By Alan W. Dowd
When you think of being like Christ, what comes to mind? being gentle and humble? being a servant? sacrificing for others? How about being a good listener?
There are numerous examples from the Bible that depict our listening Lord. Amidst today’s tidal wave of noise—all designed to divert our attention from what really matters—listening is a practice, a model we would do well to emulate. Indeed, Scripture challenges us to be imitators of Christ. And one way to imitate our Lord is to become better listeners.
Thunder and Whispers
There’s a lot of truth to the old saying that “the good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.” By listening more than we talk, we can avoid countless headaches. More importantly, we can hear what God is saying to us.
Remember that Elijah had to shut out the noise of the world—a whirlwind, an earthquake, and a firestorm—before he could hear the Lord in “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12).
From the beginning, we notice that God himself is a good listener:
• He not only heard what Adam and Eve said in the garden, he listened to what they meant (Genesis 3).
• He listened to Abraham’s seemingly endless queries about what it would take to spare Sodom and Gomorrah: Was it 50 righteous people or 20 or 10?
• Among many other things, the Lord’s thundering response to Job revealed that he had been listening to Job—precisely and patiently.
• The psalmist rejoiced in how “the Lord has heard my cry for mercy” (Psalm 6:9).
• By saying, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18, English Standard Version), the Lord revealed that he longs to have a conversation with his people. That presupposes listening.
Politicians and Priests
Next we come to the Lord wrapped in human flesh—the Gospels are full of examples of Jesus hearing what people say and listening to what they really mean:
• Jesus listened to a desperate dad who came to Jesus on behalf of his son. The son was deaf, mute, and possessed by a violent spirit. Moved by his condition, Jesus asked how long the son had suffered. “From childhood,” the man answered. “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:21, 22).
Jesus’ reaction revealed that he is an attentive listener: “If you can?” Catching him in doubt, Jesus repeated the man’s words to make a point. “Everything is possible for one who believes,” Jesus explained. And the man responded with perhaps the most honest human words ever uttered to God: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
• Jesus listened to the woman at the well. Driven to the well by physical thirst, the woman lowered her jar into the water. Jesus startled her by asking for a drink. But the woman balked at his request because of cultural traditions. John reminded readers that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” Of course, cultural issues are only the beginning of the differences between Jesus and the woman. Not only did she worship in a different way than Jesus, she was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. And she’d been divorced five times.
We know these details because Jesus listened to her. He valued her enough to talk with her—not at her. After being used or ignored by every man in her life, it is God on earth who found the time to hear her out. The two talked about her failed marriages and loveless relationships. She became vulnerable with Jesus because he treated her with respect—and listened. Because Jesus listened, she discovered the need behind her need. It wasn’t her body that thirsted for water, but her soul.
She poured out herself and drank in his words. They revived her and transformed her into a wellspring of life: “Many Samaritans from that town believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”
• Jesus listened to a puzzled priest. John 3 tells the story of Nicodemus, a wise Pharisee struggling with the notion of being born again. “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born,” he wondered aloud. “How can this be?” he asked again.
After patiently listening, Jesus answered by explaining that being born again is about a person’s heart, that everyone who believes in the Son will have eternal life, that those who know the truth and live by the truth flee the night and live in the light.
• Speaking of the truth, Jesus listened to a pagan politician struggling with the notion of truth. His name was Pontius Pilate.
John devotes some 22 verses to the exchange between the God of the universe and the governor of Judea. Their interaction—especially Jesus’ willingness to listen—offers a stark reminder that God expects us to listen even to those who haven’t earned our respect.
Pilate’s questions flew like arrows: Are you king of the Jews? Do you hear the testimony against you? What crime have you committed? What is it you have done? But for an unmeasured moment, Pilate relented and the cross-examination became something close to a dialogue. The two discussed kings and kingdoms, law and life. Then Jesus offered Pilate a glimpse into eternity: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).
Pilate answered with a verbal shrug—“What is truth?”—and left before Jesus had a chance to respond. That speaks volumes about Pilate, and their next exchange speaks volumes about Jesus.
After having Jesus scourged, Pilate returned to his prisoner and asked, “Where do you come from?” (John 19:9). Jesus was slow to respond this time. Perhaps it was the flogging, perhaps the public humiliation. Perhaps he was trying to find the right words. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or crucify you?” Pilate stabbed.
Rather than ignoring Pilate, Jesus offered him one last dose of truth: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
That chilling rejoinder seemed to penetrate Pilate’s arrogance, albeit briefly. John reported that upon hearing Christ’s answer, Pilate “tried to set Jesus free.”
Learning AND IMITATING
The list goes on and on: Jesus listened to Jairus’s cry for help, the growling stomachs of 5,000 people, the fears of a demon named Legion, the bickering of James and John, the centurion’s humble request, Peter’s confession of faith and denial of his Lord, the soldiers’ slurs, the cries of the repentant thief.
He listened because he was present and because he cared, because he was quiet and because he was humble, because he trained his body for listening by going away to “solitary places.”
There are at least three remarkable things about the example set by our listening Lord:
1. He often let his actions do the talking. And actions, we know, speak louder than words. Not all quiet people are good listeners, of course, and not all quiet people are humble. But in Christ’s case, choosing to listen, taking the time to listen, and summoning the patience to listen is an example of unmatched humility.
2. Researchers have found that good listeners are good at a lot of things that make relationships work. After researching the subject of listening, health columnist Lindsay Holmes found that good listeners are:
• Present. They’re not distracted by phones, social media, etc.
• Empathetic. They truly care about what’s being said and the person saying it.
• Emotionally intelligent. They perceive and understand the emotions of others and their own.
• Good responders. They provide feedback that shows they’re truly engaged.
• Not defensive. “Effective listeners don’t block out negative criticism,” according to Holmes. “They develop an understanding of what the person is trying to convey before responding.”
• Able to handle uncomfortable situations.
• Proven leaders. “There’s a direct correlation between strong leadership and strong listening skills,” Holmes found.
Jesus displayed these traits 2,000 years before business researchers and psychologists arrived at these conclusions: He was present. He cared. He shared in the emotions of others. He was engaged and asked questions. He responded to what a person said and meant. He never fled from criticism or uncomfortable situations. And always he led.
3. We can imitate these listening skills of Jesus. We can be present and active listeners. We can show compassion and care by how we listen. And we can train ourselves to become better listeners by seeking quiet time with the Father, just as Jesus did. (Matthew 14, Mark 1, Mark 3, Luke 5, and John 6 offer some helpful examples.)
Jesus invites us to “come with me by yourselves to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31)—a place where we can hear his gentle whisper and learn to listen.
Alan W. Dowd is a freelance writer in Fishers, Indiana.