The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them… . It is God's love to us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends His ear… . Christians so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
While the practice of listening might seem a little "soft" and ill-defined when compared with more traditional small-group practices such as Bible study, prayer, and service, it helps to remember that the context for Bonhoeffer's observation was Christian brothers suffering together in a German concentration camp. Clearly this was a place where easy answers and superficial sentimentality would not do, but the "greater service" of true listening was most highly valued. Bonhoeffer drives the point home even further:
He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too… . One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.
Present to God on Behalf of Others
Transforming community involves cultivating a kind of spiritual companionship that is very different from what we usually experience. It involves being present to the person we are listening to, yes, but even more importantly being present to God on the other's behalf. We are listening for what God's desire or guidance for that person might be, not what our best advice might be or how we can be most helpful. Furthermore, we are willing to be made aware of what is going on within ourselves so that our own inner urges (to fix, problem solve, alleviate discomfort) don't get in the way of what God wants to do in the moment.
The quality of presence can also be described as an intercessory prayer stance. The problem is that many of us have experienced intercession to be so effortful and exhausting that the word itself scares us away. However, the Scriptures assure us that it is the Holy Spirit who does the real work anyway—continually interceding for the saints (that would be us!) with groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26). Thus spiritual companionship can be understood as prayerful listening in which we remain quiet enough to listen for the prayer of the Holy Spirit that is already being prayed for that person before the throne of grace. We can ask God to give us some sense of what the Holy Spirit is already praying so we can participate in that prayer in whatever way God leads.
When asked by a friend how she prayed for others, Julian of Norwich described such prayerful companionship this way: "I look at God, I look at you, and I keep looking at God." What Julian is describing is a very freeing way to listen and be present to others. "Looking at God" (or Jesus) speaks to the idea that even before I start listening to another person, I can acknowledge the reality that both of us are in God's presence. I can pray that I will be sensitized to God's purposes in this person's life and in our conversation rather than being swayed by my own agenda. Then as I "look at you" and listen to you, I am not seeing you or experiencing our interaction simply in human terms. I am "listening through" to sense God's heart and God's prayer for you so that I can join God in that prayer. I am aware of myself and the other in God's presence, desiring only to be responsive to whatever God is doing in the moment.