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Reflections on Life Together: The Ministry of Listening

February 11, 2021 Today's Reflections on Life Together unpacks the everyday ministry of listening. Listening is a first act of love. To love someone is to listen to them. Listening is also wise because it creates understanding on which peaceful relationships can be built. But listening requires focus, requires setting aside our intention to speak, so that we can truly hear and only then respond. But when we do, everyone ends up blessed. #lifetogether #community #ministry #listening #love


As we think about everyday ministry for everyday disciples of Jesus, one of the most important ministries we have with others is simply listening. In fact, Bonhoeffer names listening as the “first service” that we owe to our brothers and sisters in the church (Life Together, p. 97). In saying this, he is keeping with the wisdom that James exhorts us with in James 1:19–20: “Know this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19–20). We need to listen first—be quick to hear—and only later, coming more slowly, to speak. Listening is a first act of love. To listen to someone is to love them. Love in its fullness certainly demands more than that of us, but it never demands less. One of the things that my wife, Abby, helps me to learn is that no one will truly feel loved unless they know they are really heard. Bonhoeffer makes the same point with an analogy to our relationship with God: “Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the [brothers and sisters] is learning to listen to them” (Life Together, p. 97). Bonhoeffer noted almost a century ago that the explosion of interest in the new fields of psychology and counseling (his own father was an eminent psychiatrist and neurologist) was in part because people crave someone who will attentively listen to them and credit their words with worth and value. We shouldn’t underestimate what a blessing it is to someone, what a source of spiritual, emotional, and even physical health it can give someone, simply to listen. But listening is not only loving. It is also wise. James makes the point that when we run off our mouths before our ears have taken in what we need to hear, we are more likely to plunge into misunderstanding and even anger. But our anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God, and so we do well to avoid it by any means possible—and one of the most important means is simply being willing to listen. So James has told us how our anger-from-refusing-to-listen won’t produce righteousness and peace in our lives, then later in his letter, he tells us what will bring the righteousness we all crave: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17–18). To be sure, James doesn’t list listening in the characteristics of “wisdom from above,” but I think it is implied and required by virtually every attribute in the list. Can you imagine being peaceable, gentle, open to reason, impartial, or sincere without being an attentive and generous listener? But, of course, we realize here that not all listening is really listening. We all know what is like to be grateful someone keeps talking because it is giving us plenty of time to perfectly craft our dismissive response to whatever it is they are saying—“whatever it is” because we aren’t really hearing it at all, so who knows? Proverbs 18:13 instructs us about this: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” If our response comes before we’ve really taken in what was said—heard it for what it was and all that it was trying to communicate—then our response will be foolish, unhelpful, and unloving. For our listening to be a true ministry to our fellow disciples it must be true listening, not, as Bonhoeffer describes it, “impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person” (p. 98). Our listening has to be ready to bear with our brother and sister in their freedom and even in their sin so that we can bring the word of the gospel to them where they actually are and not where our convenience or preference might wish them to be. It is only when we listen that any speaking that follows will actually serve our sisters and brothers. Yes, we want to speak helpful words—our words that point them to God’s Word—but even still there is a proper sequence: “We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God” (Life Together, p. 99). But how do we listen well? There’s lots to be said on that, no doubt, but perhaps a good place to start is knowing what to be listening for. Christian counselor Ed Welch offers this wisdom in his book Side by Side: Be listening for “what is on his or her heart. The way in is to listen for what is dear, what is loved, what is feared, what is hard…” (Life Together, p. 81) We ask questions that open up longer stories about the hopes and fears, the relationships and experiences that have shaped them into the people they are today (Life Together, pp. 95–99). We hear them, we know them, we come to love them, and then—and only then—do we speak and respond to them, out of a knowing love for them. But our need to grow in the ministry of listening isn’t only for the benefit of others. It is also vital to our own ongoing spiritual health. Bonhoeffer gives a sober warning:

[The one] who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life…Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies. (Life Together, p. 98)

If we can’t hear our brothers and sisters in Christ, we will soon find it very difficult to hear God himself, and that is reason alone to want to be quick to listen, slow to speak. But if we allow the Holy Spirit to train our ears to listen to one another in love and compassion, he will use that ministry to maintain the unity the Spirit has created through the bonds of peace that will take root in our relationships. That’s what the opening verses of Ephesians 4 say about love and unity in the church-community, and that’s what we’ll look more closely at in our Grow Groups this Sunday. On Zoom or in the room, we’ll see you there.

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