The Gift Of Listening
“In a world where there is a wealth of information, there is often a poverty of attention” (2004, President Bush’s campaign manager). Linda Stone of Microsoft chimes in calling this deficit of attention “continuous partial attention.” Do you practice complete listening?
We all face the dangers of non-listening. David and Solomon fell into being non-listeners. Father and son knew what Deuteronomy 17:17 said: “future kings in Israel must not acquire many wives for themselves or else their hearts will turn away; also silver and gold they must not acquire in great quantity for themselves.” Well Dad got it wrong and his son got it worse given the number of wives and concubines they acquired, the devastating adulterous and idolatrous consequences. Perhaps the two of them thought they were the only ones to populate the world! Their lives became tragic in the end. A non-listening Christian runs the same risk of being in danger of a tragic end.
Non-listening is dangerous but so is continuous partial attention, which plagues many of us. We flutter and light as butterflies do, on this or that verse, stopping briefly here and there, but never long enough for sustained attention. Continuous partial attention (its other name is distraction) pulls us apart or away from being deep listeners to the voice of God. Relationship with God that transforms us requires “sustained attention.”
So the questions again: Do you practice completed listening? And this answer: Not without sustained attention. Sustained listening transforms us, deep listening shapes our inner being in the likeness of Christ. It is a most serious work. Sustained listening takes place at three levels: Simple listening, absorbing listening, and active listening (Borrowed from Scot McKnight in Blue Parakeet).
Simple listening is when we simply pay attention long enough to someone speaking. We hear the message and we attend to what we hear. We hear the voice of God in Scripture and the voice arrests us. Young Samuel was arrested by the voice of God but could go no further until Eli helped him. On his own Samuel would have suffered from continuous partial listening. Isaiah too was arrested by God’s voice. Simple listening takes us as far as getting into the conversation. I can name too many messages I have delivered and too many I have heard where only a call for simple listening was issued. Simple listening is incomplete listening.
Level two listening is absorbing what we hear. In Samuel’s case, with Eli’s help, absorption sounded like this: “Lord, speak, for your servant listens.” In Isaiah’s case it sounded like this: “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips.” Simple listening must give way to sustained attention which begins with absorption.
Absorbing the voice of God is where the heart takes over from the ears. It is absorbing the voice deeply in a way that reshapes our hearts, changes our minds, and our behaviors. But there is more to it than personal benefit. Christian spirituality is not about personally gorging ourselves on spiritual insights, practices, or disciplines like Bible reading. Loving God and loving others must be our focus. When Solomon was younger he had the right request for level two listening: “God, give me a hearing heart” (1 Kings 3:9, 12). Jesus also instructed persecuted believers to hearing with the heart when he said: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock and if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sup with him.”
I have heard that Christians come in two shapes. Some are a mile wide and an inch deep and some are a mile deep because they train in deep listening. A life of continuous partial attention to the voice of God from the pulpit or from the pew is sure to produce the first type of Christian. A life of sustained attention to the voice of God develops in us the ability for deep listening to the deep things of God.
Leighton Ford in the Attentive Life arrested my attention with these words: “Our highly organized religious lives don’t always help [with absorbing listening]. The typical midsized to large North American church is densely programmed. One potential member said to a minister friend of mine, ‘Pastor, after looking at all the scheduled activities for this week I don’t think I’m physically fit to join your church!’ He was half joking.” Ford is on to something. In order to deepen our lives and our churches’ ministries we must work at being places where the soul may find quiet on the “day of rest.”
The third level of listening is to practice or act on what we hear. Action completes the cycle of listening. With only attention and absorption, listening is only two-thirds baked. Jesus taught that “if anyone (any community) hears my message and acts on it, he will be a wise builder. Any listening that is short on action is sinking sand (Matt 7:24). I am not surprised that James, Jesus’ brother, also said “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Jesus and James grew up with deep listeners: Mary and Joseph. The hearers only or non-doers “are like those who look at themselves in a mirror” and forget about it. The “doers who act—will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:22-25).
What does active listening look like? Active listeners carry paralyzed friends and dig roofs, set money aside for the poor, feed the hungry, schedule times to visit widows, minister in jails, spiritually guide a friend, help restore broken relationships, sponsor children across the continent, pray without ceasing, and contribute to eradicate Aids to name just of few of the actions connected with active listening. Their hands, their minds, their wallets, if they listen well as they walk with the Master, will be extensions of his lov=e and sure proof that they love God and others.
May your Christmas season be filled with all levels of listening just like the Wise Men and the shepherds’ season was. The heavens spoke, they paid attention, they absorbed the message, and they acted in giving and in worship.
Send this Column to a Friend
- The Spirit Annointed King May 2013
- The Year Of Learning Jesus… February 2013
- Journey With God January 2013
- Teach Us To Pray December 2012
- What Are You Reading For Christmas? November 2012
- The Formative Power of Trouble October 2012
- The Formative Power Of Witnessing September 2012
- The Formative Power Of Reading The Bible Devotionally July 2012
- Maturity=Obedience April 2012
- Ready. Aim. Shoot. January 2012
- More Columns from Walking with the Master