The Art of Listening

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My Mother always taught me about the importance of listening to people.  She would regularly prompt my siblings and me to ask people questions about themselves, and to respond with interest in them and in what they were saying.  I was trained not to ‘story-top’ others, as I was inclined to do, but to listen.  At the time it just felt like nagging, but in hindsight it was excellent advice.

We’ve all had those conversations where we’ve felt the person isn’t that interested in what we’re saying.  There are a few classic signs – loss of eye contact, responses becoming generic, or the person seeming to be keen for you to finish your sentence so that they can start one of their own.  Perhaps they don’t seem to want to ask you anything about yourself – it feels like a one-way street.  I find this type of behaviour incredibly frustrating, but when I stop to examine myself I wonder if my listening is much better.   Yes, I’ve been taught the social graces of inquiring about and responding to people.   But am I really that interested?  Or would I rather be talking about myself, and am I standing ready to grasp the opportunity to change the subject to me?

The irony is, we all crave to be heard, but most of us aren’t very good at listening.  Even when I’m fully engaged, I’m too quick to guess what my friend is saying and too eager to jump in with my own opinion or what I think is the answer.  But the very best listeners I’ve met (a rare breed) are those that let you finish and mostly just stay quiet.  And when they do respond, they are only attempting to clarify the things you’ve said to ensure they understand.  Being heard is one of the most empowering and liberating experiences, especially if we’ve felt unheard until then.  And this is what we can offer to others if we only employ a little wisdom and self-restraint in our conversations.  Listening to people is the key to understanding them, and the way into their hearts.

But listening does not just benefit the speaker, it also benefits the hearer.  If I don’t listen to people, I can’t learn from them.  And more importantly, if I don’t listen to God, I cannot be shaped and grown by him.  But how do I listen to God?  It doesn’t seem so simple without an audible voice and a physical presence around us.  It’s easy to dismiss the importance of listening to God because it’s not just a phone call I can take, or a personalised letter I can read.   But Jesus makes it clear he wants me to listen to his voice.  ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)  Hearing his voice is key to having intimacy with him and learning from him.  I’ve got to master the art of listening.

I’ve always been told that God speaks to us through his Word.  Every teaching must be in accordance with what the Bible says.  The Bible’s important – I get it!  But I’m only just beginning to realise what that means.  God’s Word isn’t just words he said once in the past that are true and have been recorded.  Scripture is living and active and has the power to change and convict my heart and redirect my life.  His Word has the power of the Holy Spirit behind it, and its meaning and truth is eternal.  The bible has authority over current events, over people’s life situations and it makes statements and prophecies about humanity that cannot be disputed.  It transcends time and can never be outdated.  ‘The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the LORD endures forever.’  (Isaiah 40:8)  It might not feel that exciting or glamorous to turn to Philippians chapter 4 and read over a cup of tea with bed-hair, but God’s voice is in scripture!  Mini-miracles in which the word of our Creator convicts, guides and comforts us can happen daily in the kitchen or on the sofa.   The Bible is heaven’s wireless – a direct line in to hearing God’s will for our lives.

I’ve often wondered how God could direct me to the words he wants to speak into my life, since I’m the one choosing the book, chapter and verse when I sit down to read.  And I tend to go to the scripture I want to read – I diagnose my spiritual need and choose the antidote myself.  How can I listen if I don’t know what he wants to say?   I decided to ask God about this recently and his answer was quick and clear.  That very evening I had a message from a friend who was struggling and I directed her to God’s promise in Isaiah 42: ‘A bruised reed he will not break and a faintly burning wick he will not quench’.  I myself had been wrestling with a sense of injustice in my life, and had poured out my heart to God, wondering if he cared.  When I opened my bible again it was still open at Isaiah 42 and I glanced down at the verses below verse 3.  ‘He will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be discouraged til he has established justice in the earth’.   It made me laugh!  How could I doubt God’s power to direct me to the words he wants me to hear?  Of course he’ll find a way.

But if scripture is God’s living and active voice, speaking into my life, I’ve got to create opportunities to hear and know it.  Regularly reading the Bible and Christian literature, hearing sermons and talking with other believers are vital for listening to his Voice.  To listen to the radio you’ve got to switch it on and tune in to the right station.  It seems like a no-brainer, but so often I’m tuning in somewhere else – TV, Facebook, idle conversation.   How can I expect God to speak to me if I can’t be bothered to seek him out over other things?  John Piper doesn’t mince his words in his sermon series, Take Care how you Listen:  ‘If you really want to hear the Word of God the way he means to be heard in truth and joy and power, turn off the television… and read something true and great and beautiful and pure and honourable and excellent and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)  Then watch your heart unshrivel and begin to hunger for the word of God.’  How can I pray, God speak to me, but not invest in the channels through which he speaks?  And God speaks to me through my prior knowledge of his Word too – so I’ve got to know it!  I recall having some tough doubts about my value in God and questioning how I could be significant to him, and in my despair I heard his voice so powerfully as I recalled parts of Psalm 139 as I prayed, ‘You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar… You knit me together in my Mother’s womb’. …

A good friend of mine reminded me just recently that, whilst it is important to tell God everything, it is vital to spend time listening to him and to wait for his spirit to prompt me.  I have to create space for him to speak to me, and to ask him to speak.  I must confess I rarely have the faith or the patience for this.  Pausing during my prayers usually causes my mind to doubt and to wander, or my desire to meditate on God and seek guidance from him is quashed by an irrational urgency to finish my prayers and get on with the day.  In summary, my prayers often go something like this: Lord, here are my problems, what’s going on? What shall I do? Help me, Amen.  I leave no room for him to speak – I’m gone before he can.  It’s like meeting a mentor for coffee, and saying ‘I just don’t know what to do. Bye!’  But Psalm 46 tells us to ‘Be still and know that I am God’.  Perhaps if I were to stop and be still more often, I would be able to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to me.  And sometimes that’s exactly how God speaks – in the stillness and the quiet.  Just as Elijah, when he was waiting for God’s voice in the earthquake and the fire, instead, heard it afterwards in a small whisper, (1 Kings 19) so we can often be looking for big, loud signs from God.  And instead, he speaks to us in the stillness and the quiet as we meditate on him.

But what if his answer isn’t what I want to hear?  Am I willing to listen to God even if I don’t like what he is saying?  Because if I’m not, there’s no point in asking him what he wants me to do.  At times, I’ve avoided praying about certain areas of my life because I don’t want to face what I know is God’s will for me.  And it’s because I am not willing to relent to his will over mine.  Perhaps I feel convicted to give up something that I am not willing to lose, or changing something I am not willing to change.  But in doing so, what I’m really saying is that I don’t believe that God has a better understanding of what is best for me than I do.  Sometimes this lack of faith isn’t obvious to us at first, and it takes careful and honest self-examination to uncover a refusal to relent to God’s will.  It’s easy to cover it up with reasoned logic and spiritual talk about why we’ve made our choices.  But the only way to really follow God’s voice is to completely surrender my own will and seek his.  And I can only do this by digging deep – identifying self-will and putting it to death.   It really hurts, but Paul assures us that there is a huge amount of freedom found in doing this.  ‘I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I do all things through him who strengthens me.’  (Philippians 4)

When someone is a bad listener, we tend to give up trying to speak to them after a while.  We write them off as a ‘brick wall’ and a ‘lost cause’.  I’m so eternally thankful that God hasn’t written me off, despite my damning track-record.  As I reflect on His voice in my life, I hear the gentle repetition of important lessons that I’m reluctant to learn and the persistent reminders to trust him. And when my stubborn heart insists on leaving him and pursuing my idols, he doesn’t let me go.  His voice just gets louder and louder and eventually becomes a megaphone calling out love and grace that stops me in my tracks and breaks my heart.  He is a relentless pursuer of my soul. And when, like Jonah on the ship away from Nineveh, I’m deaf even to His loudest voice, he has intervened in my life and shut off the road so that I simply can’t continue in my path away from him.  Sometimes it stings, but sometimes a gracious slap in the face is the only thing that will make me listen.  So I mustn’t despair that I am obstinate and slow to hear.  Instead, I must rest in the knowledge that my Saviour will always love and pursue me, and continue to practice the art of listening.

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