“I feel like I’ve done all the talking,” I apologized, pausing for breath at the end of a lengthy monologue.
“It’s all right,” my friend Jana replied. “You needed to process. I know you’d listen to me if I needed to talk.”
I remembered the times I have listened to her verbally process doubts, insecurities, joys, troubles, or questions. Her friendship invigorates me because of the gift of listening we consistently offer each other.
It does not require saying a word or spending a cent. When she gives me this gift, I bask in its glow and feel refreshed. I value it because it costs time and attention, it shows compassion, and it demonstrates patient love.
In Life Together, a book about Christian community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about the gift of listening: “Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them.” He expounds this idea beautifully, pointing out that God demonstrates His love for us not only by speaking to us but by listening to us.
Bonhoeffer expresses disappointment that “so often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”
Listening, a greater service than speaking? Does this humble idea mesh with American society, where a person’s confidence is measured by how much and how well she speaks?
The act of listening has become counter-cultural. That is why when a friend sits across the table at a coffee shop for two hours, listening to my jumble of thoughts, she is giving me an uncommon gift.
Although I recognize the gift when it’s given to me, I often feel inadequate as the giver. When I lived and worked with teenage girls at a boarding school, I kicked myself frequently for not having instantaneous answers to the students’ questions. Girls would pour out their struggles to me and I wouldn’t know how to respond. I felt that I should be able to “fix” their problems. Shouldn’t I have a 10-step plan to solve anything? Shouldn’t I unroll a mental scroll of scriptural promises to comfort them? When I couldn’t think of anything to say, I assumed that there was something wrong with me.
But if I stop and listen to someone’s story — really listen, with neither judgment nor interruption — I have ministered to them as Christ would. Listening to someone shows that I care. Listening without casting judgment shows that I love; that I’m willing to help carry that person’s burdens.
Giving advice or wisdom is appropriate when requested, but often it’s not required or wanted. Those who are hurting are more likely to talk to someone who won’t try to preach to them. They want someone to listen. If someone gives me an opportunity to listen, he or she gives me an opportunity to love.
Bonhoeffer further observes, “Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening.” In relationships with others, listening is a gift to be passed freely back and forth. If there is not equal communication, there is no true encouragement. If one person is doing all the listening and the other all the talking, the listener will become fatigued and the talker will never experience true connection with the other person.
He also warns that “Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God.” I need to practice listening, not only to friends and fellow members of the Body of Christ, but to God. If I come into God’s presence so full of my own words that I don’t stop to listen, I am not fostering a relationship.
Like a friendship, my relationship with God involves giving and receiving. I am free to speak to Him, and He loves to listen. He gives that gift to me every day, with the assurance that He cares about every detail I feel like telling Him. But if I do not listen to Him in return — whether it be through reading His Word or sitting silently in His presence — it’s a one-way relationship. One-way relationships are shallow at best. Without mutual communication, a relationship withers and eventually dies. To grow in my relationship with God, I need to give Him the gift of listening.
Some people find listening difficult. It takes practice, but it is a gift that all of us can learn to give, receive, and appreciate. Bonhoeffer concludes, “Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.”
His warning convicts me to slow down; to make time for listening in my daily interactions. I want to be a good listener: to students, to family members, to friends, and to God. I have abundantly received the gift, and I want to give it to others.
“Thanks for listening,” I told Jana at the end of our phone conversation.
She laughed. “No problem.” There was silence on the line for a moment. Then she took a breath and said, “Jess, something is bothering me.”
I settled in to listen, glad for a chance to give the quiet gift.