I listen to him for nearly three hours. As he talks, the abuse, the pain, the disappointment, the shame spill out in unpredictable shudders of tears and sorrow. He has no prayer life, no concrete belief in a God who loves him, just a confused collection of broken dreams, empty promises and desperate requests. He doesn’t need someone to fix him, correct him, judge him or give him a well meant scripture he won’t understand. In this moment, he asks simply to be heard. As we finish our conversation, he smiles for the first time. Thank you. This has been incredible. He stresses the word with genuine gratitude. It comes as a surprise to me. I’ve really done very little but sit with him and not speak for a while. At times throughout our conversation I’ve wondered whether this is helping at all. No clever answers or contextual theology. No wise revelations or words of knowledge. Instead, I realise that God has quietly and simply made room for this man when no one else would. In the absence of my words compassion has surfaced. We arrange to talk again and I pray for him. Six months later and many more moments of connections, he agrees to come to church with me. The journey towards him hearing the truth has begun.
One of the most precious and possibly underrated aspects of God’s character is His humility. The humility of Jesus is astounding. We don’t have the word count to even begin to unpack how He demonstrated it here on earth. Philippians 2.5 summarises it best by saying about Jesus that “though he was in the form of God, (He) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He is the undisputed Lord of the Universe and yet, He humbles himself like no other.In accordance with every other aspect of His character, the humility of God is truly, indefatigably glorious.
It is also impossibly good news for humanity. As Erwin McManus puts it “without humility God would find no value in us, nor would He be concerned for our well being. It is a frightening thought to imagine being the creation of an arrogant and self absorbed God.” Whilst the cross is clearly the pinnacle of God’s humility revealed, our everyday lives are spent in the company of one whose unchanging heart is turned towards us in love. And I believe that we see an aspect of this transformative humility in the moments that God elects to listen to us. He will choose to stoop and stop when we call. He will incline His ear to our ignorance and smile at our baby talk. He will even give credence to things we petition Him for; pausing to acknowledge our divinely bestowed authority in this fallen, suffering world. “Cast all your anxiety on him” says the apostle Peter “because he cares for you.” Even when we’re wrong, ungrateful, unkind and frankly undeserving, there’s never been a moment when He hasn’t been humble enough to listen.
I love how God listens to me. He doesn’t need to. We both know it’s far more important for me to listen to Him. What He has to say is literally all I need to hear, nothing else needs to be uttered for eternity. However, we are in a loving relationship and therefore I believe He loves hearing me speak. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone else but in my experience, He has never interrupted me, cut me off or talked over me, even when I’ve rambled on in arrogant, nonsensical circles of pity, self-righteous complaints and downright error. Don’t get me wrong, He’s not slow to tell it to me straight at just the right time. But He always lets me talk.
I therefore genuinely believe that listening to someone is a truthful demonstration of the heart and character of God. For many Christians, however, I imagine it’s possible that the pressure to speak can take precedence over the need to listen. Sharing the gospel can quickly become a task that we must verbally administer, even if the relationship is not sufficiently watertight to receive the river. I am in no doubt that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Rom 10.17). We must be those who are prepared to share our faith boldly and without reproach (1 Peter 3.15) But in these heady days of information overload, I wonder if increasingly some of us need to first earn the right to speak. And I wonder if loving someone through listening is the place to start.
We exist in a world which seems to place little value on listening to each other. Western society is unapologetically self centred with a systemic crumbling attention span and a raft of one way social media opinions and faceless forums littered with tennis tournaments of animosity and vitriol. Listening, therefore, emerges as something particularly radical in our current climate and perhaps explains, to some degree, why the profound impact of such an apparently simple action has been observed. Christian philosopher Dallas Willard writes “how rarely are we ever truly listened to and how deep is our need. I wonder how much wrath in human life is a result of not being heard.” Eminent psychologist Carl Rogers states “we think we listen but rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening of this very special kind is one of the most potent forces of changes that I know.” The influential theologian Paul Tillich simply suggests that “the first duty of love is to listen.”
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak […]” says James in his epistle. He’s not alone. Throughout scripture I see a continuous exhortation for believers to hear first, talk later. Whether it is the famous declaration in Deuteronomy 6.4 “Hear O Israel The Lord our God is One” or the cry of Jesus “Whoever has ears let them hear” (Matt 11.15), the Bible appears to value our ability to listen above our desire to verbalise.
It is crucial to understand that listening is not simply waiting for your moment to speak. It is not the gap where you take a slurp of your coffee before wrestling the conversation back to your view, experience and advice. It is not the verbal downtime whilst you mentally unfurl your next brilliant point. Listening involves staying in the moment and parking your input and perspective until they are requested, which incidentally may be never. This is about the journey. This is about letting someone else be heard.
So how can listening impact mission? Of course, we need to speak out and share our faith. I’m not advocating a compromised silence that withholds the only Answer who is ever needed. But we do need to love people unconditionally and, simply put, listening is an effective and genuine way of doing so. It ascribes value and worth to an individual. It conveys a respect for an individual’s views, identity and position whilst demonstrating that their life, experience and existence really do matter. Listening without judgement, condemnation or dismissive solutions breaks the mould of how many of us experience our human interactions. Relationships built this way are resilient and facilitate an authentic and inevitable sharing of faith. More often than not, if someone has been listened to, they too will listen.
As chaplains at Third Space we’re learning that listening is indeed a powerful tool for connection and mission. Whether it’s a member of the team listening to a woman working in a strip club, a journey with a DJ battling with the pressures of the music industry or an athlete who needs to offload about disappointment or injury, we are constantly recognising God’s heart for people to be heard. Recently, we’ve initiated a listening service in a local cafe, simply offering a safe space for cafe customers or staff to talk. At the pilot event, people came and shared their frustrations, their fears, their questions, their dreams. One man wrote on the feedback form “I poured out my heart and it was wonderful to be able to talk freely.” Interestingly, listening to these individuals seemed to open up natural, sensitive and authentic channels for God to speak into their lives too. Quiet words of wisdom, affirmation and prayer followed the conversations and were gratefully received. These were people with no knowledge of Jesus and yet the space to be heard afforded them a moment of encounter with Him.
Yes, we have a gospel to proclaim, a message to bring, a word of salvation to utter. But can we expect to be heard if we aren’t prepared to listen? With a cacophony of religious ideologies, New Age mantra and pseudo spiritual rhetoric sloshing through the lives of those around us, we run the risk of jettisoning the gospel into a vacuum of noise and confusion. As Paul famously states, without love, we are just a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13). Plenty of volume perhaps but ill received. What if we turned down the proverbial amplitude for a minute and let someone else share their story? What if we loved someone by abandoning our legitimate concerns for a small portion of our day and instead, made it all about them? What if we waited before we spoke, allowing God to move in the measured absence of our words? Do we dare to trust Him to speak even if we don’t? You never know, maybe, like my friend at the start of this piece or the stranger in the cafe, the opportunity to listen might result in the start of a personal journey towards the One, True and Ultimate Listener; the God who is always humble enough to hear us when we call.