I thought the assignment would be “so easy.”
The task was simple: engage someone in conversation—asking about her life, work, class load, or even her past or dreams for the future—and then don’t interrupt a single time while she shared.
I’ll never forget receiving this assignment as a junior in college. I considered myself a good listener and was excited for what I expected to be an easy A.
Then I learned how often I was prone to interrupting.
It was the next day, as one of my dear friends shared her heart over a mug of coffee, that I quickly realized this assignment was, in fact, not going to be easy for me. It became apparent how natural it was for me to interject my own stories as people shared theirs. I wanted to show I identified, but Anna didn’t need my points of identification, she just needed someone who would love her enough to push their own words aside and listen.
Three years later, I now see how God used that assignment to begin teaching me more about the Gospel I said I believed and the way it directly correlates to serving others with our ears.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger… –James 1:19
Sitting with Anna in that small cafe on campus, my pride took a much-needed blow by the stinging reality that I was neither quick to hear or slow to speak, but I had yet to discover the Gospel implications behind that reality.
LISTENING HELPS US LOVE OTHERS
It is through words people give us their stories and hearts, so why would we not take time to learn to cherish that gift and represent Christ well by listening well?
We must discipline our flesh (which includes our tongues) and cultivate the art, gift, and mission of listening. This is counter-cultural and, while foreign to most people, extraordinarily like Jesus, who didn’t just tolerate people’s stories, concerns, or requests, but listened, assessed, and gave them exactly what they needed most. He still seeks to operate this way through His body, the church.
One of the best gifts you can give someone is open ears and an engaged heart at the same time. Roaring into every conversation with our guns fully loaded with the “right” answers to fire at people is not always the most helpful or loving approach to serving others and being a visible representation of God to them.
Some people are verbal processors and they might answer their own questions as they continue talking, so it’s often best and more beneficial to give them freedom to remove their verbal cargo and not rush to give them specific chapter and verse. And sometimes people are so overwhelmed that what they need most is not a five-point sermon or a drill of proper doctrine, but the cathartic gift of silence and eyes full of love when they’re braced for condemnation and a tongue-lashing (this is especially true when creating space for repentance and confession of sin and struggles).
We must also remember that listening isn’t passive. It’s an active and self-sacrificing role that, according to Janet Dunn, “invites another person to exist.”
With open ears, solid eye contact, and a phone put away, you’re telling someone, “I see you. I hear you. I’m championing you across the table and in the midst of your struggle or victory. You are not alone.”
When genuine, listening speaks of love, humility, kindness, compassion, and concern. It speaks of the Gospel and that we have something greater than ourselves to live for, so we can quiet our souls enough to interestedly listen to others.
Listening forces our dependence on the Holy Spirit and silently affirms that He, not our words, is what the person beside us needs most. We listen to Him through His Word and Spirit and then, when the time comes for us to speak, our words are more likely to be seasoned with salt and ready to point our listeners back to Him, because listening mainly speaks of the Gospel.