Teach Me to Listen

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By Brian Keepers

“The ear is the primary organ of the Christian…”    – Martin Luther

It’s long been my practice to select a devotional book to read for the season of Lent. This year I’ve decided on two. Falling into Goodness by Chuck DeGroat and The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam McHugh. These two books have intersected in marvelous ways, especially around the call to attentiveness and listening.

Rather than seeing Lent as a “behavior modification program” to remedy our total depravity through will-power and self-discipline (and the rush of guilt and shame we feel when we lack these things), DeGroat suggests another perspective: “Perhaps Lent is about becoming aware—through daily attentiveness—to the reality that we are created-from-the-dust-living-spirits, that we are enough, that everything we need and long for is already ours in Christ.”

One week into Lent, and this perspective has been so refreshing. Chuck also happens to be a close friend, and you can read his post “What is Lent?” from a couple weeks ago here. His combination of theological acuity, pastoral wisdom, and personal vulnerability is a rare gift. So I’m heeding Chuck’s advice this year and instead of giving up something for Lent, I’ve taken up attentiveness.

McHugh’s book has been a wonderful companion in this regard as he incisively points out that practicing an attentive life has the act of listening at its heart. McHugh describes listening as fundamental to what it means to be human because listening is fundamental to who God is. “In God’s very being, communication does not move unilaterally but flows back and forth and around the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The triune nature of God puts listening right at the center of the universe. God is love, and love requires listening.” (p.36)

It’s remarkable when you stop to consider it. God is a loquacious God, yes. God speaks and something happens. But the God who speaks is also the God who listens. McHugh is opening my eyes to how often the Scriptures show God as fundamentally a listening God, and how counter-cultural it is for any god or king with authority and power to “bow down Your ear” (Ps.31:2; 86:1) to listen to their subjects. Indeed, it is an act of listening that “started the wheels of redemptive history turning,” when God first heard the cries of his people oppressed by Egyptian task masters.

To be image-bearers of God, to fall into our original goodness and practice attentiveness, is to put listening first in every aspect of life and faith. The centerpiece of Israel’s prayer life, the Shema, begins with the word hear: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut. 6:4) Both Hebrew and Greek, the primary languages of the Bible, show the inextricable connection between listening and obedience. For both languages, the words for “listen” and “hear” can just as easily be translated as “obey” or “give heed to.” Dig deep into the root of words translated in the New Testament as “obey” and “obedience” and you will find the word listen.

So put it all together and to truly listen, to really hear, is to obey. “Biblically speaking, to hear and not do is to not hear at all,” seminary professor Howard Hendricks once quipped.

So this is what I’ve been thinking about as we begin the second week of Lent. This state of daily attentiveness, of learning to actively listen, is my first and primary act of obedience to God. My primary posture of discipleship as I follow Jesus on his journey to the cross. “Disciples are walking listeners,” says McHugh.

But listening is not just my act of obedience to God. I’m also reflecting on how listening is an act of love towards my neighbor. Deep listening–the kind of listening that requires full presence, curiosity, patience, compassion and vulnerability. Listening to my wife and daughters. Listening to my friends and co-workers. Listening to the people I disagree with, don’t much like, or am quick to dismiss. Listening to those on the margins.

And what I’m learning is that I’m not a very good listener. Or not near as good as I thought I was. I’m discovering way more ego, insecurity, and selfishness than I’d like to admit. But this is part of the gift of the practice, what makes deep listening so radical and deeply transformational.

So I’m going to keep at. I’m going to keep practicing what it means to “be slow to speak and quick to listen.” (James 1:19)  And I’ll keep returning to DeGroat’s gentle reminder that in Christ, all the parts of me are loved, even my not-very-good-at-listening self.

“You know that the Gentile rulers tell people what to do, and their great ones expect to be heard. It is not so among you; whoever wishes to be great must listen, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be a listener to all.” (creative rephrase of Mark 10:42-43)

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

Comments 1

  1. I feel as though I have been invited into the thoughtful action and practice of listening. It is, surely a counter cultural way of being, one I am eager to enter into and try.

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