At one time part of my job required me to sit through a four hour presentation on verbal S.W.A.T. The focus centered on active listening techniques. Active listening was presented as the solution to diffuse potentially dangerous verbal confrontations (that could eventually escalade into violent behavior if dealt with wrongly). The way we listen and how we listen, including verbal and non-verbal feedback, and an array of other listening skills are what made the difference between a threatening situation and its resolve. What I can away with was: the power of listening.
Listening is the fundamental stance of the person of faith and a vital part of our faith journey. It is also absolutely necessary for those of us who would spiritually lead others. Spiritual leadership first and foremost involves trust that there is Someone leading us. Jesus did nothing unless led by the Father (John 8:27-29). As ministers one of our primary roles is as we listen we lead, then, not from what is familiar, safe or comfortable but from fresh revelation of God for ourselves, our church and those we lead. I don’t think it is enough for spiritual leaders to be moral, well trained, highly gifted individuals, as valuable and important as those qualities are, but they need to be men and women who desire to dwell in God’s presence, listen to God’s voice, and respond faithfully whatever that revelation might bring no matter how counter-intuitive or culturally absurd (think of Joshua and Jericho.) In order to lead God’s church we must know how God is leading. Like Pastor Mark Batterson, senior pastor at National Community Church in Washington, D.C. said at the 2009 General Council, “We need to pray more than we plan.”
Interestingly, the word “absurd” includes the Latin word sardus, which means “deaf.” This would indicate that remaining deaf to the voice of God results in absurd living, a state in which life seems irrational and meaningless. Consider how Jesus describes those who do not listen in Matt. 13:15, “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”
In contrast, the word obedience includes the word audire, which means ‘listening.’ The obedient life is one in which we listen with acute awareness to the Holy Spirit. As we train our hearts to listen, our “listening” is the way in which we keep in the Holy Spirit’s movement in our lives and those we lead (Gal. 5:25). The New Testament word upakouo, which we translate as “obey,” actually means to “hyper-listen.” This kind of obedient listening often congers up the picture in my head of a desperate parent gripping a child’s shoulder, looking them squarely in the eyes and saying, “Listen to me!” What that parent is really saying is, “Pay attention to me and do what I tell you!” Is this not what Jesus was saying when he said over and over, “He who has ears, let him hear”? The Bible is replete with examples of how not listening becomes a form of disobedience. (For examples see 2 Kings 17:14, 40; Neh. 9:29; Psm. 81:11, 13; Isa. 30:9; Ruth 2:8.)
Listening skills are developed, just as our speaker that day taught. So how do we develop the skills needed to listen to God?
The first skill we need to develop is : Showing up all the way.
Showing up all the way with God is to listening intently with focused attention. It’s incredible how much stuff we can “do for God” without bringing all of ourselves to the table and without any real interaction with Him at all. Too often we end of skimming through life unaware of the activity of God and we miss what God is up to in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Someone has said, “It means full attention; not just a haphazard one ear cocked to maybe catch a familiar sound.”
The second skill needed is: Listen to your stirrings.
One of the best ways I’ve discovered to cultivate a heart that hears the Spirit is to “walk” with any “stirrings” in my heart. Sometimes it’s a stirring in my conscious or a restlessness in my soul. Whatever sense of the Holy Spirit’s movement you have, it’s important you don’t ignore it. When I sense even the slightest activity of the Holy Spirit, I tell myself, “Pay attention. This can take you something good.”
The final skill is: Practicing sustained listening.
Richard Foster poignantly begins his classical book on the spiritual disciplines with this statement, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.” Almost everything in our world inhibits our ability to sustain any kind of focus or attention. Because we are compelled to accomplish as much as possible as quickly as possible, we skim over lives hoping somewhere along the way we will hear God. Most often we don’t. We are so consumed with the goings-on around us there is little or no practice or opportunity for sustained listening. God continues to speak long after we’ve gotten up from our devotional place or closed our Bible. The ability to listen and hear God’s voice grows over time with practice, yet too often we grow weary with the invitation to linger in quietness or get impatient with the discipline it takes to listen deeply. Often times when I purpose myself to “listen” for the presence of God I may not listen long enough to make it past the hurricane, earthquake, and fire (I Kings 19) to get to the place of tenderness and quietness where God’s voice is heard.
For too many years I tried to hear God’s voice on the run and then I always wondered why he didn’t speak. Since I have started practicing attentive listening I am amazed how much God has to say! There are just no shortcuts. Listening will take time. Our busy schedules will scream that we need to simply “get on with it” to the task at hands. But as Gordon Smith, in “On the Way”, points out, ‘It is inconceivable to think that God would give us so much to do that we can no longer spend extended time with Him. Listening doesn’t detract from our service; it empowers it.” (Thomas, Gary L., Sacred Parenting, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, p. 64)