Hey Pastor, Has Anyone Ever Told You You’re a Good Listener?
Some aspects of our current political turmoil are relatively novel. The level of intensity is not among them. In the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, political conflicts precipitating civil war polarized churches. In the mid-twentieth century, churches found themselves in the middle of civil rights battles, anti-authoritarian foments, the sexual revolution, and the legalization of abortion. The political tensions of our day may seem strident in comparison with the preceding 40 years, but they are nothing new under the sun.
What’s unprecedented now is the degree to which political tensions divide members of the same local church. Today’s docket of political tensions—racial justice, police reform, intersectionality, even the coronavirus—divide godly people seated in the same pew. Layered onto these topics, the anti-abortion candidate in the next election sports an extensive list of egregious moral failures, spawning contentious debate among the saints concerning his qualification for office.
As pastors strive to maintain peace in the midst of such political turmoil, let’s remember that navigating division is nothing new. Indwelling sin ensures that every assembly of saints, to one degree or another, constitutes an arena of relational turmoil—politically or otherwise. Loving relationships are hard-won and demand the church’s capacity to navigate strong differences of opinion. Members of a healthy local church must learn to employ an array of strategies to pursue love and unity across our divides—divides which pale in comparison with those Jesus’ death has already bridged (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11–22; 3:6).
Chiefly, church members must commit to listening to one another. Love leans forward and listens. Prideful, selfish ambition towers over and trumpets. For the sake of God’s glory and the unity of our local churches, learn to be a listening pastor. As we do, here are four things to remember.
1. We listen to a God who talks and talk to a God who listens.
We are made in the image of a God who speaks and hears. God spoke the world into existence and uses the medium of human language to reveal himself to his people. Idols, by contrast, are deaf and dumb. “They have mouths, but do not speak . . . ears, but do not hear” (Ps 115:5–6). Those who worship false gods become like them (v. 8). Those who worship the living God speak to him and heed his Word.
What does this mean for listening to others? A life spent heeding God’s Word—“making your ear attentive to [God’s] wisdom” (Prov 2:2)—habituates the soul to listen to others. Listening to God requires the humility of looking outside myself for life-giving truth and the discipline of applying God’s truth in my daily life, even when that proves painful. Walking with God naturally orients me toward humble, attentive listening to those made in his image.
Pastors who struggle to listen well betray some level of failure when it comes to listening well to God. How often have we witnessed such spiritual declension when yet another disgraced pastor stops listening to others? Whether fueled by pride, greed, sensuality, or laziness, an early sign that a soon-to-fall pastor has stopped listening to God is that he stops listening to the wisdom of the saints God has placed around him. He dismisses the wisdom of fellow elders or church members who attempt to hold him accountable, push back against his self-serving ideas, or rightly question his motives. These ear-plugging habits are rooted in an ear-plugged relationship with God. They’ll eventually bear the bitter fruit of prideful, inattentive dismissal of what others have to say—particularly when what they have to say is what God has been saying to him all along. Listening to others is a spiritual muscle we exercise in the gymnasium of private devotion to God.
2. We listen to one another to know one another.
Listening is more than a strategy for information transfer. To listen to someone is to learn about someone. For the believer, listening to God’s Word is life itself (Deut. 32:45–47). God’s Word reveals his heart to me, thereby drawing me to love him with all of mine (Deut. 6:4–5). From the other direction, as God listens to us, the goal is more than our psychological comfort. By inviting our prayers and petitions, God invites us to join him in redeeming our broken world in light of his future promises—to resist the world that is, in the assurance of what will be (Matt 6:10; Acts 4:23–31). In other words, by hearing God’s Word and praying to him we come to know him.
In a similar vein, we come to know others, in part, by listening to them. Even if we hold divergent opinions, even if we lend our ear to an unfair critic or a muddleheaded opinion-monger, listening permits us to peer into the window of their soul. Love welcomes such opportunities. We may find the window smeared with self-deceptive, dishonest, or banal speech. But listening allows us to know someone more fully. Therefore, love rejoices to listen.
Pastors must repeatedly remind themselves of this. After all, it’s easy to listen to the member of the flock who believes as you do or shares your interests. It’s easy to hear words of respect and appreciation from kindred spirits. But our Lord loved us while we were his enemies, and your Christian brother or sister, no matter how difficult they are to endure, is no enemy. They are saints chosen by Christ and united to his body by his shed blood. Love listens in order to know them.
Listening also helps me know myself. Whenever a believer is willing to discuss contentious, divisive issues with me, I must receive it as a gift. Even if what they say is painful to hear, even if the conversation seems to produce no lasting good, it is ultimately a gift. Most criticism contains at least a grain of truth we need to hear. May God help us learn to blow away the clouds of emotive resistance by listening attentively in order to see ourselves more accurately, and thus realize the sanctifying effect God intends for us .
3. Listening well to others involves focused control.
Some witty bloke observed that God created us with two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. Perhaps this folksy proverb found inspiration in James’ exhortation to “be quick to hear and slow to speak” (Jas. 1:19). I suspect we pastors are typically more wired to preach on that text than obey it. But being quick to hear is not a self-help suggestion from a postmodern life-coach. It’s a command from the Holy Spirit.
As a lot, pastors typically register on the verbal end of the communication scale. We like to talk so much that we do it for a living. Sociological studies claim that public speaking is one of the most prominent human fears—yet, weirdly, we welcome what most people find terrifying. As a result, we often hear about pastors’ preaching skills. But how often have you heard that a pastor is a superb listener?
Brother pastors, we prioritize speaking over listening at a scandalous rate. We’re commissioned to talk and we must. But we shouldn’t permit this calling to excuse poor listening. May God help us grow in the discipline of holding our tongues and opening our ears.
4. Listening well to others is not therapy.
When God listens, he’s always up to something. By contrast, our world promotes an almost wholly passive listening in which listeners are mere “sounding boards” to help speakers discover their own wisdom.
Biblical listening isn’t like that. It doesn’t imply that we put on an earnest expression and an affirmative smile while grunting agreement no matter what is said. That type of listening treats the speaker as sovereign and fails to recognize that we must simultaneously listen to God whose word is supreme in every conversation.
Jesus listened well. He epitomized the Spirit’s command: “Be quick to hear and slow to speak.” But having listened, Jesus usually had something to say. Sometimes encouragement, sometimes rebuke, sometimes a word of guidance, sometimes prayer. We’re not Jesus, of course, but we should emulate him by listening with a love that is willing to respond for God’s honor, whether we must rebuke (Matt. 16:21–23), warn (Luke 22:31–34), say nothing (Matt. 27:11–14), redirect (John 21:20–22), or save the day (John 21:15–17).
Love leans in and listens well. May God help us so love one another.