With a presidential election in a few months, there is much noise on the airways, lots of words exchanged in social media, and many water cooler conversations. The candidates are loud and so are their supporters.
Sometimes it seems that we struggle to have civil discourse in our country. Even apart from the election, we have tense conversations surrounding race, economic status, gender, immigration, global climate change, and scores of other issues. Just scrolling along my Facebook timeline and reading the interactions between “friends” can be depressing; people seem to talk past each other.
Is it possible for people—including the Christians—to have meaningful interchanges of ideas? I am convinced that there is a gift that we must give to others if we are to thrive as human beings. The gift is a tangible expression of love that I often find lacking, even among those who profess faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ.
The gift is listening.
I majored in chemical engineering many years ago at Cornell. I took lots of chemistry courses as well as physics—maybe I should say those courses took me! They challenged me, for sure. Yet one of the most valuable courses I took in college was not a course in mathematics or science. It was a class called, “Effective Listening,” and it has served me well in every job I’ve had (including lab assistant, professional dishwasher, high school teacher, seminary instructor, and especially pastor). One guest lecturer in that college course was a Cornell professor who had been blinded in an accident. He talked about how grateful he was that he had lost his sight rather than his hearing. His comment sticks with me because I thought I’d feel just the opposite. We listen to many things for all sorts of different reasons, but we’d be better at all of our roles in life if we trained ourselves to be good listeners.We’d be better at all of our roles in life if we trained ourselves to be good listeners. Click To Tweet
Award Points to the Introverts
The biblical book of Proverbs has much to say about the importance of listening, such as “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice” (Prov. 12:15). Those willing to listen are wise and can often avoid the pain resulting from jumping to conclusions, or the mess resulting from plowing into a course of action without enough information.
I think the words of Proverbs, as well as the content of my college course on listening, naturally resonate with me because I’m an introvert. We introverts are known to be good listeners, typically processing the ideas and feelings of others before acting. While to some people our decisions and actions may appear to be slow, our deliberation may also be viewed as more effective, with a smaller margin for misunderstanding between parties and also minimizing the need to repair relationships and situations that resulted from haste. Good listening requires patience, fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).
I used to bemoan my introversion, especially as so many noteworthy pastors and Christian speakers appear to be extroverts and our society celebrates extroversion. But a few years ago I read Quiet by Susan Cain and became more confident in owning my introversion. Cain’s TED talk emphasizes the advantage introverts have when it comes to good listening.
Listening in Evangelism and Discipleship
Having been in pastoral ministry for nearly 30 years, I’ve witnessed the trends in American Christianity, especially Evangelicalism—that enigmatic tribe of which I am part. I’ve noticed various attempts to keep the Church focused on making disciples, the essence of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). But those messages about discipleship compete with the loud, extroverted voices of church growth and leadership gurus who emphasize and celebrate large weekend worship attendance figures but rarely discuss the tedious and messy work of making disciples.
I recently came across a blog post by Tim Suttle where he notes Eugene Peterson’s sage counsel for pastors to “pray, preach, and listen.” I think Peterson’s wise words reflect true pastoral sensibilities. Discipleship requires good listening. Many of us who have been in ministry for some time know that there are umpteen programs for discipleship and a plethora of books and other resources. Yet, there is no substitute for developing relationships where listening is offered as a gift and not merely a strategy to eventually sell someone on a new product or idea. Listening allows us to know one another.There is no substitute for developing relationships where listening is offered as a gift Click To Tweet
There is a powerful scene near the end of the movie, The Big Kahuna, where the Danny DeVito character (Phil) gives words of wisdom to the Peter Facinelli character (Bob), a young, zealous Christian who has just annoyed the Kevin Spacey character (Larry). Phil notes how Bob has been “a marketing rep” for Jesus, and advises that “if you want to talk to someone honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids; find out what his dreams are…” Phil says that such listening should be done honestly, to really know the answers, and not as a way to make a sales pitch. I think Phil is on to something
Listening as Spiritual Discipline
Of course, being a good listener is helpful in our interpersonal relationships, but it is also mandatory for a solid relationship with God. James 1:19 says,
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
Have you ever been in a conversation when the other person just couldn’t wait for you to stop talking because all they wanted to do was jump in? It is not only rude, but it is arrogant; when we do not listen well we are saying that we know more than the person who is speaking. That might sometimes be true, so in that case we govern ourselves by good manners. But when it comes to God, it is about more than just good manners; it could be about life and death!
The old saying that has been attributed to Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, is that we have two ears and one mouth so we need to listen twice as much as we speak. Not a bad idea. Keeping our mouths shut might be a good spiritual discipline. But the point isn’t just to be silent. Listening serves a purpose. When we listen well, we are on the road to correct beliefs and correct actions. Unlike the game of Telephone we played as kids, our spiritual lives are not playthings where misinformation leads to laughter.
A Small but Crucial Step
I am not so naïve as to think that good listening will end all strife, or silence critics, or quell election-year rhetoric. Healthy debate is good for us, even in Christian circles. We need to have honest conversations about the tough topics we face in our world. But honest conversation does not just mean getting our own points across. It means listening to others also.
Listening is a gift we give to others, but perhaps it is also a gift we give to ourselves. When we listen honestly and graciously, we hear from God as well as others. When we hear from God we get clarity on how we should behave and deal with the various circumstances of life, and when we listen well to others we demonstrate the love of God to our fellow human beings.