Is the art of listening dying in our modern culture? Most would say “No.”, since we have access to a plethora of books to read, iPods to listen to, 500+ cable stations and a cacophony of voices vying for our attention. We can even tailor the voices to fit our beliefs and desires, or to fit a locale and culture. We filter our Twitter timeline and our Facebook feed. We add to the noise with our own tweets, posts and, like me, blogs.
The world has become quite the noisy place, and with these increased opportunities have come diminishing returns: we have so much to listen to that we do not listen at all.
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. ~ Paul to Timothy
We cope in a few ways, either avoiding, filtering, or drowning it out. None of these will work, and I have tried them all. I want to humbly present to you 4 trouble areas in which we as Christians are terrible listeners, and 4 ways to learn to listen better.
Four Trouble Areas
- Our theology: We often form our theology based completely out of our cultural and historical context without asking critical questions, for fear our theology will come crashing down. We Evangelicals are particularly bad at this, especially ignoring the historical development of our faith. Faithful voices who followed Christ still speak to us, many of them as old as the NT; we must learn to listen more closely to them.
- Our politics: We form our politics in the same, ill-conceived way. This is intimately tied to our theology; we listen to what our itching ears want to hear, but ignore what contradicts our pre-established political position. Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty. If we complain of political extremism in the public square, we have only ourselves to blame for ignoring the plank in our eye.
- Our homes: Many times, our family value emphasis rings hollow. I’ve known “faith-filled” families who listened better to their pastor than their spouses and children, and it only turned out to lead the children from God and put a rift in the home. We’re often so scared of one another, we don’t listen to each other, and this has to change.
- Our lives: A common thread here is fear. Fear is always the enemy of love. We don’t listen to others who want to speak into lives because we fear vulnerability. We fear letting God do it because at our core, we don’t really want to change. So we filter, avoid, dodge and drown out the voices.
But there is a better way.
Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them. ~ Jesus
Four Ways to Listen Better
- Silence: I have written before on the virtues of silence. I do not mean quiet, I mean true, soul-searching silence. We must find sacred spaces where we can truly have both inward and outward silence. We have to impose it on ourselves on our world. We impose it on our world by escaping — go find a monastery to stay in, or find a chapel or church that’s open and is simply silent, get away from all people and distractions. Impose it on yourself by divesting your thoughts, save one thing only…
- Meditation: Once your thoughts are divested, focus on the one person who matters: Christ Jesus. Remember not to confuse thinking about Jesus with thinking on Jesus; the latter is about meditation on him as a person, not what he does, or his benefits, or what you want from him. Focus your thoughts on him with a short prayer, repeating it if necessary. This fills your thought life with nothing else but Jesus.
- Prayer: When you are divested of the world, yourself and everything else… listen. The divine voice is always speaking, but it takes abandoning the world’s channels and tuning in to his voice. True listening abandons the prerogative to speak up. We then speak only when spoken to. It can offend our modern sensibilities to hear that but consider that when God spoke, everything came into being. Why wouldn’t you want to hear that voice? And if God’s voice can do that, what use is yours? True prayer, then is speaking only what God speaks to you. But we have to listen first.
- Incarnation: The final step to listening better is incarnating God. St. Athanasius said God became man that we might become God. What he meant was God became like us so that we could become like him. But to win others, we have to do what Jesus did, and become like others in order to win them to Christ. Incarnation is a kind of divine listening, because you cannot become like someone without listening to them.
My perspective on race relations wrote my theology. I grew up with preconceived, prejudiced notions of what White people were like. As did some of them towards Black people like me. In high school I first made real contact with White people, and learned to truly listen to them. I understood most of what I thought was wrong, and any rift between the races only came from a deficit of constant engagement with humble listening.
If we cannot learn to constantly engage and humbly listen to God, we cannot do so with one another. However, if we don’t love our neighbor, then we actually hate God, so the reverse also works.
Let’s learn to listen to one another and to God. I hope as you try, these 4 methods help you.