We live in a world where we are surrounded by sound and pictures and videos–people have more methods of communicating than ever before. The internet has added another layer of communication possibilities which allows people to communicate as never before–real-time, as it happens reports on everything potentially available to everyone, or at least to everyone with internet.
It seems like we human beings have a desperate need to communicate with each other. We want people to know what we had for supper, where we went for vacation, how the cancer treatment is going, when the new job starts, who we care about. And so we communicate: we talk, we post, we upload, we visit coffee shops, we stop the pastor on the way to the pulpit. We want to communicate and so except for a few people even more introverted that me, we look for any possible way of communicating.
But the weakness in the whole thing is that we often forget that communication is a two way process. Communication is more than just someone speaking or writing or posting or uploading a video. The communication process consists of me sending a message and you receiving that message and letting me know that you have received the message. Unfortunately, my admittedly biased impression is that we all want to do the first part but don’t want to do the second part.
One somewhat cynical description of general conversation that I ran into a while ago says, “When you are talking, I am thinking about what I want to say next and wishing you would stop talking so I can say it.” As a pastor and counsellor, one of the most common things I hear from people struggling with some issue is that no one will listen to them. Not feeling that we have been heard is one of the great causes of pain in our culture.
As Christians, this is something that we need to pay attention to. Learning to listen to others is a major part of the practical expression of our faith. Ours is a community based faith and to be a healthy community, we need to be willing and able to listen to each other. While there are some who are gifted in listening, either by birth or because of the Holy Spirit, we can all learn to listen better. Part of loving our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22.39) consists of listening to our neighbour as we would like to be listened to.
So, how do we listen? Well, I think most of us would be wise to begin with some prayer. We could pray a prayer of confession, openly admitting to God that we don’t listen very well. The small percentage of the population who does listen well could still benefit from this prayer because even the best listeners aren’t perfect.
We can follow that prayer with a prayer for enlightenment–part of the task of the Holy Spirit is to teach us what we need to know (John 14.26)–and how to listen is something that we all need to know. And then we can follow that with a prayer for the discipline to actually practise good listening skills.
It should be clear that I am approaching our poor listening skills as a spiritual problem. The difficulty we have in listening to others seems to me to point directly to the self-focus that is the root of all sin. We can’t see beyond ourselves and that means we can’t hear beyond ourselves. Overcoming a lack of ability to listen is the same as overcoming any sin–we need to involve God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the process.
I am not totally sure that I am comfortable seeing my inability to listen to others as a sin–I would rather see it as a result of my introversion or my need to focus on getting ready for worship or being tired or having something important on my mind or needing someone to listen to me for a change. But in the end, when I don’t have time or space or interest in listening to someone else, it is because I am focused on my own stuff. And at times, that might be okay–but when I consistently don’t listen to others, that slips into sin and I need God’s help to deal with that.
May the peace of God be with you.