This morning, we pick back up in our series entitled “Our Journey with Jesus”. So far, we have talked about letting go, welcoming, friending, and resting. And in the past two lessons, we’ve talked the need to confess our sins to one another, to say, “I’m sorry for what I did that hurt you”, and the importance of saying, “I forgive you” to those who have wronged us.
This morning, we want to want to talk about the discipline of listening. Someone has said that in the first year of marriage, the man speaks and the woman listens. In the second year of marriage, the woman speaks and the man listens. In the third year of marriage, they both speak and the neighbors listen.
The truth is that as communicate with one another – in our marriages, with our children, with our friends and co-workers, with other Christians, we don’t always do a good job of listening. But listening is an important discipline that we need to learn in order to minister to one another.
Understand, though, that listening is not the same thing as hearing. We sometimes use those two words interchangeably, but hearing involves simply hearing the words. Listening is paying attention to someone.
I found this cartoon where the wife says, “I’ve got the test results back from your ear doctor. You’re not hearing impaired; you’re listening impaired.”
Someone has explained the difference between hearing and listening by saying that, “Hearing is through the ears, but listening is through the mind.” I would modify that a bit, though, and say that “Hearing is through the ears, but listening is through the heart.”
Listening is giving someone our undivided attention with the intention of understanding that person’s point of view. Listening is an act which says to someone, “Right now, I am here for you. I want to hear what you have to say and I want to understand what you have to say. I care about what you have to say.”
Reuben Welch tells how when he was a child, people would often drive twenty miles from the nearest town just to talk to his father who was a quiet man. As the visitor would pour out his problems and emotions, Reuben could hear his father responding with comments like, “Well, what do you know?” And, after a while, the visitor would thank Reuben’s father and return home.
Looking back on those conversations, Welch said, “Twenty miles is not too far to go to talk to someone who will listen and care and look and understand and hear, even if all he says is, ‘Well, what do you know?'”
Deep within every human being is a desire to be heard. We all need from time to time to let go of all those thoughts that are bottled up inside us and share them with someone.
Thomas Hart put it well when he said, “There is probably no service we can render other persons quite as great or important as to be listener and receiver to them in those moments when they need to open their hearts and tell someone their story.”
And I think James must have surely had that in mind when he told us as Christians to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19, NIV).
How many times have you ever heard someone said, “Nobody ever listens to me!” And how many people go through life frustrated because there truly is nobody — not a spouse or a neighbor or a friend — who will take the time to really listen to what they have to say?
And so, listening to others is an important quality for us to develop. But, it’s not just other people that we need to listen to. We also need to listen to God. And perhaps those two things are more connected than we might think.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. …Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
But listening to God is critical. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27, NIV). And maybe it seems obvious to you that we need to listen to Jesus and we need to listen to God. In fact, it may seem so obvious that it doesn’t seem like we need to spend an entire sermon talking about it.
But if listening was an easy thing for us to do, then I don’t think there would be so many admonitions in the Bible telling us that we need to listen. The truth is, attentive listening is a very difficult thing for us to do, and not just with people. Listening to God is especially difficult for us. And so, we have hundreds of verses in Scripture that tell us to listen.
For example, we’re familiar with Deuteronomy 6:4, a passage that the Jews still recite every morning and every evening. But it starts with God saying, “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Hear, O Israel. Listen up. Pay attention.
Time and time again, God told Israel that they needed to listen to him. In Isaiah 28:23 (NIV), God said, “Listen and hear my voice; pay attention and hear what I say.” He sounds just like a parent there, doesn’t he? Listen up! Pay attention to what I’m saying!
And Jesus did the same thing. How many times did Jesus say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”? And my question is rhetorical, but if you want the answer, it’s 15. Fifteen times, Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”. Or, as the NET Bible translates that phrase, “The one who has ears had better listen!”
In Luke 8:18 (NIV), Jesus said, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen.”
So, the importance of listening, and especially the importance of listening to God, may seem obvious, but the truth is that most of us are simply not very good at listening. Listening is something that requires a great deal of effort on our part. Which is why I refer to it as a discipline, it’s something we have to train ourselves to do, it’s something we have to work at
Now, I think there are several reasons why listening is so difficult for us. One reason is because we tend to talk too much. And the truth is, most of us would rather talk than listen.
In Ecclesiastes 5:2, the wise man Solomon said, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.”
But most of us don’t follow that advice. Think about it — How much talking do you do on an average day, and how much listening do you do? I’m talking about the kind of listening where you focus on what someone else is saying and take it in, not the kind of listening where you’re planning the next brilliant thing you’ll say the moment the other person stops speaking.
Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” And so, most of the time, I would rather tell you what I want you to know than to listen to what you have to say. And I think behind that is an element of selfishness or pride.
Most people tend to treat conversation like a competitive sport, in which the person who says the most, or makes the cleverest point, or persuades others that they are right, or even speaks the loudest is the winner. And so, we all find ourselves talking to support our point of view or to display our superior knowledge.
But if we are ever going to develop the discipline of listening, we’ve got to learn how to stop talking so much.
But a second reason why we have trouble listening is because we are surrounded by so many distractions. And, obviously, technology is a big part of that. Cherie Kerr is the president of a communications training company. She has said, “One of the reasons for difficulty listening is because there is too much stimulation around us…There is so much going on, it’s difficult to focus on what people are saying to us.”
To listen to others, we have to be able to screen out what someone has referred to as the distracting “white noise” of daily existence. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of white noise. In fact, some of you may go sleep at night with a white noise machine. It’s a noise that drowns out all the other sounds around you.
And I think that’s a good description of why we have trouble listening – we have so many sounds coming at us from so many directions that they tend to drown out what people are saying when they talk to us. We have trouble paying attention. We have trouble focusing.
Now, there are a couple of things that we can do to counter those distractions. One is that we learn to focus on what’s really important to us.
I heard years ago about a Native American and his friend who were walking through Times Square in New York City during lunch hour. The streets were filled with people. Cars were honking their horns, taxicabs were squealing around corners, sirens were wailing, and the sounds of the city were almost deafening. But, the Native American stopped and he said, “I hear a cricket.”
His friend said, “You must be crazy. You couldn’t possibly hear a cricket in all this noise!”
He said, “No, I’m sure of it. I hear a cricket.”
He listened carefully for a moment and then walked across the street to a big cement planter filled with shrubs. He looked under the branches and, sure enough, he found a small cricket.
His friend was utterly amazed. He said, “That’s incredible. You must have superhuman ears!”
The Native American said, “No, my ears are no different from yours. It all depends on what you’re listening for. It depends on what is really important to you. Let me show you.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and dropped them on the sidewalk. Then, despite the noise of the crowded street still blaring in their ears, they noticed that everybody within twenty feet turned to look for the money.
He said, “See what I mean? It all depends on what’s important to you.”
One of the things that we have to do if we are going to listen to others in the midst of so many distractions is to place a high importance on them.
But the second thing we can do to counter distractions is to get rid of the distractions. And, keep in mind, distraction is not just a problem that keeps us from listening to others around us. It’s a problem that keeps us from listening to God. We have so many distractions, so many things that occupy our attention that we have trouble listening to God.
It’s not a new problem, though. Isaac of Nineveh lived in the 7th century and he said, “If you love truth, be a lover of silence.” Which is an idea that is supported in scripture. In Zephaniah 1:7, we read, “Be silent before the Lord God!”
There are times in our lives when we become most aware of the presence of God, and almost always, they are moments of silence. Have you ever sat on a rock near a running stream or maybe on a log out in the woods somewhere and just listened? It’s a very relaxing sound, the sound of silence. It’s not completely silent, because there are the quiet sounds of nature. The birds singing, the breeze blowing in the trees, crickets chirping.
But what a tremendous contrast there is between those sounds of nature and the sounds of the life that so many of us live. Life in this world is always so busy. It’s an endless list of things to do, noise and rush. There seldom seems to be a moment to stop and think. The words of this anonymous poem sum it up well:
“The days are bumper to bumper, Lord.
The deadlines, the pressures, the list of things to do keep funneling into my schedule,
until I feel like one monumental traffic jam!
I’ve nearly concluded that it is, after all, my own fault!
There is no time for quiet or reflection,
for pause or beauty, there is no time to think!
When the blank spaces do occur in my schedule
I feel I have been so rushed that now,
I owe it to myself just to vegetate.
Lord, when will I learn to live a controlled life without apology?
Help me to learn, to say yes and no at the right times.”
– Author Unknown
But, in the midst of the commotion of our world, there is a still small voice that whispers to us. A voice that calls us to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10). Because, in the rush and noise of life, the voice of God is easily drowned out.
I’m reminded of Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb. When he was running away from Queen Jezebel, depressed and utterly forsaken (or, at least, that’s the way it seemed to him). Elijah ran to this remote location. And there, he heard a voice that said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” (I Kings 19:11).
And when Elijah did that, he had the opportunity to view a very impressive scene.
“Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.” (I Kings 19:11-12)
Elijah met God, but not in the loud ways that he might have expected. Rather, he met God when things got quiet. Verse 12 says, it was “the sound of a low whisper”, or as other translations put it, “a small, still voice.” Some experts in Hebrew say that this phrase could even be translated, “God was in the sound of sheer silence.”
In Habakkuk 2, the prophet Habakkuk describes idol worship as a waste of energy, but he concludes that list by saying “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
So often, we come into God’s presence and we rush to pour out our hearts to him. And while I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, it also seems to me that there are times when we need to just sit in the presence of God in silence. We need to be careful that we don’t treat God like a giant vending machine in the sky where we just walk up and punch the right buttons to get what we want. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
Throughout the centuries, Christians have recognized the importance of silence. Soren Kierkegaard once observed that people commonly suppose that the most important thing in prayer is to concentrate on what one is praying for. But he says, it may well be that just the opposite is true — the true meaning of prayer is not when God hears what we pray for, but when we pray in such a way that we are the one who hears, and we hear what God’s will is for us.
But, as I said, listening is difficult, partly because we won’t shut up long enough to listen, and partly because we have so many distractions.
It’s worth noting that many of the greatest leaders in the Bible spent time alone in the desert, in the wilderness, by themselves. There was Moses, who spent 40 years alone with his sheep, Elijah that we’ve already mentioned, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul. We often forget that, after he was converted, Paul went into the desert and spent three years, according to Galatians 1 (Gal. 1:17-18).
And, of course, there was Jesus, who not only spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry, but he often withdrew to desolate places to pray (Luke 5:16).
If you’ve ever heard Randy Harris speak, you may have heard him talk about his decision to spend 40 days in a silent prayer retreat. He said it came about as a result of him asking himself the question, “What would happen if I gave God my full attention for 40 days?”
But, unfortunately, most of us aren’t in a position where we can go off to ourselves for 40 days, and so we’ve got to figure out how to create those times of silence in our lives. As Carlo Carretto has said, “If you cannot go to the desert, then the desert can come to you.”
So, let me take a few minutes to suggest a few ways that we can do that. First, try “unplugging” for a period of time. Silence all of those technological distractions in your life — cell phones, iPads, tablets, computer games, laptops, TVs – turn them all off for a period of time. I have a friend who for many years set aside Monday as his day of silence. And I knew that there was no use trying to reach him on a Monday. He turned his phone off, he didn’t check his e-mail, he didn’t allow any distractions in his life. That was his day to live in silence before God and to be aware of God’s presence in his life.
I understand that it may be difficult for you to set aside a full day, so choose a smaller amount of time. Maybe the first hour after you get home from work, the TV gets turned off, the cell phone gets turned off. Or maybe it’s the hour before you go to bed. It doesn’t have a be a terribly long period of time, but there’s needs to be some time that we need to set aside in our day or in our week when we have complete silence.
Make an appointment with God for some quiet time, mark it on your calendar and treat it just as seriously as you would an appointment with your boss or a doctor’s appointment. Maybe it’s a time to savor your coffee quietly alone in the early morning hours before work. Or maybe a period of time when you get out in nature and take a walk. Or, maybe try setting aside one hour a week that you make the commit to not say a word, you just listen.
Henri Nouwen warns us, though. He said, “The trouble is, as soon as you sit and become quiet, you think, Oh, I forgot this. I should call my friend. Later on, I’m going to see him. Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down. It’s not easy to sit and trust that in solitude God will speak to you — not as a magical voice but that he will let you know something gradually over the years.”
I love that image – our inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down. But, the good thing is that if we will make the commitment to find those quiet moments, we will find that, over time, our lives look very different. Anxiety and frustrations will disappear as we learn to “be still and know that I am God.”
So, as we close, I want to challenge you, first of all, to consider and evaluate how good you are at listening. And the best way to do that is to ask a friend that you trust, or better yet, your husband or wife, “Do you think that I’m a good listener?” But, if you dare to ask that question and if you give them permission to be honest with you, then you need to brace yourself for the answer!
In addition to that, we all need to engage in some honest self-examination by looking for signs of poor listen¬ing habits. See if your mind often wanders while others are speaking, if you can’t remember important details from conversations people have had with you; if you find yourself misquoting others frequently, if you get easily impatient when someone else is talking, if you interrupt a lot, or if you find yourself dominating conversations so that you don’t have to listen to others, then perhaps you need to concentrate more on the discipline of listening. And really, what it boils down to is that we need to simply apply the Golden Rule to our listening: listen to others as you would have them listen to you.
Either as it relates to either listening to others or listening to God, we need to find the distractions and seek to minimize them. Turn off your cell phone when someone needs to talk with you. Turn off the television. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to visit with someone only to find that they have the TV on and the volume turned up, and during my entire visit, there’s no attempt to lower the volume or turn the TV off. Let others know that you want to listen to them by getting rid of the distractions. And, at times when that’s not possible, we need to place enough value on what someone is saying to us that we can tune everything else out and give our undivided attention.
And, when it comes to listening to God, we’ve got to find those quiet moments. Make the commitment to set aside some time that you can be silent in the presence of God.
Are you ready to listen?