Throughout the Scriptures we hear that listening is how we approach our relationship with God (1 Sam. 3:9) as well as how we cultivate healthy communities with one another (James 1:19). It’s how we pursue lives of discipleship (Mark 9:7) and grow in maturity (Prov. 19:20). In fact, the most important command in the Bible, according to Jesus, begins with the charge to listen up (Deut. 6:4).
But how does a person become a good listener? This question makes me feel much like I did as a freshman college student signing up for what sounded like a fascinating 400-level course only to be told that I hadn’t met the prerequisites. “Prerequisites?” I asked, slightly embarrassed. “What does that word mean, exactly?” I was politely told that a prerequisite is a required prior condition—in this case, the completion of several lower-level classes—before something else could happen.
Similarly, I’m attracted to the idea of being a good listener. However, I’m realizing that, more than being an inherent character trait or even something a person can occasionally choose to do, listening is the result of a mature, well-tended soul. It is the outcome of having mastered the prerequisites.
The following list represents some of the “prerequisites” I believe are necessary if we are going to grow in our capacity to listen.
>> Listening requires 3 mph. I have a “3 mph” sign hanging in my office as a simple reminder to slow down. Three miles per hour is the approximate speed at which people walk together, a necessity for connection. In his book Three Mile an Hour God, Kosuke Koyama writes:
God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. … It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love. … It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.
Love has its speed; so does listening well. I was recently convicted about how many times I say the word “Hurry!” to my children in a single day. While I was speed-walking my 6-year-old daughter to her kindergarten class, she said something that stopped me in my tracks: “Dad, you don’t hear me very good when you’re walking so fast.”
Though 90 mph might feel like the minimum requirement in our frantic world, it is not at all conducive for relationships. And at the end of the day, if we accomplish our to-do lists but fail to listen to God and to our neighbor—if we miss one another—then I’m not so sure we accomplished anything of lasting value. True listening requires a 3 mph life.
>> Listening requires curiosity. Curiosity means rejecting the temptation to one-dimensionalize another person—especially someone you don’t understand or agree with. While the non-curious person tends to assume, the curious listener expects to find multidimensionality in others, because human beings are complex! Eugene Peterson puts it like this:
Of all the parts of the creation we have come across in our travels, this part we call human is the most marvelous, most complex, most mysterious. We know a lot about our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our souls, digestive systems, … but when we stand before the human being, any human being, most of what is taking place is beyond us. And for that reason, we had better not start poking around in what we do not understand, lest we destroy something precious (Subversive Spirituality, p. 163).
What would it look like to approach another human being—even someone with whom you disagree—with this kind of reverence?
>> Listening requires presence. “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). While these words are typically read as God’s claim to be the one and only God in a time when polytheism was the norm, the ambiguity of the original Hebrew words offers some room for play.
Years ago my Hebrew professor suggested that “the Lord is one” might very well be an acknowledgment of God’s undividedness. God is one, whole, never split in his care and attention toward his people, like a parent who puts away all other distractions when their child enters the room and looks their loved one directly in the face. The next verse of this passage, then—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”—becomes an invitation for God’s people to be “one” in their attention back to God—the very thing that happens when we love him with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.
But being “one” is not something we’re very good at. While I’m by no means anti-technology, one effect of our modern gadgets is that we’ve become absent while being present. I’m here, but I’m also somewhere else. We’ve become so incredibly efficient that a person can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But what has happened to the God I worship and the people I love? I can no longer offer my whole self, but only pieces of my attention—an eye, an ear, but never all of me. Presence isn’t about being in more places, but being more in a place. And listening well requires it. God is right here, right now. The question is, am I?
>> Listening requires a desire for smallness. The best listeners I know tend to have a healthy sense of their comparative insignificance. The problem is that I want to change the world, and to do this I’m going to need a bigger microphone, a bigger platform, more attention, more influence, more followers. Unfortunately, I’m beginning to realize these things stand in opposition to a life of true listening. Listening assumes the focus is on the other, whether that’s another person or God.
Consider John the Baptist, who said of Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). This longing for the attention to be on Jesus (or on my neighbor) is fundamental to a life of listening. It also feels next to impossible most of the time, especially in religious contexts.
Just the other day I was praying for the students of the school system I work in. While asking God for something like revival, a question popped into my head that I believe was prompted by the Spirit: “Would you be satisfied if revival ignited in this place … and it had nothing to do with you?”
This question was exposing. I was doing all the religious things—saying the right words about God, praying for others regularly, leading in a Christian community—but the foundational motivation was still about me and my longing for validation. A soul in this state is unable to listen well.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). A person who truly values another above herself knows that her most basic needs for acceptance and approval are met in Jesus. This turns a person’s soul from a sinkhole into a wellspring and is the only way to reverse the default longing to be “big.”
My prayer is for the Christian church to be known for its ability to listen well. May God grant us the patience and passion needed to invest in these prerequisites.
About the Author
Bryant Russ serves as the director of faith formation for Holland Christian Schools in Holland, Mich.