Listening appears to be in short supply these days. And as we have entered the new decade, I pondered what may be the most effective thing for us, as people, but also as the Church, to relearn. I believe we must regain the wisdom of listening. In the book of James, we see this interesting line in the first chapter. “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” (James 1:19 NIV)
James sets out to do a complete role reversal on how we interact. He says that we should be quick to listen, and then slow to speak. This is, at times, radically different than how we currently approach conversation. Many of us clamor to speak without any intention to ever listen. James’ wording here is odd, because you can’t speed up the process of listening. Reality is not something you can turn up to 1.5 speed. By the using the word “quick” here is to essentially say that listening bears the priority rather than speaking. As well, James is acknowledging that if you listen first, you will naturally be slower to speak because you can’t do both at the same time. My dad used to say, “If your mouth is moving, your ears are shut.” Which is to say, if you’re talking, you’re not listening.
Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Listening is the key. Before we do anything else, we should listen. After that we can speak from a place of grace and knowing. So, as we enter an entirely new decade, I want to suggest three ways that listening can help us interpersonally, and also in our prayer life as well.
Listening helps us to understand.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes this quick aside comment, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” (Matthew 11:15 NLT) This makes a very interesting acknowledgement, that you can hear but never listen; or another way to say this, hearing and understanding are not always the same.
Not too long ago, I was talking with my mom, and she was going on and on about some family gathering, and along the way I had stopped listening. I got distracted. I had received a text, which lead me to Twitter, then to email, and then finally to Fantasy Football, where it often ends up. By the end of our conversation, I didn’t really hear anything she said. She said to me with a smile, “You have been such a huge help.” I smiled back and nodded, but it dawned on me that I had no clue how I had helped her.
Hearing and listening are not the same. Listening requires an intentional effort to focus on the other person, agenda and distraction free. We listen to understand the other person. To pull back the layers on why they believe that, what they’re passionate about, what they love, where they come from, and ultimately where they’re heading. Think about how this could change politics. We listen, because we want to understand. We listen because we care.
Listening allows us to be present.
Intentional and active listening means that we must slow down and be present. This is a slow process, a give and take, a two-way street. You can’t fast forward through conversation or listening. You have to be here.
I’m a youth pastor and with that comes recruiting volunteers for a wide array of different roles. You may be surprised to know that the most common hesitance to serving in youth ministry has nothing to do with the amount of time or work I am asking from an individual. Instead, the greatest barrier I have found is the fear of not knowing what to say to a teenager. I always laugh and tell them, “You don’t need to say too much.” Truthfully, high schoolers don’t need one more adult telling them how they should be living, who they should or should not be dating, what they should or should not be doing. High schoolers need an adult in their life besides their parent that cares about them and shows up regularly. This is all any of us really want or need, people who are actively engaged and present in our lives.
For many years, I thought that all I had to offer were my words. All I thought I could offer you was a joke, a curated Bible verse, some wise sentiment, or a weird fun-fact. However, as I get older, I have found that the best thing I can offer you is my time. It has been said that time is a constantly withering commodity, that will never replenish. If that’s the case, to give of your time is to give your most precious possession. When you look at the story of Job in the Old Testament, you see he loses everything- his children, his wealth and property, his wife and his own health. Understandably, he is broken down and his friends find him mourning in the dirt. Instead of saying anything, the Bible says “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:13 NIV)
Just be here. You don’t need to speak. You just need to be present. Listening is the road towards being present. It allows us to see that we have more to offer than just our words. We have our time and care. Sometimes the best thing we have to offer is a pair of ears willing to listen and a heart willing to love. Listening allows us to give of our time and be present.
Listening helps us to pray well.
At its simplest definition, prayer is a conversation between us and God. Although, too often we can forget that it is a dialogue, and we make it into a monologue of just our prayers and requests, with no expectation of reply. In 1 Samuel 3, we see this interesting story where Samuel hears the voice of God, but he doesn’t recognize it:
“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So, Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel, 3:7-10 NIV).
That first line is intriguing; “Samuel did not yet know God.” Which would explain why the voice of God was unknown to him. In the gospel of John, Jesus says this of His followers, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27, NIV). The sheep knew the shepherd, and the shepherd knew the sheep.
This is profound, because it meant that the sheep could trust what they were hearing because they could trust the source. I truly believe that while we may not hear the audible voice of God, we do have promptings and whispers in our lives that are God speaking to us. To properly discern and trust what we’re hearing, we must know the voice of the Shepherd, and the best way to do that is to read stories and familiarize ourselves with who Jesus is and how God has spoken in the past.
This first step is to learn more about the Shepherd. We can do this by looking to the Bible to read more about God. How has God spoken in the past? How does God interact with his people? What are some of the characteristics of God that we can see in the Gospels? Read more about Jesus and, soon enough, we can begin to see the words of Jesus in our own lives. You can also talk with other people and hear how God has spoken to them. Through this, we can pray with the intentional desire to listen.
In this same vein, to listen effectively in prayer we must be still. Psalm 46:10-11 says, “‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (NIV). Be still and know that I am God. Be still and listen.
There are several restaurants that I will avoid going to just because they are too noisy, and it makes it extremely difficult to hear my friends. Similarly, stillness and quiet are essential in prayer. We must quiet ourselves and learn to discern the voice of God, so when we’re in the position of Samuel we can respond likewise, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
In this new decade, what would look like we followed James’ script for conversation? What would happen if we began to embrace a listening first mentality? Where we choose to listen to understand people more fully before jumping to conclusions? Where we chose to be present and listen, because our time can be more valuable than our words. Where we prayed expectant that God was actually in conversation with us, in the stillness and quiet. What would happen if we regained the wisdom of listening? I think it could change everything.
Matthew is a youth pastor in the south suburbs of Chicago at Chicago First Church of the Nazarene. He also writes more at his blog One/Seven (oneseven.press). He loves a good book, a hot cup of coffee, and friends to share it with.