If you were to turn on the cable news, you would likely see the news anchor with a person on her right and left. These two individuals would be discussing today’s hot-button issue, but they wouldn’t really be discussing. It’s more like talking at one another, a game scored on smug insults and sizzling one-liners.
Jump over to any social media stream, and you would likely see a similar phenomenon. Whether the issue is political, theological, or even personal, you will see hordes of people lobbing mischaracterizations and straw-man arguments across enemy lines. We live in a day that is more connected than ever; yet, true engagement—the type where people genuinely listen and consider alternatives—seems to be at an all-time low.
Simply put, our culture is characterized by poor listening. I don’t mean listening skills, like the ones taught in school, though we could probably stand to have a refresher on those. I mean a posture of humility that listens to understand before responding.
Stephen Covey gets at this skill in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He points out, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.” Covey is spot-on here, so he argues for what he calls “empathic listening,” which is “not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”
In a culture marked by talking heads, Christians, in particular, need to be marked by a desire to listen and understand. Rather than turning people into arguments that need to be defeated, believers should take time to listen with patience and genuine concern.
Consider the gift of prayer. God has given us prayer as an act of love, where we experience the joy of bringing our requests to him while knowing that we are heard and understood. It communicates a sense of value and love.
In the same vein, we demonstrate honor and love when we actually listen to understand. Christians are called to be light in the darkness, to be a distinct—and sometimes odd—society that lives within the larger society. Could it be that a counter-cultural Christianity in a world of non-stop talking simply looks like a person willing to sit down and listen?
Of course, there is a time to talk for Christians. We are saved to testify to the Good News. But that doesn’t decrease the importance of hearing. Before you rush in to tell your neighbor why gay marriage is unbiblical, have you cared to hear how he has spent his entire life experiencing rejection and being an outcast? Have you shown that you care about him?
Before you write your next diatribe about the damaging effect of the social justice movement, take time to sit down with the sister who has experienced systemic racism firsthand. Have dinner with the brother whose article you plan to blast on your blog.
Listening allows us to learn. It shows where we are operating in blind spots, and where we are flat-out wrong. But it may also provide a more fruitful opportunity to point out where the other person isn’t thinking clearly.
Just as important as clarifying our thinking, truly listening to a person humanizes the topic. Social media interactions are inherently dehumanized. We don’t have a living, breathing person sitting across from me. We just have a tiny, circular avatar looking back at us.
Slowing down and actually listening allows us to see the human side of these issues. Even if I disagree with another person on a topic, such as abortion or the validity of the Christian faith, it benefits me to calmly hear them out and understand where they are coming from. The issue goes from a disconnected, abstract debate to a person created in God’s image who deserves my respect.
This need to listen before responding is not limited to our interactions with unbelievers. It’s a problem within the church. Here are a handful of questions to ask ourselves with regard to our listening:
- Pastors, does your congregation feel that you actually hear them when they come to you with concerns?
- Parents, do you listen to your children, or do you automatically assume you know what they want or need?
- Do you automatically go into defense mode when others seek to give you counsel?
- Do the unbelievers you are sharing the gospel with actually feel that you have heard their struggles and even their reservations about the Christian faith?
We are called to love our neighbor as ourself. One small demonstration of that love is hearing and understanding them. That’s how we reflect our identity in Christ, the holy One who heard the cries of the masses and addressed their needs. So, brothers and sisters, listen in love. Understand. Then speak.