the art of… listening

Australian Baptists all around the country celebrated of Global Mission through Global Interaction during the month of May. Following on from this, I wanted to share an important skill and trait that I believe is critical for our own discipleship, and that is the skill or, the “art of listening carefully”. It is a skill that I myself was reminded of during May Mission Month and is one that I also believe is essential that we as Christians learn to embody, especially when it comes to mission and evangelism.

To illustrate the importance of this trait, I want to take us back to our schooling. Maybe you are reading this and are still at school, maybe you are a several years removed from the school environment. Whatever the case may be, I want you to think back to the classes and subjects that you may not have necessarily enjoyed. If you were anything like me in that scenario, I spent more of my time talking with my friends in those classes then I did listening to what the teacher was saying. If you were anything like me in this scenario, your lack of ability to listen most likely impacted upon your learning. The reality is, one of the key ways that we learn and obtain understanding is through the simple skill of listening.

This is true, not only from an academic point of view, but also from a relational and communication point of view.

In His book, ‘The Light in the Heart’, Roy J. Bennett addresses the importance of listening in this regard by stating:

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”

I’m sure when pressed on the issue, we would all agree that the art, or skill of listening, is a highly important skill and attribute to harvest, and one that I would argue again is critical when it comes to our ability to share Jesus with the world.

The book of Proverbs speaks extensively of this, in particular, when it comes to our response to the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. One of those verses is Proverbs 21:13 which says:

Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
will also cry out and not be answered.

What this verse is basically saying, is that those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor, or those who do not listen, their own cry for help will not be heard in times of need.

Which begs the question, what exactly does the cry of the poor sound like? From my experience, it is first of all, a cry of injustice, and second of all it ultimately is a cry for help. You and I as followers of Jesus are called to respond and act accordingly when we hear such cries and it all starts with the art of listening, and listening carefully.

For as we listen, it ensures that we are not quick to judge, but rather come to understand the individual’s predicament, which from my experience, then moves us to a place of compassion, and from there, should mobilize us and spur us to respond justly and with integrity.

What will we be our response? Will we be the answer to the poor’s cry for help?

Will we feed the hungry, and give the thirsty a drink? Will we invite the stranger into our homes who is in need? Will we provide clothes for the naked, and care for the sick? Will we be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world?

As we do this, and listen carefully and respond accordingly, with justice and integrity, it is also my strong conviction that this will also open the door for us to share the gospel message of Jesus Christ with all people, whether they are in need or not.

God taught me the importance of this one evening a few years back when I went for my daily run. On this particular night, I randomly chose to run a different route than I usually would. By taking this route, I found myself at one of the local parks where I stopped momentarily to catch my breath and stretch. After gathering my breath, I was startled by a man laying on the park bench beside.

My initial thoughts were to leave this man in peace and so I did, but to only to arrive fifty metres down the road, before experiencing a strong prompting to turn around and return to this man. I ignored the prompting at first, and continued to run, but as I did that the prompting became even stronger. It was evident to me that the Holy Spirit was prompting me to head back and so I obeyed, unsure of exactly why the Spirit was prompting me to return to this man.

As I made my way over to him, I continually thought to myself, “What am I doing?”, but I eventually worked up the courage to ask him whether he was ok and whether I could do anything to help. I sat next to him and started to speak with him, and as I listened to him, I started to understand more of his predicament. He was homeless and had lost everything, his family, his job, his house, and as a result had nowhere to go but this park bench. As I continued to listen and speak with this man I witnessed the Holy Spirit at work. I witnessed the conversation turn from menial conversation into a discussion about church and Jesus. This man opened up to me in such a way, that I was able to share my story with him and it was through this that I was able to encourage him and share the Gospel and it was all because I took the time to listen to him and his story. After the conversation wound up I told him I would be praying for him, I stood up, said my goodbye’s and I went on my way.

Now, nothing dramatic appeared to occur in that time with this man, he didn’t give his life to Jesus, and his life wasn’t instantly restored, well not that I know of anyway, but what this experience did do, was transform my own heart. My prayer was that the Kingdom of God was furthered in this man’s life, but I know for a fact it was furthered within mine. Not only did God remind me of my responsibility as a disciple of Jesus to stand alongside poor, the marginalized and oppressed, but he also revealed to me an important evangelistic strategy:

1.      Listen Carefully to the Spirit

2.      Listen Carefully to the individual

3.      Act and respond with honesty and integrity

Going back to my original point, about the cry of the poor being one of injustice, there was evidently a severe injustice in what this man was experiencing. Here he was trying to sleep on a park bench, and here I was about to run home to curl up in my nice, warm bed.

In this regard, social activist and historian Howard Zinn says this incredible quote that I believe Christians everywhere should take on board:

The cry of the poor is not always just, but if we don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.

God’s desire for us, is that we partner with him to bring about His justice and righteousness down the road and around the world. It is my strong conviction that our ability to undertake this begins with the all-important skill of listening. For as we listen, and are moved to a place of mercy and compassion, it is then, that God uses us to bring about His hope and justice in people’s lives, ultimately changing the world for the better, one conversation at a time.

Dan Walz, Sans Souci Baptist Church NSW

Click here to read the next of “the art of…” series by Dan Walz, “the art of hanging in there”