In my younger years, as an “on-fire” young adult with a drive toward proselytization, I considered myself an attentive listener. By that I mean I listened intently to people because I was constantly waiting for an opportunity to shoehorn my religious perspective into the conversation. A friend would tell me, “I’ve got a headache today,” and I’d turn it into a chance to tell her that God can heal anything. A roommate would confide that they were feeling lonely in their singleness, and I’d jump into a mini-sermon about how Jesus could fill that void. Conversations became like a game of Whack-A-Mole: I was paying attention alright, but doing so with the intention of banging people over the head with my “truth” whenever a mole of vulnerability would pop up from the ground.
I haven’t rid myself of the tendency to push my opinion into conversation whenever I get the chance. Most of us listen to others with the hope of sharing our piece. But I no longer believe Christlike conversation means being on the prowl for a chance to pounce with a Bible-based response. I’ve learned that true Christlike listening involves sacrificing my own agenda for an interaction and truly entering into someone else’s story with empathy and compassion.
We are not a culture inclined toward listening. Unlike most of the characters in our Scripture, Canadian and American societies are not predominantly composed of oral traditions in which people sit and listen and ponder ancient stories (although we can learn a lot from the oral histories of the Indigenous people who were here in these lands before our settler cultures). A headline breaks, and we feel the need to immediately add our words to the myriad of responses, to rant on Twitter or Facebook.
We are stuck between two positions as a culture: absorption and reaction. We can sit and absorb Netflix our TikTok videos (or a church livestream, for that matter), or react. Our society calls us to view content or create content. But we are seldom called on to listen, to dwell in the story of another, to sit and reflect and hear without a quickfire response.
In a tradition as heady as ours in the CRC, we can easily prioritize telling over listening, knowing over hearing, being right over learning. My mother, who joined the CRC as an adult, used to say that as a denomination we prioritize “head knowledge” over “heart knowledge.” Many of us have heard this stereotype before, and while I think the distinction between head and heart can be problematic (we can’t really separate our feelings from our thoughts), we are sometimes so afraid of emotions that alarm bells go off in our heads and we withdraw when we feel pulled into empathy. We are often afraid to be moved by the experiences of people we don’t agree with.
A Listening God
But ours is a listening God. In the Old Testament, we meet a God who, unlike the other deities of the ancient Near East, hears and attends to those who call on the Lord, particularly those who are oppressed and unheard by the dominant culture. God hears the cries of Abraham’s concubine and outcast son and responds with a promise to make Ishmael into a great nation (Gen. 21:8-20). God listens to the Israelites enslaved in Egypt (Ex. 3:7). The Psalmists tell us again and again that they called on the name of the Lord who heard and answered (Ps. 34:4, 18:6). The prophets repeatedly call the people to hear a different perspective than the ones they are living in, to return to God and to hear those who have been marginalized.
Time and time again Jesus approaches conversations with an attitude of listening. He teaches and preaches, but he also spends a lot of time asking questions: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15); “What is written in the Law? ... How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26-28); “What is it you want?” (Matt. 20:21); “Do you love me?” (John 21:17). In fact, throughout the four gospels he poses 307 questions, as observed by theologian Martin B. Copenhaver.
While most of his questions are rhetorical, throughout Jesus’ ministry he demonstrates again and again an attentiveness to other people, an openness to stepping into their experiences, and a desire to understand things from their perspective. He weeps when Mary and Martha weep (John 11:35). He is won over by the cries of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28). When summoned to judge the woman caught in adultery, he not only calls his audience into a moment of reflection through the bizarre act of drawing in the dirt while they wait with rocks clenched in their fists, but he then calls them into identifying with her in recognizing their own imperfection: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:1-11). Once the religious elite have all left, he turns to ask a question of the woman who was humiliated and dehumanized. Jesus provides space for the words of the woman who was considered unworthy of being heard. He listens to the answer of the person who, before now in this scene, has been given no voice.
The rest of the New Testament is full of examples: Peter listening to Cornelius, who brought a message that deeply challenged his understanding of what the church should be (Acts 10:1-11:18); James’ axiom to be “slow to speak and quick to listen” (1:19); the call to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn”—how can we do this without truly listening to each other’s stories and feelings? (Rom. 12:15). The nature of the early church, of communities that came together, shared everything in common, and made sure that no one was lacking (Acts 2:44, 4:32), speaks to a community of people who hear each other, listen to each person’s needs, and respond with attentive generosity.
How to Listen
Deep listening is a skill and attitude we can hone through collective spaces, such as listening circles or Colossians Way Small Groups. I recently learned about a CRC ministry that inspires young people to develop habits of deep listening. During a fellowship at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Pastor Nathan Groenewold facilitated a Soul Care group composed of five seminarians from five different countries: “Every other week, we would gather for this intentional soul care practice, and it was remarkable how it taught us to listen to each other in ways we would not have otherwise, helping us overcome our 'advice monsters,' our desire to step in and fix, speak an immediate word of encouragement, or respond with our own story. This practice leaves space to listen to each other and ultimately to listen to the Spirit speaking, surrounded by more silence than often feels comfortable. I noticed that our group was one of the few soul care groups that stayed together for the full duration of seminary and beyond, and I have a hunch it's because this exercise helped us learn to listen to each other.”
Now Nathan directs a grassroots CRC ministry called Cohort Detroit, a 10-month program for young adults, focused on spiritual formation, justice learning, and bridging Jesus’ work in the city. Every month he leads participants in a practice of Soul Care, during which they take turns answering the question, “What is the state of your soul?” After each person shares, the group leaves 30 seconds to recall what has been said and then repeats word-for-word phrases that stood out to them, avoiding the impulse to offer “advice, wisdom, or feedback.” The exercise closes with prayer for each participant.
Nathan explains that Soul Care “helps us learn to listen to different perspectives, without needing to feel defensive, offer quick feedback, or control the conversation. I've found that the listening tools that are formed through this exercise filter through all of our conversations, from the need for lament to the hard conversations on racial injustice. Unless we can listen first, to each other and to God, we cannot create sustainable change or lasting relationships.” This communal exercise “decenters those who often want to jump in with solutions, and it allows us to pause long enough to see how God is already working in and among us.”
Worship services, the spiritual disciplines, Christian contemplation and other communal expressions of our faith call us into a position of slowing down to listen to each other and to God in a world that tells us to be ever hearing and never understanding. As Nathan Groenewold says, “There are few things as important as feeling seen, heard, and loved. In that way, we embody God's love to one another as we listen.”