Magazines 2019 Jan - Feb Learning to listen

Learning to listen

13 February 2019

Spiritual practice for interacting in a diverse society

Spiritual practice for interacting in a diverse society


Not long ago I embarrassed myself at a staff meeting. I ended up saying almost exactly the same thing a colleague had just said one minute earlier. After a bit of laughter I had to confess, "Clearly, I wasn’t listening well."

Parents and teachers know how difficult it is for children to listen. And don’t we sometimes wish spouses, friends, doctors and hairdressers would listen a bit more closely to us? All of us may as well own up – listening well is hard.

Recently I read in the Gospel of Luke, "There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open" (8:17). If I had stopped reading there, I would have expected Jesus to say, "Be careful then what you do in secret." Or "Be careful then about what you say, for it will eventually get blasted out on the internet." (Well, not exactly, but you get the idea.)

But that’s not what Jesus says. Instead He says, "Consider carefully how you listen!"

Consider how I listen? Why listening?

In context Jesus is speaking of the absurdity of lighting a lamp but then putting it under a clay jar or a bed. In other words, Jesus isn’t cautioning us to hold our tongue or do the right thing because someday we will be found out – as true as that may be.

Rather Jesus is saying the truth of all things will come to light. Not everything that comes to us in bold letters marked Truth or Fact will be shown to be true. Nor will everything labelled Fake News or Blasphemy necessarily turn out to be false.

We need to learn to listen more closely and carefully long before we decide what we must say or do.

Therefore, Jesus is saying work hard to listen carefully lest you end up hearing and believing things that are untrue, or accepting a false label on something that is actually true.

There have been times when the respected authorities of our society, including the Church, could expect to be listened to almost without question. But in our day of skepticism and healthy awareness of past errors, we need to learn to listen more closely and carefully long before we decide what we must say or do.

As always, Christians today bear witness to the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God announced by Jesus, and we do our best to speak truthfully and graciously. But the ability to speak truthfully and graciously needs to be coupled with the ability to listen carefully and with great spiritual discernment.

People who have listened first before speaking are more likely to find their audience open to listening, and more likely to speak more accurately to that specific audience.

Of course, all this is complicated by the plethora of voices vying for everyone’s attention in our society – educators, activists, pundits, media and even peers and family. So how do we learn to listen well? Practical everyday listening skills can and should be learned by all Christians, as pastoral theologian Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger argues in her book Pray Without Ceasing (Eerdmans, 2006).

But more importantly she argues that the best spiritual listeners are those who begin with learning to hear from God in prayer. Listening for the Spirit’s voice in the midst of pressure and crisis is a lesson we need to learn well, especially when it is so much easier to react in the heat of the moment.

In a recent EFC strategy meeting, we concluded being called on to respond is basically inevitable for us, but that doesn’t mean we always have to react. Responding well happens most often when we listen well.

The need to listen well is captured in Faith Today’s lead article of practical wisdom from church leaders who have responded during crisis and disaster. Despite their radically different situations, all see the need to prayerfully listen and discern, even when they find themselves having to act quickly.

The speed and quality of response, in other words, must be constantly tempered by listening to the people most affected. What we assume people may need in crisis isn’t always what they really need. We’ll only find out if we take the time to slow down and, as Jesus said, consider carefully how we listen.

Give us not only mouths to speak your truth, O God, but ears to hear what your Spirit is saying.

david guretzki

David Guretzki of Ottawa is publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.