Repost: Are You Listening? Really Listening?

[My family is moving across town this week, so I haven’t been able to work on the blog much lately. So here’s a repost from about a year and a half ago. This transition thing can feel like Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep.” But until that rest comes, I’ll look for a park bench along the way.]

Finding good listeners is very important to missionaries. In fact, when member-care trainer Brenda Bosch surveyed missionaries about what they wanted from their mission agency, the top answer was “someone to listen to me.”

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that listening is necessary in Christian community. He calls it the “first service” that Christians owe each other:

Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.

For Christians, pastoral care differs essentially from preaching in that here the task of listening is joined to the task of speaking the Word. There is also a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. This impatient, inattentive listening really despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other. This sort of listening is no fulfillment of our task. And it is certain that here, too, in our attitude toward other Christians we simply see reflected our own relationship to God.

In the latter paragraph, Bonhoeffer describes a false, inadequate kind of listening. In reading what is lacking there, we can see the qualities required of a good listener. Are you someone who listens in that way?

  • Do you listen with a “whole” ear?
  • Do you presume that you will hear something unique and valuable?
  • Are you patient?
  • Are you attentive?
  • Do you love the speaker?
  • Do you waive your right to speak?
  • Do you hope to keep the other person in your presence, sharing with you?
  • Are you fulfilling your task, to your neighbors and to God?

The New Testament records Jesus saying several times, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In The Message, this is translated, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

Thanks to Brian Stankich at FULFILL for drawing my attention to the survey in his post “11 Types of Care Missionaries Want from Their Sending Agencies and Co-Workers.”

(Brenda Bosch, “Summary of Missionary Survey Outcomes,” Global Member Care Network Conference, April 2012; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, Augsburg Fortress, 2004, 98-99)

[photo: “Listen carefully,” by Justin Lynham, used under a Creative Commons license]