“Everyone,” says James, “should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). In context, James’ words refer both to listening to others, and listening to God in his word.
Most of us would have to agree that, while we realise that God has given us two ears but just the one mouth, the time and effort we expend in using them are not in the same proportion.
So, what qualities should we be looking to develop and improve?
Discernment. Job asks, “Does not the ear test words as the tongue tastes food?” (Job 12:11).
Selectivity. Marshall McLuhan has made the obvious remark that nature has equipped us with eye-lids, but not ear-lids. In all the noise and clamour of everyday life, therefore, we need to develop the skill of selective listening. Prov 2:2 stresses the importance of ‘turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding’. We should listen to a life-giving rebuke, Prov 15:31, as well as to the cry of the poor, Prov 21:13. We should find ways of switching off from certain sounds so that we can switch on to others.
Relationality. When James urges believers to be ‘slow to listen’, he links this with being ‘slow to anger’. Listening, then, has to do not only with the transmission of information but also with the development of a relationship. Indeed, we are less likely to feel angry, thwarted, and frustrated with the other person if we have carefully listened to them. By listening, we empower the other person and communicate worth. God communicates his love and concern for us not only by speaking to us but by listening to us (Psa 17:6; 31:2; 34:15; Isa 59:1). So, we worship God and communicate our love for him not only by our speaking to him in prayer but also by listening to him in quiet meditation.
How to listen. Listening is not only the key in counselling relationships, but also in marriage and in friendships generally. It is only when we have listened carefully that we will have taken the other person’s viewpoint seriously, conveyed our desire to understand, and established trust, and then we will be in a position to speak. Collins outlines the dimensions of effective listening, based on the work of psychiatrist Armand Nicholi:-
- having enough awareness of one’s own conflicts to avoid reacting in a way that interferes with the person’s free expression of thoughts and feelings;
- avoiding subtle verbal or nonverbal expressions of negative judgment;
- waiting through periods of silence or tears until the person summons up the courage to say more;
- hearing not only what the person says but what he or she is trying to say;
- using both ears and eyes to detect messages that come from tone of voice, posture and other nonverbal cues;
- avoiding looking away while a person is speaking;
- limiting the number of mental excursions into one’s own fantasies while another is speaking;
- practicing the full acceptance of the person no matter what is said (Collins, pp. 26-27).
The spiritual discipline of listening
If we listen attentively to others, we are more likely to listen attentively to God. And vice versa. Moreover, if we are used to listening to God, we will be better equipped not only to listen to, but to speak to, others. Those who have listened to God will have an ‘instructed tongue’ and will be able to sustain the weary with their own words, Isa 50:4.
But do we listen to God? Those who are unwilling to listen and obey are called ‘dull of hearing’, Mt 13:15. To have an unwilling to hear and obey is to be ‘uncircumcised in hearts and ears’, Acts 7:51. Some literally put their fingers in their eyes to block out God’s message, Acts 7:57. But to listen attentively and obediently to God is to be truly heavenly-minded, 1 Cor 2:9.
Based on art. ‘Listening’ in Complete Handbook of Everyday Christianity, ed. Banks & Stevens.