I wrote in my last entry that looking at Jesus’ encounters with people provided me with two principles of witnessing, particularly when thinking about verbal witnessing. I wrote about one of the last time–but I didn’t forget about the second one. I want to look at that one today. It grows out of the realization that there is no one sure-fire way to witness in the verbal context.
Because every situation is different, I think we need to spend some serious time learning the context before we speak. When we are seeking to be used by God to help people come closer to him, we learn the context best by listening first. There is an old proverb that I use often when working with church leaders. It tells us, “God gave us two ears and one tongue so that we would listen twice as much as we talk.” In witnessing, as in most areas of life, this proverb provides some really valuable wisdom.
I have discovered that most people really don’t know how to listen. We are much more interested in speaking than listening. Think for a bit about the number of times you feel that someone has actually listened to you–I would bet that you can count on one hand the number of people who seem to really listen to you.
Listening is a skill that can be learned and at some point, I may spend some time looking at how we can enhance our own listening skills. But for now, I am going to look at what listening in a witnessing context means. I think here are two sources that we need to be listening to.
First, we need to listen carefully to the other people involved. We listen to their words and to their non-verbal communication. We are listening for feelings, concerns, discrepancies between words and body language, impressions–we are focusing completely on the other person to get a clearer sense of their personal context. We want to know what is going on in that person as much as we can. The more we focus on that person, the more we will learn and understand about them and their context.
At the same time, we are listening for the Holy Spirit. We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is already active in the life of the person we are listening to. The Spirit has been influencing and exposing the person to God’s love in a variety of ways that neither we nor even the person can fully know or understand.
And the important thing to remember is that we have the same Holy Spirit active in our lives, active at an even more significant level. The Spirit who is influencing that other person can and will give us insights into how best to relate to that person. The process of verbal witnessing becomes an interaction involving us, the other person and the Holy Spirit. Actively listening to both the Spirit and the other person allows us to know where the other person is and what can help move them along in their journey to God.
This is the third principle of witnessing–we begin where the people are. And we can only do that by listening to them carefully and completely. We need to listen to get beyond our assumptions. We need to listen to get beyond our fears. We need to listen to get beyond our desires. We need to listen to get beyond our need to be in control. We need to listen to be able to be God’s instrument in the situation.
One interesting side effect of the listening process is that sometimes, we will discover that as we listen, we don’t know what to say. My suggestion is that for most of us, that feeling of not knowing what to say is a message from the Holy Spirit that we need to act on by not saying anything. I have often heard people complaining that someone talks too much but I don’t think I have ever heard someone complain about someone listened to them too much.
When we begin where people are and combine our listening to them with listening to the Holy Spirit, we will in the end probably talk a lot less in our verbal witnessing but will have a much better chance of saying something that will actually help the person move closer to God. And since that is what witnessing is all about, it makes a lot of sense to listen at least twice as much as we talk.
May the peace of God be with you.