“The first duty of love is to listen” (Paul Tillich)
I would like to be a better listener. To be attentive and focused when someone is speaking to me. To be interested in what they are saying. And to be slow to jump in with a response. But lifelong habits are hard to break. When I am involved with something, I don’t suffer interruptions well. When a person is rambling or speaking slowly, I can become impatient. And frequently my mind wanders from what is being said to how I will respond. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I write about Christian virtues not because I am particularly proficient in any, but precisely because I am not. I write to think them through and remind myself what is important to God. Listening well is surely one of these.
The desire to be really heard and understood by others is a bedrock need of every human. It is a need that can only be fulfilled when someone makes an effort to listen well. Author Ralph Nichols puts it this way: “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Imagine a world in which no one ever listened to us. Perhaps a world in which everyone wore headphones. People could tune into their favorite station and never be interrupted by another. It would be like a world of animatrons “that have ears but cannot hear.” (Psalm 135:17) This may not be so far removed from the worlds that some have created. With all of the ways we can isolate ourselves physically and emotionally from others, many of us have ceased to listen to those desperate to be heard. And when we cease to listen we cease to love. As Rick Warren writes: “You see pain with your eyes, but you sympathize with your ears. Sometimes the greatest way to serve someone is just by listening. Behind every need is a story.”
I find it curious that there is not much in Scripture about the importance of listening to one another. I once counted over 300 Bible verses relating to the words we speak. Yet, I am hard pressed to find verses about listening to others. The one verse Christians point to in regard to listening is in the book of James, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19) But even this verse in context has more to do with listening to the word of God than listening to other people. There are a handful of verses in Proverbs that speak to the importance of listening to others, but for the most part these relate to the listener gaining wisdom, rather than the speaker being helped. For example, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15) By any reckoning, the virtue of listening to others is not emphasized in the Bible. Although there is much recorded about listening to God, the importance of our listening to one another must be teased out of God’s Word. This is not to say that listening to others is unimportant. To the contrary, it is the quintessential way we love others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together” writes, “The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”
Listening to others is an important means for mediating other Christian virtues. Consider the seven virtues Paul mentions in Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14) Each of these seven virtues – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness – is demonstrated (or not) to the extent we really listen to others.
Listening with compassion means we seek to share in the pain of the person speaking. When tornados devastated parts of Dayton on May 27, a number of my friends were filled with compassion for the victims and immediately volunteered with the cleanup effort. But often people suffer in ways that are not self-evident. Only by taking time to listen to them tell their story – without judgment or comment – can we demonstrate compassion. The word compassion comes from two Latin words: “cum,” meaning “with;” and “pati,” meaning “suffering.” So listening with “com-passion” means we suffer with the person as they unburden themselves. Job’s friends initially listened with compassion when they sat with Job for seven days – saying nothing and listening to Job speak. But eventually they could not restrain their tongues and accused Job of doing evil. Recriminations are incompatible with compassionate listening.
Listening with kindness means we seek to orient our heart to the other person. We show kindness by being available and attentive when they need to be heard, not just when we feel like listening. We may demonstrate our interest by being an active listener and reflecting back what they are saying. But the real grace of listening with kindness comes in providing an emotional space where the other person feels like they are really being heard. Simply knowing that someone is truly listening can provide a healing balm to a troubled soul. Among all the ways we can show kindness to another person, one of these is surely listening with an open heart.
Listening with humility means we seek to restrain our own words and ego. We listen to the other person without turning attention to ourselves. When we truly listen to another person, our pride screams at us to say something. We feel an overwhelming urge to respond by giving advice and sharing our own brilliant ideas. Stephen R. Covey observed that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) When the mind turns its focus from what is being said to what its response is going to be, it is listening with pride and not humility. “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” (Proverbs 18:2)
Listening with gentleness means we seek to create a safe place for the other person to share. We are non-threatening as we listen without judgment. The other person opens up and unburdens their heart in the presence of someone who is interested and safe. Jonathan Edwards said that, “real disciples of Christ have a gentle spirit in them.” Listening with gentleness means that our gentle spirit is present to the other person. This presence will be like a well-worn cardigan that we wrap around them.
Listening with patience means we seek to be fully present to the other person. We are attentive although we would rather be doing something else. And we stay engaged even in the face of boring or rambling comments. It is hard enough in normal interactions to stay focused when another person is speaking. But this is exacerbated when the person is speaking about something that is of no interest to us or that we cannot understand. And so we practice listening with patience as we shut out all other thoughts and concentrate on the words being spoken. Listening with patience can be particularly important when we are present with older people whose minds no longer function as they once did.
Listening with forbearance means we seek to accept the other person as they are and not as we would like them to be. Even when we disagree or perhaps even dislike the other person, we are listening to understand rather than to be understood. We listen as a matter of respect for the other person as one made in the image of God. We don’t listen because we seek to gain anything from the interaction. Rather, we listen because God commands us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) How much of the conflict in our marriages, our families, and our communities could be ameliorated if we learned the discipline of listening with forbearance.
Listening with forgiveness means we seek to release a person from the debt of their wrongdoing. But here our listening must be of a different kind, because often we need to forgive someone who will never speak to us, let alone apologize. They may be estranged, or in another town, or even dead. Listening to them is therefore impossible. And so, when we are listening with forgiveness, we are listening to a different voice – the voice of One who forgave even as He was going to His death. We listen again to the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and our hearts start to thaw.
Listening to others is simple, but it is not easy. It is simple because it only requires time and a willing heart. It is not easy because it requires us to overcome engrained habits born of self-interest. Yet, there are few actions that reveal more about our spiritual maturity than how well (or not) we listen to others. Jesus is the only hope for a broken world, and we are his people, the instruments through which his grace and healing is dispensed. In the midst of all that is wrong and broken in the world today, we have the opportunity to shine his light through the simple act of listening.