My Dear Shepherds,
When I began pastoring, I assumed that the point of listening was to know what to fix. Now I realize that listening is one of those small, quiet ministries that make for effective shepherding.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is his work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.[i]
Paul Tournier famously said, “It is impossible to overestimate the immense human need people have to be listened to, to be taken seriously and to be fully understood.”[ii] Many Many of us Wordworkers feel such urgency about meting out Scripture that we fail to listen. Ironically, the upshot is that we often misuse the Word. Remember Job’s friends.
To answer before listening—that is folly and shame. (Prov. 18:13)
Simply listening well for Jesus’ sake is sacred service. But there’s more because a three-part response also takes shape, a sacred trio of ministry voices.
To begin with, the brother or sister to whom we listen has more to contribute than they realize. When I was seeing a counselor some years ago he’d ask a question and I’d answer. Then he’d just sit there, waiting. I took that as a nudge in the ribs: Tell him more. So I’d explain myself more fully. Still he waited till I found myself weighing what I’d said, seeing if there was something there I could decipher. Having a quiet, curious listener is not at all like sitting alone. It becomes easier to hear ourselves think.
Also joining us in the room is Wisdom, aka the Holy Spirit. Proverbs tells us that Wisdom positions herself to be easily heard and enriches all who pay attention to her. Unlike me, Wisdom doesn’t have the blurts. Wisdom patiently listens till the part of the story hiding behind the door comes out, till the person before us knows they are loved, till their soul finally gets a word in edgewise. Wisdom listens with questions, catches hidden nuances and connections, and draws up the right truth at the right time.
Then, thirdly, there’s you or me. Once our brother or sister knows they’ve been heard, we take stock. We attend to Wisdom’s words which have come to us, you might say, on another frequency. We listen to our own heart, mind, and pastoral instincts. That’s often when surprises happen: The verse you hadn’t thought about before, a specific prayer prompt, the name of someone who could come alongside, a song, some tears, or a great relief.
In counseling, I often thought of myself like a funnel. I’d listen and wait. God would pour his wisdom and grace through me into someone else’s life. The bonus was that like cream through a funnel, I got to keep what stuck to my sides.
Be ye glad!
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York, Harper & Row Publishers, 1954), p.97.
[ii] Paul Tournier, To Understand Each Other (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1962), p. 29.