Honour by Listening

Mid conversation, do you ever catch yourself thinking about something unrelated to the person you’re with and the current topic of conversation? Or, realise your thoughts have become fixed on the thing you intend to say next?

How well do we really listen to one another?

I think about our ability to hear and understand one another often, and the many reasons why we might struggle to truly listen. I think about our capacity to pay attention to one another in the context of pressures we experience in our daily lives – pressures to focus on our work or study, to simultaneously be appropriately responsive to email, text messages and social media, and to plan our lives and schedules ahead of time. Events and circumstances unfolding in our homes, workplaces, in the lives of our friends and family, and study all take a toll on our ability to be present, and to listen. Productive and multi-tasked lives aren’t without a cost in our capacity to be thoughtfully in company with others.

On average, people talk at 225 words per minute, but can listen at up to 500 words per minute. In the gaps, we risk becoming distracted by thoughts and by activities around us – remembering that thing we meant to do earlier, or thinking ahead to our plans for later that day. It takes focus, effort and energy to eliminate distracting thoughts and to truly pay attention.

When multiple aspects of life demand our attention, the natural tendency is to aim at getting our own house in order first. ‘I’ll reach out to my friend after I’ve made it through this hectic week’, we might think. However, when we become pre-occupied with our own priorities it’s easy to miss the situations and trials faced by those around us. In some cases attention towards our own needs might be a symptom of a deeper issue of sin in our lives, highlighting a failure to entrust our troubles to the one who cares for us most.

Another reason we might struggle to listen is because the words we share with others can be seen as an opportunity to shape what other people think about us. Societal expectations are relentless in their pressure for us to prove our worth and value. In a culture where individual thought is so highly regarded, the sharing of our impressions and ideas can be a key way of assuring ourselves and others that we measure up to perceived expectations.

As well as the impacts on our presence with other people, the pressures noted above have clear implications for our capacity to tune into what God wants to say to us. The voice we need to hear above all else, reminding us who we are and teaching us how to live alongside others in the new kingdom, can easily get lost in the noise.

Theologian David Augsburger says,

“being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”

Listening is the way of love, and entry into the kingdom of God gives us the capacity to truly listen to others. 

The love we receive from God upon entering His kingdom, frees us from being consumingly distracted by our priorities and commitments which inhibits our ability to listen. Nor do we feel so pressured to speak to win the praise of others. We are at rest from needing to justify our own existence – King Jesus is the source of our justification.  

This is new reality frees us to use our energy in building others instead of ourselves. We can re-order our priorities – our time and other commitments – and pay attention to the person in front of us, who has been made in the image of God. The wonderful new reality of the kingdom crowds out and puts to death worldly distractions that have filled our lives, and extinguishes our need to direct the perceptions of others by our words.

The letters to the early church are full of encouragements for followers of Jesus to be quick to listen (James 1:19), to look to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4), and to be patient (1 Corinthians 13:4).

So how can we move into this reality? For some of us this might look like deliberately and prayerfully handing off to God the thoughts and events of the day prior to meeting a friend, so we can enter more fully into what they are telling us. Or maybe, we could intentionally carve margin in our lives, freeing up space to listen to those around us if and when they need it.

My intention is to cultivate spaces in my life that are removed from the constant messaging to do and to be. I need to practice more regular time with Jesus so that I can be reminded of his love for me, and set free from the voices that tell me my value is to be found in striving for other things. Reminded again of Jesus’ unwavering love, I can step forward to try to listen and to love others more fully.

Listening to others with an open heart and mind is not easy, but Jesus strengthens us as we step out to faithfully love in this way.

Written by Phil Nixon