Listening: the most overlooked spiritual discipline

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Do you wonder if God ever feels like standing at the top of His celestial staircase and calling down to the world, “Would everybody please listen”?

Our lives are continually surrounded by noise. It interferes with our purpose and gets in the way of fulfilling God’s purpose on earth. There is only one way to turn down the noise of our own incessant chatter—the spiritual disciplines referred to in Scripture.

But one spiritual discipline virtually never mentioned in popular lists even though it is featured often in Scripture is the discipline of listening and hearing, two words treated synonymously in the Bible. These two words are mentioned about 700 times—about 500 are in the imperative or instructive form, as a practice to be followed. Listening is implied in such disciplines as prayer, contemplation and meditation, but listening as a discipline in its own right often becomes obscured. Some of the better-known texts include the great Shema, the prayer that forms the centrepiece of Jewish prayer services: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” (Deuteronomy 6:4),* and the New Testament repetitions of “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15; Mark 4:9; Revelation 2:7; 3:6).

The fruit of listening

As self-centred beings, we have a desperate need to hear from the Source of truth. Even as Christians, we find it easy to confuse our own will and desires with those of God.

Indeed, the greatest damage to the name of God is good people doing bad things in His name. Hence the Bible’s emphasis on listening, hearing and “giving ear” to God in order to avoid, or at least minimise, our tendency to confuse our will with that of God. Psalm 19 explores at length how listening to the law, instruction and statutes of God refresh, make wise, give joy to, and enlighten the soul and heart, helping us to discern error and overcome even our hidden faults.

How to listen to God

Listening to God is a discipline requiring practice. The primary way to do so is through the Word, written and spoken. The Word provides the standard by which to measure all other sources of hearing God, hence its absolute centrality.

The Spirit is the second way of hearing God: through solitude, prayer and confession, the Spirit of Truth speaks directly into our heart’s ears.

Spiritual mentors are another way for us to hear the word of God, as we practise submission and mutual accountability. Mentors are a key feature in the development of spiritual discernment of biblical leaders, from Joshua to Samuel to Elisha, and from the 12 apostles to Timothy.

The final way is through experience—trial and error. Road-testing the will of God is vital but must always be subject to the other ways of listening in order to prevent us from making God into our own image and, thus, hearing from God what we would like Him to say. Too often we road-test first instead of using the Word, the Spirit and our mentors to help discriminate between the promptings of our own limited understanding and those that are genuinely from God.

A three-way spiritual discipline

Listening is a way of connecting with God. But learning to hear God can be difficult: He is not present in the flesh, and for many, He rarely speaks audibly. Yet, there are other dimensions to spiritual listening—and all contribute to our capacity to hear God. They also expand our capacity to grow personally and minister effectively.

Listening to God can be practised by learning to hear each other. Biblical listening is associated with relationship and empathy between humans (Job 31:35; Genesis 23:13–15; 42:22) and with romantic love (Song of Solomon 2:14; 8:13). The Bible encourages listening in order to have listening reciprocated (Judges 9:7) and notes that silence comes as a pathway to wisdom and understanding (Job 33:31, 33; 34:2, 10, 16). Having the mindset of God in place of our own is something we should bring to our relationships with each other. The whole concept of biblical mentoring is premised on listening to each other.

Frequently, in conversation we are simply waiting for a gap where we can jump in and say our piece, which we are composing while the other speaks. We are still in our own mindset. We are not really listening. We need to practise hearing each other, for others are the concrete realisation of the presence of God. Doing someone the favour of actually listening to them is as Christian an act as giving food to the hungry and visiting the prisoner in jail.

There are many biblical concepts that are counterintuitive to sinful humanity—one being, the leader is servant of all. It is a paradox: I feel powerful when I talk; I am powerful when I listen. In another counterintuitive truth, the higher the position of leadership, the more the leader needs to listen. Usually we associate leadership with talking and following with listening. But while powerful preaching can change a church, sensitive listening will more likely bring about better and more committed transformation.

The last form of hearing encouraged by the Bible flows from this: to listen to oneself. Soul awareness (1 Samuel 1:15; Job 7:11; Psalms 31:9; 35:3; 42; 62:1–5; 130:5; 131:2; Proverbs 19:8) is associated with satisfaction and renewed life (Isaiah 55:2,3). Listening to myself allows me to identify my needs and have them addressed instead of redirected and ignored. In so doing, I am in a better state to welcome and receive God’s healing love and grace. [pullquote]

Traditionally, Protestant Christians have been nervous about any inward focus out of fear of pride and self-sufficiency. But the largest book of the Bible also contains the greatest density of introspective language. Imagine the Psalms without their powerful expressions of the poets’ own soul. Try removing all of the “I, me, my” statements from the Psalms and see how poorly and ineffectively they read. It was in recognising their own pain, distress, anger and joy that the psalmists burst into song, sought the Lord with passion and praised His name with abandon.

Jesus, the Master Listener

The Gospels are filled with Jesus’ experiences as a listener. First, He listened to His Father. Jesus insisted that His entire ministry on earth was simply carrying out the will of the Father, and all He taught was merely what He had heard from His Father (John 6:38; 7:16). Doing that must have involved a lot of listening on His part. He noted that even the Spirit worked in the same way, only reflecting what He had heard (John 16:13). There are also many references to Jesus praying, sometimes for many hours, even all night (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; 6:12; Matthew 14:23). While we do not know the specific content of those hours, He cannot have been talking the whole time; a good part of His prayer time was listening. In Gethsemane, He prayed to be relieved of the agony of the cross. But He accepted it, demonstrating that He was listening to the will of the Father.

Second, Jesus listened to others. Having listened to His Father, His heart was hypersensitive to those around Him, to the point where He could hear their unspoken, even unrealised, cries. Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Zaccheus, and the paralytic who was let down through the roof, among many others, had their appeals to Him answered; not just in full but beyond what they had articulated. In hearing their very souls’ cry, Jesus best demonstrated the loving heart of His Father.

Third, Jesus was sensitive to the speaking of His own soul. He could tell the difference in His spirit between a purposeful touch and the random shoving of the crowd (Luke 8:45,46). His many hours in prayer testify to His awareness of His own need of the Father. He grieved over an unrepentant Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37). In the Garden of Gethsemane, He begged for relief from the impending cross. At Calvary, He articulated His thirst.

God, the Ultimate Listener

Ever wondered why God is powerful? It has much to do with Him being a listening God. He is “El Shama” or “Ishmael”, “the God who hears me” (Genesis 16:11); the Word made flesh (John 1:1–3); and the Comforter, sent to convict and guide (John 16:12–15). God listens more than the rest of the universe put together. He hears every human prayer; He hears a sparrow fall; He keeps track of the ever-decreasing number of hairs on my head (Luke 12:6,7). We find the uniqueness of the Christian faith right here in God’s eagerness not just to tell us things but to demonstrate to us that our cry for salvation has been heard. God made Himself manifest and dwelt among us. God was so serious about listening to His children that He became one of us.

Daniel Reynaud and Paul Bogacs lecture at Avondale College. This is an edited version of a paper published in MINISTRY.

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