The Gift of Listening

The Gift of Listening

Attentive listening is hard work, but it's necessary for healthy community.
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Aware of Our Own Tendencies

Being aware of myself in God's presence means that I am also willing to be made conscious of my own inner dynamics, so I can be wise and refuse to allow anything that is going on within me to get in the way of what God might be doing. It means I am willing to set aside anything that might keep me from being fully present to God on the other's behalf. So for instance, if someone is sharing something wonderful that is going on in his or her life—a promotion, an unexpected opportunity, some experience that is full of joy and satisfaction—I might notice that it makes me feel a little jealous or competitive, and I am able to ask God to help me set aside feelings of jealousy in order to celebrate what God is doing.

Or perhaps someone is sharing a life experience that is similar to something I've experienced, and I become aware that I run the risk of projecting my own story and my own feelings onto them. When, by God's grace, I am aware of my own inner tendencies, I can ask God to help me set aside my projections in order to be fully present to what that person is experiencing and what God might be saying to them. This might be very different from how I would experience it or what God would say to me in a similar situation. As I cultivate such self-awareness, I might become aware of how uncomfortable I am with tears, strong emotions, or complicated life situations and can choose to resist the urge to say something—anything!—in order to alleviate that discomfort. I might even become aware of how I use humor to avoid being present with myself and others in the midst of the great unfixables of life.

"Looking at God again" means that once I have listened to the other person, I don't have to rush in with my own thoughts and words. Just as Jesus did with the disciples on the Emmaus Road, I can be still with that person and allow my silence to express reverent attention to what they have just shared. As I am present to God on the other's behalf, God may give a word to speak, a prayer to pray, a loving act to offer—or he may not. It could be that there are no words and we are guided to be silent with the other, allowing the Holy Spirit to pray with and for us as we are quietly together.

Creating a Safe Space for the Soul

As you can see, this is very different from the problem solving, advice giving, and attempts at bringing human comfort that often happen when Christian people are together. This kind of listening creates and protects a space between us that is hospitable to the soul—a place where it becomes safe enough to speak of our hopes and dreams, our longings and desires. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer shares about a time when he was going through depression. He says, "When I went into a deadly darkness that I had to walk alone, the darkness called clinical depression, I took comfort and drew strength from those few people who neither fled from me nor tried to save me but were simply present to me."

Palmer's comments highlight one of the great paradoxes of human experience: in the deepest experiences of our lives—birth, death, depression, loss, calling, spiritual longing, and desire—we are profoundly alone. And yet there is something we as human beings can offer one another in the midst of that existential loneliness—the gift of our presence. Perhaps one of the reasons "simple presence" between human beings is so powerful is that it creates space in which the Ultimate Presence can be experienced as the Voice that speaks, the Love that comforts, and the Fullness that fills all emptiness.

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