“Australians,” quoted our chaplain, “spend the second half of your sentence thinking of an answer to the first half”. Well, I think, I’m a good listener, at any rate. I never—oh, wait, were you still talking?
There are many times in the Bible where it’s clear people are notsupposed to “listen” to their neighbour (e.g. Adam in Genesis 3:17, Abraham in Genesis 16:2,), and other times where “listening” clearly entails more than just recognising soundwaves (e.g. Deuteronomy 5:1, James 1:22). So let me be clear about what I mean by “listening” here. When I say “listening”, I don’t mean obeying. I don’t even mean agreeing, or disagreeing. By listening, I mean emptying yourself, so to speak—turning off the internal monologue, and focusing all your effort on just receiving what the other has to offer.
To illustrate, remember the frustration in Bible study when folks want to jump straight to what the passage meansbefore ironing out what it says. By “listening”, I mean the “O” in C. O. M. A.—but in this case, towards our neighbour.
More concretely: in a conversation—at the watercooler, in the tea room, or at the school drop off—listening means forgetting your plan for the conversation in order to actually take on board and be affected by the other person’s input. This means that if you ask someone how their weekend was, you’re basically promising to stop thinking about your weekend, and focus one hundred percent on their weekend for the next few minutes.
It sounds ridiculously simple, but I personally find it quite hard to do, and I’m sure I’m not the only one!
So why do it?
Well, firstly, because it’s the loving thing to do. Our Lord said “…in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). When you’re telling your story to someone, what would you like them to be thinking about? Your story or something else? So when it’s their turn to talk, what should you be thinking about?
Secondly, we should listen because it’s social rather than anti-social. Now I don’t mean it’s nice, rather than obnoxious; I mean social, as in, it helps stitch society together, rather than fragmenting it. Listening turns us toward our neighbour rather than in on ourselves. You may be very nice, nodding and smiling, “yes, yes,” but if you’re not listening, then you’re just saying yes to what you think your neighbour is saying; agreeing with your own preconceived version of your neighbour, not your real neighbour. Better an honest “I don’t get you, could you explain more?” because then, wherever the relationship goes from there, at least it’s a real relationship between two real people.
Thirdly, we should listen because it’s Jesus’ way of doing things rather than the world’s way. Consider our Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry: he didn’t always agree with people (!) but he never cut them off (e.g. Mark 12:13-34); he didn’t always trust people, seeing past their words to their hearts (John 2:23-25), but he did genuinely interact with them (John 3:1-15)—indeed you might say he was listening to them better than they were listening to themselves (e.g. Mark 10:35-40)! He didn’t allow people to dominate his agenda (e.g. Mark 1:35-39…), but he did allow them to affect it (…Mark 1:40-45). He had such an eye to his neighbour that he always noticed the little person in the crowd (Mark 10:49; 12:41-44; Luke 19:5). If the Lord of glory, who knew his neighbour already, could make himself available to hear people out, what about us, who don’talready know our neighbour’s heart? “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet…” (John 13:14).
But there is one objection worth considering: since we, Christians, Jesus’ messengers, have such important news to share, is it really wise to let our neighbour do all the talking? Won’t that mean they control the conversation? How will we ever get to the gospel like that?!
The first point to consider here is this: Listening doesn’t mean that you never talk (though I, reluctant to evangelise, would possibly prefer this!). Consider Jesus’ example, above—he certainly talked, but listening means that when it’s the other person’s turn, we genuinely take on board and try to understand their words as they intend us to.
The second point is: Remember Matthew 7:12 quoted before? “Do to others…”? Well, that’s not just a one-liner from our Lord—it’s the conclusion to a story he told. Matthew 7:9-12 is all about our loving heavenly Father, who will of course give good gifts to those who ask. “And so”, Jesus says, “do to others…”. That is, we can afford to treat our neighbours generously because our heavenly Father more than has our back.
So, don’t worry: ask for gospel opportunities—he loves to give us good gifts!
In fact, my observation is that listening is actually likely to lead to more genuine chances to share Jesus. God willing, people are more likely to take seriously the few words of the listener than the many words of the babbler. And the listener is more likely to speak in a way others can understand, because all of that listening helps us to speak our neighbour’s ‘language’ much better.
In view of these things, how then shall we listen? First of all, the most basic step is to stop talking—inside and out. This is really hard, because sin makes us pretty self-obsessed. Also, our neighbour is bound to say something that offends us sooner or later, and our knee-jerk reaction will be to get angry, and angry people are bad listeners. So pray, pray, pray, and practice, practice, practice; then reflect, confess and pray some more. (You pray for me, dear reader, and I’ll pray for you!)
“Active listening” during the conversation is a really helpful way to process what the other person is saying, and to double-check you have heard them properly—although rewording their every sentence might annoy them after a while!
After the conversation, spend time thinking over what your neighbour has said. Pray for them, give thanks, or lament to the Lord for their good or bad news. Think about which part of Scripture could apply to them in this situation. Apart from being a fruitful exercise in itself, you’ll be training yourself to be more attentive in your next conversation.
This practice naturally has even more benefit over the course of a long-term relationship—the longer you know someone, the longer you listen to them, and the more you’ll ‘get’ them, appreciate them as a person, be able to pray meaningfully for them, and be able to explain the gospel of our Lord in a way that makes sense to them.
Listening is time-consuming, takes effort and is costly. But it’s worth it—we are following our Lord and loving our neighbour, so let’s go for it!