The Lookout | 9.15.15
By Alan Dowd

When you think of being like Christ, what comes to mind? Being gentle and humble? Being a servant? Sacrificing for others? How about being a good listener?

There are numerous examples from the Bible that depict our listening Lord. Amidst today’s tidal wave of noise—all designed to divert our attention from what really matters—this is a practice, a model, we would do well to emulate.Indeed, scripture challenges us to be imitators of Christ. And one way to imitate our Lord is to become a better listener.

Thunder and Whispers

There’s a lot of truth to the old saying that “The good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth for reason.” By listening more than we talk, we can avoid countless headaches. More important, we can hear what God is saying to us.

Remember, Elijah had to shut out the noise of the world—a whirlwind, an earthquake and a firestorm—before he could hear the Lord in “a gentle whisper” (I Kings 19).

From the beginning, we notice that the Lord Himself is a good listener. He not only heard what Adam and Eve said in the garden; He listened to what they meant (Genesis 3).

He listened to Abraham’s seemingly-endless queries about what it would take to spare Sodom and Gomorrah: Was it 50 righteous people or 20 or 10?

Among many other things, the Lord’s thundering response to Job revealed that He had been listening to Job—precisely and patiently.

The psalmist rejoiced in how “The Lord has heard my cry for mercy” (Psalm 6).

By saying “Come, let us reason together,” the Lord revealed that He longs to have a conversation with His people. That presupposes listening.

Politicians and Priests

Then we come to the Lord wrapped in human flesh—God with two ears.

The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus hearing what people say and listening to what they really mean.

Jesus listened to a desperate dad. Mark’s Gospel tells the story of a father who came to Jesus on behalf of his son, who was deaf, mute and possessed by a violent spirit. Moved by their condition, Jesus asks him how long his son has suffered. “From childhood,” the man answers. “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (Mark 9).

Jesus’ reaction reveals that He is an attentive listener: “If you can?” Catching him in doubt, Jesus repeats the man’s words to make a point. “Everything is possible for him who believes,” Jesus explains. And the man responds with perhaps the most honest human words ever uttered to God. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Jesus listened to the woman at the well. Driven to the well by physical thirst, the woman lowers her jar into the water. Jesus startles her by asking for a drink. But the woman balks at His request because of cultural traditions. John reminds us that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” Of course, cultural differences are only the beginning of the differences between Jesus and the nameless woman. Not only does she worship in a different way than Jesus, she is living with a man who isn’t her husband. And she’s been divorced five times.

We know these details because Jesus listens to her. He values her enough to talk with her—not at her. After being used or ignored by every man in her life, it is God Himself who finds the time to hear her out. The two talk about her failed marriages and loveless relationships. She becomes vulnerable with Jesus because He treats her with respect—and listens. And because Jesus listens, she discovers the need behind her need. It isn’t her body that thirsts for water, but her soul.

She pours out herself and drinks in His words. They revive her and transform her into a wellspring of life: “Many Samaritans from that town believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”

Jesus listened to a puzzled priest. John tells the story of Nicodemus, a wise Pharisee struggling with the notion of being born again.

“How can a man be born again when he is old?” Nicodemus asks. “Surely he cannot enter a second time his mother’s womb to be born,” he wonders aloud. “How can this be?” he asks again.

After patiently listening, Jesus answers by explaining that being born again is about a person’s heart, that everyone who believes in the Son will have eternal life, that those who know the truth and live by the truth flee the night and live in the light.

Speaking of the truth, Jesus listened to a pagan politician struggle with the notion of truth. His name was Pontius Pilate.

John devotes some 22 verses to the exchange between the God of the universe and the governor of Judea. Their interaction—especially Jesus’ willingness to listen—offers a stark reminder that God expects us to listen even to those who haven’t earned our respect.

Pilate’s questions fly like arrows: Are you king of the Jews? Do you hear the testimony against you? What crime have you committed? What is it you have done? But for an unmeasured moment, Pilate relents and the cross-examination becomes something close to a dialogue. The two discuss kings and kingdoms, law and life. Then, Jesus offers Pilate a glimpse into eternity: “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Pilate answers with a verbal shrug—“What is truth?”—and leaves before Jesus has a chance to respond. That speaks volumes about Pilate, and their next exchange speaks volumes about Jesus.

After having Jesus scourged, Pilate returns to his prisoner and asks, “Where do you come from?” Jesus is slow to respond this time. Perhaps it was the flogging, perhaps the public humiliation. Perhaps He was trying to find the right words. “Don’t you realize I have the power either to free you or crucify you?” Pilate stabs.

Rather than ignoring Pilate, Jesus offers him one last dose of truth: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”

That chilling rejoinder seems to penetrate Pilate’s arrogance, albeit briefly. John tells us that upon hearing Christ’s answer, Pilate was “afraid” and “tried to set Jesus free.”

The list goes on and on: Jesus listened to Jairus’ cry for help, the growling stomachs of 5,000 men, the fears of a demon named Legion, the bickering of James and John, the centurion’s humble request, Peter’s confession of faith and denial of his Lord, the soldiers’ slurs, the cries of the repentant thief.

He listened because He was present and because He cared, because He was quiet and because He was humble, because He trained His body for listening by going away to “solitary places.”

There are at least three remarkable things about the example set by our listening Lord.

First, His words were—and are—more important than ours. Yet relatively speaking, He didn’t talk that much. Instead, He often let his actions do the talking. And actions, we know, speak louder than words. Not all quiet people are good listeners, of course, and not all quiet people are humble. But in Christ’s case, choosing to listen, taking the time to listen, summoning the patience to listen was—and is—an example of unmatched humility.

Second, researchers have found that good listeners are good at a lot of things that make relationships work. After researching the subject of listening, health columnist Lindsay Holmes found that good listeners are:

  • Present. In other words, they’re not distracted by the noise of the world—iPhones, Facebook, TV or Twitter.
  • Empathetic. They truly care about what’s being said and the person saying it.
  • Have high emotional intelligence. They’re able to perceive and understand the emotions of others and their own emotions.
  • Ask good questions. They provide the sort of feedback that shows they’re truly engaged.
  • Not defensive. “Effective listeners don't block out negative criticism,” according to Holmes. “Instead, they listen and develop an understanding of what the person is trying to convey before responding.”
  • Can handle uncomfortable situations.
  • Are proven leaders. “There’s a direct correlation between strong leadership and strong listening skills,” Holmes found.[1]

Two thousand years before business researchers and psychologists arrived at these conclusions, Jesus displayed these traits: He was present. He cared. He felt and shared in the emotions of others. He was engaged and asked questions. He responded to what a person said and meant. He never fled from criticism or uncomfortable situations. And always He led.

Third, we can imitate these listening skills of Jesus.

We can choose to listen, take the time to listen, summon the patience and humility to listen.

We can be present and be active listeners. We can show compassion and care by listening and by how we listen.

And we can train ourselves to become better listeners by seeking quiet time with the Father, just as Jesus did. Matthew 14, Mark 1, Mark 3, Luke 5 and John 6 offer some helpful examples.

Jesus invites us to “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place” (Mark 6)—a place where we can hear His gentle whisper and learn to listen.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/habits-of-good-listeners_n_5668590.html