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January 2018

The Limits of Listening

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“God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk!”

A popular expression, but do we believe it?

Should we?

Dynamics

This proverb is conflicted. If in a conversation I listen to a friend for 30 minutes and speak for 15, I live up to the standard. Yet this means that he speaks for 30 minutes and listens for only 15. He falls short. Did my listening make him hog the conversation?

Why hinder the dynamism of conversation by tracking minutes? Let human interaction flourish free from such restrictions!

But any discussion, particularly one dealing with sensitive or painful matters, needs boundaries. Rivers flow within banks; floods wreak havoc.

Destination

The goal is another issue. Why do people want us to listen to them? Some love the sound of their own voice.

“A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind.” – Proverbs 18:2

Others strive to change something wrong in their lives. By talking to us, people express their hope that we can help them overcome their problems.

That’s fine as long as we assume we can.

But what if what they’re telling us leaves us stumped? We don’t know what steps they should take.

Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know what to say?

Once a college student made an appointment to see me for pastoral counseling. I wasn’t sure of the reason for her visit, but during the session, she told me that she’d been raped in her campus apartment.

I wasn’t expecting to hear that horrible tale.

What comfort could I offer her? What could I say that would take away the pain and redeem the effects?

Many pastors and Christian leaders recommend that in times of crisis we practice a “ministry of presence.” We do nothing but show up and spend time, preferably in silence.

Blogger Anjanette Flemming maintains that “sometimes . . . you need not words. Your presence is enough. This is the ‘Ministry of Presence’, to just sit with someone in their pain and suffering.”

And Dr. Stephen Davey assures us: “I want to encourage you that everyone in the body of Christ qualifies to be an expert assistant to the suffering. You do not have to be brilliant, persuasive, articulate, or experienced. You can be involved in what I will call, ‘The Ministry of Presence.’ Through the ministry of presence, you can bring comfort to the hurting—without ever being ordained or certified. You do not have to be anything but available to be a wonderful tool in the hand of God . . . We do not have to be brilliant, articulate, biblical scholars; it is true that the greatest ability as a friend is availability. Just show up—and you exercise the ministry of presence.”

Sitting still with a friend can provide the best therapy.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” – James 1:19

Rather than jumping to plan a strategy, we stop and focus. As psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” And the Bible warns us:

“To answer before listening–that is folly and shame.” – Proverbs 18:13

We see this principle illustrated in the lives of Job and his friends.

“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. 12When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” – Job 2:11-13

Their silence suited Job; but when his friends voiced their opinions, they failed him and God.

“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. 8So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.’” – Job 42:7-8

Here’s the problem though: as much as people claim they don’t want our help, they often do. And although pastors insist that we serve best by keeping quiet and listening, responding isn’t always a sin. The fact that people are willing to unburden themselves to us implies that they want answers.

But we have to honor God’s timing.

Discipleship

Before we suggest solutions, before we even listen to people’s stories, we need to visit with Jesus.

“The Lord God has given Me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.” – Isaiah 50:4

Our dedication to Christ comes first. Only when we prioritize Him will we get insights that comfort and guide.

We must listen to the Lord; we must also observe ourselves.

Psychologist Kyle Arnold says that “bad listeners are those who do not slow down and pay attention to how they feel when listening, and quickly respond before letting anything sink in. Our dimly felt inner responses to the other person’s words provide the most penetrating understanding of what they mean.”

He adds: “The next time you are confused or concerned by an interaction, don’t respond immediately. Take a momentary pause, and try listening to your inner feelings. You may find that doing so is initially uncomfortable. Awkward memories, unexpected emotions, or strange associations may emerge. However, when patiently pursued, these unbidden inner experiences can awaken a deep understanding and make relationships freer and fuller.”

Sandbars and debris clog rivers; ignoring them can capsize a boat. Like rivers, conversations contain submerged barriers. If we disregard them, we risk ruining the help others need.

When we process our feelings and reactions, we put ourselves in the position to speak with compassion and conviction.

In the opinion of psychologist Elizabeth Wake, “the people who use their education most effectively are those who take the time and energy to listen and relate to others and then apply their expertise.”

Hearing the stories of others doesn’t have to be a passive activity. Listening requires discipline and effort. And for disciples, it has a goal: to bring people to Jesus.

Let’s lead by listening.

Seeing Invisible Virtues, Part 2

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If we’re going to set New Year’s resolutions, we better make sure they’re worth the time. Many of the objects of our pursuits are transient. Since things of a physical, financial, or material nature don’t last, we have to generate new goals to replace old ones.

The alternative to making fleeting annual resolutions is to set spiritual goals. But as we discussed in last week’s post, it’s difficult to specify them, much less to measure progress toward their attainment.

But we can change our focus.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18

In Christ, we already have what we seek. We may question how we’re going to overcome our vices or achieve breakthroughs, but Jesus assures us of victory.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This isn’t wishful thinking; Jesus paid a big price to give us God’s best.

“He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” – Galatians 3:14

The bad news? We can receive His blessings but fail to benefit from them. Jesus illustrated this sad fact with a parable about forgiveness:

“Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

23For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, “Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.” 27And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.

28But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, “Pay back what you owe.” 29So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, “Have patience with me and I will repay you.” 30But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.

31So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32Then summoning him, his lord said to him, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” 34And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.’” – Matthew 18:21-35 (NASB)

Owing way more than he could pay off, the first servant was responsible enough to promise reimbursement but foolish to believe that he could do it.

In a demonstration of grace, the king forgave the servant’s debt “because you pleaded with me” (vs. 32). But the servant didn’t beg for forgiveness; he asked for an extension. He felt either responsible or capable of paying off his debt if only he had sufficient time.

Why, then, did the king cancel the obligation?

Compassion.

Recognizing that the servant had no way to repay the debt, the king showed mercy to him by nullifying it.

Had the servant taken this to heart, he would have treated the other servant with a lot more kindness. Instead, his ruthlessness cost him everything. The king honored his desire to pay back the debt (vs. 34). He’s back to where he started.

The Bible warns us about this consequence.

“Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” – James 2:13

Why didn’t the servant share the grace he himself had received? It goes to mindset. In this parable, Jesus contrasted two ways of thinking: one based on grace, the other on law. A beneficiary of mercy, the servant found himself incapable of transforming his attitude. So accustomed was he to obligations and duties that the grace shown him never took root. And it cost him everything.

A little bit of mercy would have gone a long way!

You can use every resolution as a way to pay off the debts you believe you owe to God. Or, you can abandon that approach and accept His mercy in Christ. And being free, you can share the kindness of Jesus with others.

Where in your resolutions is there room for compassion?

with Bob Condly

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