Holy Listening as a Spiritual Discipline

May 29, 2012

What if our greatest gift to others is how well we listen not the wisdom of our words?

“Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to us by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work we should share.” ~Dietrich Bonheoffer, Life Together

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with my son,” my claims representative said amid the swirl of noise and activity in the body shop this morning. I was waiting for a car repair estimate after backing into a parked car last week.

“He has no interest in school,” he said. “He wants to work with his hands either fixing cars or working at a trade,” he said shaking his head.

“Is that a problem?” I  asked.

He then explained he had raised four boys as a single parent. His three older boys had set themselves apart academically by taking advanced placement (AP) classes all through high school; they were starting college in the fall. His youngest son had no interest in school.

However, I heard much more beneath the surface of his words:

It was hard raising four boys by himself, and while he worked hard to provide for his family, he felt that he had somehow failed his younger son. A blue-collar worker, he wanted better for his children. He seemed to feel a measure of shame at his blue-collar background. He was unable to hold my gaze as we spoke, which is common for those struggling with shame or low self-esteem.

“It sounds like you have worked hard to provide for your sons,” I replied. “Your older sons are gifted academically, and your youngest son seems to have a real gift working with his hands.”

“I guess that’s true,” he said.

“The greatest gift you can give your sons is to love them,” I continued. “And it helps if you can help them identify their gifts and talents. It sounds like you’ve done both,” I said.

His eyes met mine for the first time.

“Thank you.”

Listening as Healing

What happened during our conversation?

I think this man’s greatest need this morning was to be heard. His need was so great he was willing to have a personal conversation with a complete stranger.

And he’s not alone.

What most people want is for someone to truly hear and understand, for someone to validate their thoughts and feelings by taking time to listen–to really listen.

It struck me while we spoke, that the greatest need of those we spend time with–family and friends, coworkers, colleagues, and most Christians I know–is for someone to truly listen to them, to hear their heart and their pain, and to let them talk until they they have nothing else to say.

Rachel Naomi Remen, co-founder and medical director of the Commonwealth Cancer Help Program, explains:

Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer our attention, an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden. In this culture, the soul and the heart too often go homeless.

How can you practice the spiritual discipline of listening deeply to others? How can you minister healing through listening? Who needs you to listen today?