We live in an age of noise. It’s easier than ever for anyone and everyone to share their thoughts, opinions and story. While much good can come with this, we also know that when everyone is speaking loudly, it’s hard for anyone to be heard. It’s even harder to get quiet enough to listen. We’ve lost the skill of quiet discourse.
With so much noise and distraction, it’s harder to listen to God and each other. Often the path forward requires us to do the hard things. I believe listening is this path; it’s the key to unlocking a better future for ourselves and our children.
1. Listening to God
We must first listen to God. We must be willing to quiet ourselves and our surroundings enough to hear the still, small voice of the Spirit. Despite all the things competing for our attention, to hear the gentle whisper of God, like Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13), we must be silent.
Jesus modeled this for us when he drew away to quiet places to pray (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). We cannot expect to do the work of God in this world, to imagine a new future, to bring the kingdom of heaven on earth if we do not start by listening to God’s voice.
This requires not only time alone in prayer, but realizing that God’s Spirit is always at work, always accessible to us, and always speaking—even in the midst of our busy daily lives. The Spirit guides us into all wisdom, prompts us forward, and fills us with conviction and purpose.
Just as the Spirit guided Moses through the wilderness, the Spirit desires to guide you through whatever wilderness you are facing as well. When we listen to God, He leads and empowers us.
Listening to the Spirit is the first step forward into a new frontier.
2. Listening to Those Around Us
The next step is similar—learning to listen to the people around us. This is how we love our brothers and sisters.
Perhaps we raise our voices because we so rarely feel genuinely heard. We are each starving for someone to listen, really listen, to us. And we forget that we must become what we need.
Decades ago, Bonhoeffer wrote: “Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight, it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share.”
Being heard is healing, and we can join in offering it. When we listen to each other we have an opportunity to offer both love and healing to a world desperately in need of it.
But this listening must be the right kind of listening.
There is a listening that hears only with the intent to reply, to refute, to defend. This is not the kind of listening that shows love or brings healing. This kind of listening is still postured toward the self, rather than the other.
True listening sets aside the self. It is welcoming to the other, it is hospitable. The door is open, the welcome mat is out, all the lights are on. The table is set with warm food, and the friend is invited in.
Henry Nouwen speaks of this sort of listening when he says:
“To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality.
As Nouwen said, “Those who are listened to start to feel accepted.” David W. Augsburger put this another way when he said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
When we empty ourselves enough to listen carefully, with no agenda, we offer a gift to the person we are listening to—we offer love.
And isn’t this how Jesus said the world would know us? By our love (John 13:35).
Perhaps this is exactly why James implores the early church to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Because it’s in listening that we offer love.
As we move into yet another decade of this new century, let us be people who listen. As we come out of the trauma of the past year, let us be people who listen. As we rebuild, repair, and reimagine a new future, let us be people who listen.
John Wentz is the executive vice president of ministry for Alpha USA and the global training lead for Alpha International.