In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, he wrote: “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.
“So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.
“This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
Do you have an ear that will listen? I heard a podcast recently where “listening” was described as an act of generosity and a source of discovery. Nik Ripken, a missionary to North Africa and the Middle East for 30 years, wrote, “So many people… desperately needed more than the help that we were prepared to give. What they wanted even more, however, was for someone, anyone, even a stranger who was still trying to learn their language, to sit for a while, or just stand with them, and let them share their stories.”
How much time have you spent listening today… really listening? Listening to God’s Spirit, to His story, and to your brother?
A few summers ago, I was a counselor at a girls’ camp, telling Bible stories to the seven 12-year olds in my cabin. These girls were not church kids; they were all from broken homes and didn’t know much about the Bible. They were so honest about the stories and so open to Jesus. One Bible story we talked about was Paul telling the Roman king about the first time he saw Jesus. Paul says he saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around him.
In that story, Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The girls in my cabin said, “That question doesn’t make sense… if Paul called the voice “Lord,” then why did he ask, “Who are you?” I asked them what they thought about when they heard the title “Lord,” and somehow the conversation turned to the girls asking, “Is Jesus God or just the Son of God? How can He be both? What about God’s Spirit? How do we know who to pray to?”
These are great questions, and the girls truly wanted answers. I could have jumped in, and starting explaining, but thankfully, Jesus put His hand over my mouth, and I just listened. There was a lot of back and forth for a while, and then one girl quietly suggested, “Why don’t we ask Him?” They all thought that was a great idea. I said, “Who wants to ask Him?” Another girl spoke up, “Jesus, we really want to know who You are. Amen.” I realized later, she asked the same question Paul asked in the story… “Who are you, Lord?” So amazing.
Later, as I thought about our conversation, I realized something important. When those girls left camp, they weren’t going home to families or friends who could answer their questions about God. Where, then, could they find answers? If I had jumped in every time the girls asked a question, if I had been talking when I should have been listening, they would have become dependent on me for answers and for intercession. But when He put His hand on my mouth, the girls discovered that they could take their questions directly to Him. I wouldn’t be going home with them. Jesus would be.
Sometimes listening does involve opening our mouths, though not to explain or give our opinion: a good listener develops the skill of asking questions. Look at Jesus’ pattern. In the middle of the night, right after a storm that almost sank their boat, He asked his students, “Why are you so afraid?” When two blind men sat on the side of the road, shouting for mercy, Jesus asked, “What do you want Me to do for you?” When a rich man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Why do you call Me good?”
If you do the math, for every one question Jesus answered directly in the Gospels, He asked literally one hundred questions. Jesus modeled what Bonhoeffer expressed so well: “…It is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially [Christian leaders and teachers], so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”
Francis Schaeffer, a missionary to Western Europe, used to say that if he had only one hour with someone, he would spend 55 minutes asking them questions, and 5 minutes speaking to their situation, once he understood a little more about what was going on in their heart and mind.
You can discover a lot about a person when you listen to their words. You learn what they believe, about their passion, about their pain. This summer I was staffing at another camp, again with mostly unchurched kids from broken homes. As we talked about the story of Mary and Martha, I moved toward one quiet boy and sat down on the concrete floor in front of his bench, fixing my eyes on his face. There was silence for a few seconds, then I asked, “What do you think we could learn about Mary from the fact that she sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to His words?” One girl said, “She was interested in what He had to say.” I nodded. “So you think I look interested in what Drake has to say?” The boy in front of me shook his head and laughed dismissively. “I don’t think anyone’s interested in what I have to say.”
Mary didn’t speak a single word in that Bible story, yet she has a message for us all. Listen well. It is service. It is generosity. It is discovery. As the Psalmist said, “I love the Lord because He hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because He bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath!” Listening is the beginning of love.