship. Not only is it a channel through which God continues to pour his grace into our lives, but it’s also his way of using us as his means of grace in the lives of others. It may be one of the hardest things we learn to do, but we will find it worth every ounce of effort.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†