When you commit yourself to go deep into listening, you find that listening “speaks” in ways far more powerful than talking ever could. The most profound sermon, masterfully delivered, cannot compare to the experience of being truly heard. People don’t line up at the sanctuary door to shake your hand after you have listened, but 10,000 true and beautiful words cannot convey love like unhurried listening.
Listening makes a statement. The text of a listening conversation is important, but it is the subtext that can be magical. The most powerful messages are always conveyed to the subconscious. Under the surface, listening communicates to a person that they are worth paying attention to, that their story, emotions, experiences, and ideas have value, and that they have value. I believe that being heard is a basic human need, as essential as water, food, and shelter. A person created in the image of God has inherent worth and dignity, and listening is one of the most powerful ways we can remind people who they truly are.
Listening says that this moment – with all its meaning, uncertainty, doubt, and hope – matters and that a person is loved, right now. You are a unique individual, and everything you bring to the table in this instance, without filter or editing or resolution, has meaning. Listening is not a reward for good behavior or orthodox doctrine. It is not a statement of agreement with everything you say. I am not waiting for you to be fixed, say things perfectly, believe what I do, or see things as I do before I listen to you. If Jesus had listened like that, he would have spent a lot of time alone.
The other subliminal message conveyed through the act of listening is what God is like. Jesus’ ambassadors represent him in more than just the words they speak. What if we not only prayed in Jesus’ name but listened in Jesus’ name? The medium is the message, after all. Everyone has met the law-giving God, the one who makes pronouncements on our behavior, the one who thunders truth from the mountaintops. Sadly, most people have not met the God who listens. I do not only mean the God who might answer a prayer or orchestrate a coincidence on occasion, but the God who pays attention, who takes you seriously, who is interested and invested in your life. The God who is all ears. If you find that hard to believe, well, we welcome you as a member of the human race.
Perhaps the world would be more at ease with the idea of God as listener if God’s people were better at listening. If those who bear his name preach and rebuke and pronounce and debate and saturate the air with godly words, then that will be the image of God that prevails. And it is. But if his people humbled themselves, paid attention, put aside their agendas, and devoted themselves to listening first, God might start to listen too.
Finally, listening speaks about the listener himself. It whispers “I don’t know everything.” I have gaps in my knowledge, my viewpoint is obscured, and I need you to tell me what you see. I am not walking into the room with my mind made up. I will bring my opinions and beliefs in an open palm, not a closed fist. I am open to your feedback and critique. I enter this conversation, and every conversation, with the intention to learn. I recognize that the world is not colored by black and white, and the best conversations happen when we can, at least temporarily, enter into a shade of gray. I hope to be humble, courageous, and strong enough to place my focus on you. I would rather be interested and impressed than interesting and impressive.