with Bob Condly

The Limits of Listening


“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?


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.


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.


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.

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By Bob Condly
with Bob Condly

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