Jesus’ Example of True Listening
Recently, Eric Rust, the senior pastor at Cedar Hills Church in Sandpoint, Idaho, preached a sermon series on eight relational practices of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke. The practices included noticing, praying, listening, asking questions, loving, welcoming, serving together, and sharing. I was disarmed by the passage he chose for listening―Luke 8:40–48.
Imagine the scene as if it were a Hollywood movie. Jesus arrives in town, and is swarmed by a crowd. Jairus, an important community leader, rushes up to Jesus and begs him to come heal his young daughter, who is dying. As Jesus sets out, the people press in on all sides. In this urgent moment, a subplot emerges―a hemorrhaging woman, who has endured over a decade of social isolation due to her illness. She has spent everything she had on painful, ineffective treatments, and now she casts all her faith upon Jesus by simply touching his cloak. She reaches out. Suddenly, Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?”
Luke’s Gospel reports Jesus felt power going out of him. He looks around to see who touched him. Mark’s account (5:21–34) says the woman came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told Jesus the whole truth.
Here is the amazing part. Despite the important assignment of Jesus, he stopped and listened to a sick, ostracized woman. His care for her went beyond her physical healing, and he took time to hear her story, to listen to “the whole truth” about her. That was genuine listening.
Eric concluded in his sermon that true listening is much more than hearing words. It is discerning the depth of what is being said, what is being felt, what needs to be communicated. Jesus was a master at this. That’s why he could feel even a simple touch in a crowd of people surrounding him.
A good listener is empathetic—but most of us have a hard time getting outside of our own frame of reference. When people express emotion or pain, often our knee-jerk reaction is to fix them or give them relief. We find it difficult to join them where they are. We feel discomfort, and want to hurry them to a different emotional state.
Empathy offers comfort―not pat answers―and tries to understand, and even experience, the other person’s feelings. It starts with where the person is, and tries to understand rather than change, remembering only God can change a human heart. Karen Kimsey-House, a coaching expert and the creator of the Co-Active® philosophy of relationships, warns:
When you're not listening well, you're not fully present. You miss what's behind the words, the deep truth that's coming from a person. It's not about hearing the words spoken per se; it's about connecting with the heart.
Listening is a process of communication that extends much further than simply hearing. Listening requires us to concentrate, derive meaning from the sound that is heard, and react to it.
In many Muslim cultures, when asking people how they are doing, one asks in Arabic, “How is your haal?” What is this haal they are asking about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. To paraphrase, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?”
Do we really want to know? Do we have time to hear their answer? In this busy age we live in, do we have time for that conversation, that glance, that touch? Perhaps our words and empathic listening will be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.