If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 1 John 4:20
I’m certain we are not a listening culture. The further up the leadership ladder we go, the worse listener we become. The profession that is perhaps the worst listeners are pastors. We go into our profession ostensibly because we have been called by God to the ministry. Yet many look at the position of pastor and see “preacher” and ask an assumptive question: how can you preach without telling? We think, or sometimes say, “God loves you and I have a wonderful plan for your life.”
We attend higher education to learn to speak. These institutions offer few, if any, courses on the art of listening. In my tradition of Southern Baptist, we all want to be prophets, but precious few of us want to be priests.
Prophets speak a message from God to the people. Often in the Old Testament it was done with loud and hyperbolic language. Prophets thundered the message of God. Messages of impending doom if behaviors were not brought into alignment with God’s laws. They might be minor messages like Micah or they might be major messages like Isaiah. (Think word-count here, not message value.) Sometimes prophets engaged in what we might call “street theater” where they would act out how God feels about his people or what might be about to happen. Thus God would ask Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer to illustrate the unfaithfulness of the people of God in worship. Or he might have Ezekiel lay on his side for many days to demonstrate to the people the seriousness of their sins.
Today many pastors of my generation want to tell people how to live. They want to be modern day prophets. Old Testament prophets advocated on behalf of the marginalized, the voiceless, and the powerless of society. They spoke God’s voice into a world that trampled upon the helpless.
Today’s prophets often are simply mouthpieces for the already angry crowd. The office of prophet is attractive to angry men and angry men are horrible listeners. If they listen at all, they only do so in order to find a flaw in your argument and refute your words. That is not listening, that is debating. Debating is adversarial and combative by definition.
Most people don’t want a prophet, they want a priest. Priests speak to God on behalf of the people. Priests carry the people on their hearts into the Holy of Holies to speak for the voiceless. If a pastor is a true priest, he will listen to the people.
I want to suggest that there are some characteristics of priestly listening:
Listening takes time.
When you have a busy life, you don’t take time to slow down your heart and mind to hear the heart of anyone. You can’t hurry someone along the path of telling their story. Stories are birthed when they have come to full gestation. Time is the friend of wine and time is the friend of listening. If you are in a hurry you, will not be fully present to hear what is being said and what is not being said.
When I listen I create sacred space to exist between two souls where the Holy Spirit can flow and saturate the language falling from the lips and landing in an open mind.
Listening takes humility.
When you believe you are the answer person, you will be quick to speak and slow to hear, but this is the posture of an arrogant person. Arrogant people believe they are the smartest person in the conversation. If I am more concerned with the soul of the person who is talking, then I will slow down and wait.
Poet e. e. cummings said, “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” It takes a measure of humility to ask questions instead of offering answers. To ask questions positions me to be influenced, and to be influenced is to be vulnerable. Arrogance abhors vulnerability. That is why I feel it is mission-critical to discipline oneself to hold the tongue.
Listening takes holistic engagement.
A listener leans into the conversation with body, soul, and spirit. Everything about my countenance sends a message during the conversation. You literally cannot NOT communicate. That last sentence is terrible grammar, but the truth when it comes to body language. The speaker can tell the instant, and I do mean the instant, the other person has checked out of the conversation. It is important to engage your body in the listening process to keep your soul engaged, as well. Our soul tends to do what our body does. So, if I am leaning forward slightly in my chair, nodding my head from time to time, smiling, and offering a few verbal affirmations along the way, my soul will follow the same path of engagement.
Listening takes a generous spirit.
In listening you provide the opportunity for a story to be birthed, a heart to be warmed, and compassion to flow. Listening is costly. The currency of a good listener is the safety of that which is most precious to the speaker: their ideas, feelings, and values that flow from their soul. When you listen you are saying, “Your pearls of great price are safe with me. I will guard them at all costs.”
Listening sends a message to the speaker that they are more valuable than my opinions, counsel, or words. Nothing sends a value message so deeply into a soul as does listening. I love what Dallas Willard says, “Persons rarely become present where they are not heartily wanted.” Nothing says I want to be here with you like listening. There are times for us to speak words of counsel, affirmation, and admonition, but not nearly as much as one might suppose.
I’ve said some really stupid things in my day, things I wish I could unsay. But words are like feathers out of a pillow, they come out much easier than they go back in. I have rarely regretted holding my tongue.
Would you let me paraphrase a verse?
If someone says, “I listen to God,” and ignores his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not listen to his brother whom he has seen, how can he listen to God whom he has not seen?
So, dear prophet, perhaps the seminary for hearing from the Father begins with the silent art of listening to your brother.