May 10, 2017

The Ministry of Listening: A God Who Listens

I am a poor listener. I don't think I knew how poor until I started dating Greg. I get easily distracted by both internal and external stimuli, whether my own thoughts of what I'll say once it's my "turn" to speak or a buzzing phone on the sofa beside me. Being married to a man who deeply desires intentional conversation, quality time, and feeling heard, this has been the number one cause for conflict thus far. It is frustrating because I want to be a good listener. But due to so many factors (including often my own selfishness), this has been an ongoing struggle. I thank God that He's given me a husband who has lovingly but assertively shared when he has felt that I am not listening well and the affect it has on how loved he feels. And I am thankful that Greg is forgiving and patient time and time again in the area. I am also thankful for solid Biblical counseling, wisdom-drenched resources (some of which I will share below), and above all, God's grace to teach me and grow me.

"Be quick to listen, slow to speak." 
James 1:19

As Christians, we are called to be good listeners. We are created imago Deo, in the image of the Almighty Trinitarian God -- Father, Son, Spirit. God is the Great Listener and if we are His children and followers, we should aspire to be great listeners as well as we grow in our likeness to His character and attributes. There will obviously be limitations to our ability to listen, but there will always be room to grow. 

Reflect on just a few of the myriad of verses that speak of the God who listens:

"In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From His temple He heard my voice; my cry came before Him, into His ears." (Psalm 18:6)

"Then you will call on Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. (Jeremiah 29:12)

"I love the Lord, for He heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy. Because He turned His ear to meI will call on Him as long as I live." (Psalm 116:1-2)

This does not sound like a God who is  distracted, annoyed, or bothered by our cries, prayers, or petitions. These verses exclaim praise to a God who listens to us in His unfailing love. He hears us. he turns His ears towards us and our cries reach His ears.

"It is God's love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together).

Jesus was also a great listener while on His earthly ministry. He heard the cries of the sick, blind, lame, and forsaken (He hears the cries of the blind man Mark 10). He also heard the questions that were unspoken, the questions people were either to scared or too prideful to ask (such as the rich young ruler in Matthew 19). He was able to detect underlying needs, such as in His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). 

"And this is the confidence that we have toward Him (Jesus), that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us."  (1 John 5:14)

The Holy Spirit is also a great listener. Among other roles, He is our intercessor. He hears the deep groaning of our souls even when we cannot put words to the pain, confusion, or despair. And He prays for us to the Father. What a comfort that when we are speechless, He knows us so well that He speaks for us at a deeper level than we can reach on our own. 

 "In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." (Romans 8:26-27)

In his book, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction, Adam S. McHugh dives into different areas we can grow in listening: listening to God, to Scripture, to Creation, to people (with a chapter specific to listening to people in pain), and to your own life. Obviously, growing (or inversely, not growing) in this often difficult skill of listening will affect every aspect of our lives. For me, I am most keenly aware of this in my marriage. I hurt my best friend and beloved when I am not attentive and listening to him. I see it in my habit to talk to my parents on the phone while also scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. I see it in my often rushed Bible and prayer time. 

"Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because (often)  Christians are talking where they should be listening" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the phrase I borrowed for titling this blog: the ministry of listening. He taught about how listening within Christian community is a vital part of the growth and health of that community in his book, Life Together: An Exploration of Christian Community

In the days (and maybe weeks) ahead, I want to share some of the excerpts from these books that I found helpful, convicting, and rich in wisdom about cultivating our ability to listen. As I said at the onset of this post, I struggle as a listener, specifically towards people, but also in the ways I listen to God. My easily distracted, hard-to-concetrate, short attention-spanned brain finds sitting in silence and focusing on a person, Bible reading, or prayer very difficult at times. So I want to be proactive and intentional by reviewing readings that I have found helpful so that I can hopefully grow in this area. Just as water, pruning, and tender care is needed to cultivate crops or a garden, cultivating the "listening life" is a slow but purpose-driven endeavor. If you have any resources, experience, or reflections on this, please share!

I am sharing this only because I hope it will benefit and encourage others. As a woman, I often hear that we are so much better at being multitaskers than men. We can listen while doing several other things. I don't know how much I agree with this statement as a whole, but I definitely know it is not true for me. So I have felt some shame and loneliness in trying to explain this struggle with other women who are innately excellent listeners. So if this post helps anyone else feel less alone in their struggle in listening, than it has reached its purpose, because it is pretty humbling and embarrassing to admit.

Here are a few questions to reflect on:

Do I consider myself a good listener to people, to God, and to His Word? 

Do I easily lose focus when a person is speaking, either by internal thoughts and prepping a response or by external distractions?

Do I rush through my prayer and Bible study time without leaving time for stillness and listening to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach me?

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Elle Alice