Spiritual Q-Tip for Listening

"There is probably no service we can render other persons quite as great or important as to be listener and receiver to them in those moments when they need to open their hearts and tell someone their story."

~ Thomas Hart

Many years ago, I stumbled across a wonderful little book at the local Goodwill book sale. For 50 cents, The Normal Christian Worker by Watchman Nee contains a plethora of wisdom and practicality. Too bad I only read it a month ago. The book is part of a series of messages given to Nee's Christian colleages in 1948, later translated from Chinese to English.

In these messages, Nee stresses the character of the Christian worker in serving the Lord in ministry and everyday life. He addresses diligence, stability, discipline, faithfulness, restraint in speech, being loyal to truth, but the chapter on being a good listener strikes me as critically important in friendship, as well as ministry work.

How many times have you poured your heart out to someone, only to realize later the person never really heard you? I'm convinced that few people really listen. It's all too easy to dispense spiritual platitudes, or interrupt with our own stories before the other person has a chance to relieve their burden. Listening might be the best gift we could ever give them. Not lip service or advice.

Nee suggests that when someone turns to us for help, we need to discern three different things--the words being uttered, the words the person is holding back, and the words he cannot utter that lie in the depths of his spirit. Listening is not easy. And so we must keep a quiet heart before God and call on the Holy Spirit for discernment.

But we sometimes grow weary of hearing people's laments, thinking we've been there, done that---and blurt out what we think they need to do, or tell 'em what scripture to memorize, or book to read. "Or from the very outset we pay scant attention to what they say to us, because we are so impressed with the importance of what we have to communicate to them, that we are just waiting for an opportunity to break in and take up the role of speaker again, hoping, of course, that they will prove good listeners," writes Nee.

How can we be good friends, attentive listeners, and minister to each other? Cultivate the art of good listening. Pray for a loving, compassionate, discerning heart. Rely on the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I've only had a hug and tears to offer a friend. Jesus ministers through these gestures of compassion. By cultivating the gift of listening, we discover it fosters not only growth in ministry, but growth in our friendships, marriages, and relationships with our children.

"Alas! Very few Christians are good listeners. You could spend a full hour trying to explain your difficulty and at the end they would be quite hazy about it. Our hearing is not sufficiently acute. If we cannot hear what people have to say to us, how can we hear what God has to say?" (Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Worker).

To listen and understand what people are saying, Nee shares these insights:

• We must not be subjective. Subjectivity is one of the main reasons why people are bad listeners...you are so set in your notions that other people's opinions cannot penetrate into your mind...We must ask the Lord to save us from this subjectivity. Let us come to Him and pray that He will enable us in all our contacts with others to set aside our own prejudices and our own conclusions, and Himself instruct us...

• We must not wool-gather. Many believers know nothing of mental discipline...when people talk to them they cannot follow what is being said, but can only follow the train of their own thoughts and talk of the things that are preoccuping them. It is essential that we learn to quiet our minds so that we can hear and take in what is being said to us.

• We must learn to enter into the feelings of others. Even if you listen to what a person is saying, you will still be unable to understand his need unless you can enter sympathetically into his circumstances...If your emotional life has not been dealt with by God, when others express their joy, you will be unable to break through with a glad response, and when they express sorrow, you will be unable to share their grief.

For the sake of Christ, we must learn to be servants of others, rather than indulging in our own pleasures and griefs all the time. This convicts me--how about you? All too often our emotional energy is spent on ourselves to the point we're unable to hear anyone else. Let's pray that we'll abide in Him to such a degree, that when others come to us in their pain, we'll clearly discern their need and be able to minister---if only through listening.