Listening: The Duty of Love

I can speak to many people at one time but I can only listen to one person at a time. Listening is what makes ministry loving and personal. As a pastor people would “connect” with me by listening to my teaching. I even had some who thought of me as their friend and yet we had never met. It was a one-way connection, which is not a friendship at all.

Paul Tillich writes, “The first duty of love is to listen,” and yet how rare it is to have anyone listen to us, even though Christianity is supposed to be marked by love. Ministries spend thousands of dollars and work long hours trying to get people to listen to them. Our seminaries, colleges, and churches teach us how to preach, how to teach, and how to share our story, but not how to listen.

Listening well to others requires inner strength because it places the listener in a vulnerable position. Whether as an extrovert or an introvert we protect ourselves from possible rejection. Extroverts are capable of creating a multilayered verbal force field, which seems friendly but in reality is self-protective. Introverts on the other hand are masters at evasive maneuvers to avoid unwanted conversations.

To love I must boldly drop my shield or bravely come out from hiding to engage others in order to listen with an intent to understand what the person is saying.

Although Jesus taught large groups there are also recorded for us one-on-one conversations that he had with individuals, Nicodemus and the woman at the well being two good examples. Both were never the same after being listened to by Jesus.



The Absorbency of Love

Love has the strength to absorb. This absorbency is seen in Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:   “Love is patient, love is kind . . . it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs . . . it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Jesus was able to absorb the immature behavior of his disciples and even their abandonment on the night of his crucifixion.

An evidence of love’s absorbency will be your ability to listen to your disciple, especially during times of failure in his life.  A person who does not love has a hard time making room in his heart to listen.  Our natural response to someone’s failure is disappointment, which turns to frustration, and finally anger.  Our tendency is to try and “fix” others by instruction.  (If only he would listen to me!) We would be better advised to listen to our disciple at times of their failure rather than just instructing.  To listen intently will give you an understanding of the problem and then at an appropriate time you are able to give right counsel to your disciple.  (Often I ask my disciple to give me 48 hours after our initial conversation so that I can process what he has said to me.)

Listening is a powerful form of love that transforms the life of your disciple.  (This is why I believe prayer is an essential part of spiritual growth.  When I pray God has all the time in the universe to listen to me and his infinite love is able to absorb my rambling, joys, frustration, sin, and failure).  As M. Scott Peck has said: “The principal form that the work of love takes is attention. When we love another we give him or her our attention…by far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening…listening well is an exercise of attention and by necessity hard work.”[1]

[1] Peck, M. Scott “The Road Less Traveled” (Austin: Touchstone Publishing, 1998)