It Hurts When You Don’t Listen to Me
All of us have experienced the pain of not being heard. Perhaps we share something intimate only to discover that we were being ignored. Maybe we share a dream or vision only to have our words misinterpreted and turned against us. Maybe we share something in confidence only to have our words twisted and used against us. However it happens, it hurts when we are not heard.
One of the ways in which we can meaningfully speak of God is through analogy. Since we are created in God’s image and in God’s likeness then I surmise it is fair of us to apply at least a little of what we know about listening in the human realm to the divine. I believe God also has experienced the pain of not being heard. Gd has been ignored … by us. God has been misunderstood … by us. God has seen his words of life manipulated and misrepresented to bring death and destruction … by us. Indeed, it hurts not to be listened to.
Listening Has Two Purposes
Why does it hurt to not be listened to? Well, according to The Lost Art of Listening it is because when others fail to listen to us they fail to witness to our expression. Listening has two purposes: to take in information and to witness to another’s expression. That means when I fail to listen to my wife then I fail to fully represent her and her concerns in this life together. That means when I fail to listen to Jesus I fail to witness to the full expression of his life. When we fail to listen to God we fail to be His witnesses. We cannot fully witness to the expression of God until we learn to listen.
The Transfiguration – Listen to Him
The story of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:-19) is a mysterious story. Almost no one claims to know exactly what it means. Some claim that we cannot even ask what the story means. Scholars are divided over the meaning of Elijah and Moses – do they represent the Law and the Prophets or do they represent the Deathless Ones? What the event did for Jesus is a mystery. What it did for the disciples is a mystery. What it does for us largely remains a mystery. However, there is one aspect of the story that everyone can understand and agree on – God said, “This is my Son, whom I love; I am well pleased with him. LISTEN TO HIM!”
Listen to him. I can understand that. I can listen. Can I listen to Jesus though? Admittedly that sounds strange. To the rest of the world Jesus is some Jewish teacher who had a vision of radical peace and communal living but got himself crucified. To us who believe though, Jesus is alive. And if Jesus is alive then I can talk with him, and maybe even learn to listen to him.
Obstacles to Listening to God
There are a few obstacles that get in the way of listening. Three of the main obstacles are (1) always focusing on me and my needs rather, (2) being unaware of the hidden assumptions I bring to the table, and (3) allowing my feelings to dictate everything. These obstacles not only get in the way in my human relationships, but they also hinder my ability to listen to God.
Obstacle #1 – Failure to Focus on Others
When genuine, listening demands taking an interest in what the speaker is saying. If I am not genuinely interested in the things my wife has to say then I won’t really listen to her. For example, as I began to write this post she told me the plan for tomorrow morning. I wasn’t really listening to her because I really wasn’t all that interested. Then I realized, How can I write about listening to others when I’m not even listening myself!? In a split second, I turned and looked at her and listened. Not so much because I was interested in the details of tomorrow morning, but because I am interested in my wife.
Sometimes I wonder how much of my inability to listen to Jesus comes from not being genuinely interested in the things he is interested in. When I fail to listen I need to ask if I am even interested in Jesus. If I don’t learn to take a genuine interest in Jesus then the chances of me listening to him are pretty slim.
Obstacle #2 – Hidden Assumptions We Bring to the Table
Those sneaky assumptions get us into more trouble than anything else. Assumptions are relationship killers. Whether it is pieces of missed information, people’s motives, people’s expectations, people’s feelings, our own rightness, or even the learned assumptions we get from our parents all assumptions only bring disaster. Even good assumptions can bring you down. Recently I removed a comment on Facebook because it was too harsh. I let the person know what I had done and ended the message by saying, “I assume you didn’t mean any harm by it.” What I got in reply was a long lecture about assumptions. I was trying to give the person the benefit of doubt.
I think we also bring hidden assumptions to our relationship with Jesus. We assume that Jesus is out to get us. He couldn’t want us to have any fun in this life so everything he says must be about something I have to quit doing. I can’t talk to Jesus because he’ll send me to Africa! (or Detroit, I really don’t want to go to Detroit!)
How we view God biases what we hear God say. I believe it is Eugene Peterson who wrote about having an overarching metaphor for God. For example, John Calvin’s primary metaphor of God is Sovereign Judge. Contrast that with John Wesley’s primary metaphor of Loving Father. You can see how the two metaphors can leave you hearing God in two different ways. (Not that either is wrong, just different.)
One common assumption that we bring to the table is that God the Father is just like our earthly fathers. For some of us that’s good news. For many of us though, that makes God very scary. Such an assumption keeps us from hearing the heart of a Father who loves us and treasures us deeply.
Obstacle #3 – Our Own Feelings
Insecurity is a big deal. What we can’t tolerate in others is often what we can’t tolerate in ourselves. Insecurity leads to defensiveness or self-justification. Insecurity leads to huge leaps in logic and constructing absolute positions based on these leaps in logic. Insecurity keeps us from listening. Instead of paying attention to what the other is saying we are wondering how the words we are hearing will impact us and whether or not it will be a good impact.
If we don’t learn to surrender our brokenness to God we won’t be able to listen to him well. Many of us do not listen because we feel inadequate. Almost no one in Scripture felt adequate at the call of God. A famous saying puts it like this, “God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called.” Some of us don’t listen because we’re angry and don’t know how to handle the anger. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we listen to God he will expose the things we keep in secret, both the secret sins we commit and the secret lies we believe.
Practices that Can Help Us Listen
Practice #1 – Seek First to Understand and then to be Understood
Habit 5 in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People tells us that until we feel understood we will never be ready to understand the other. The good news is that our Father already know what we need and what is going on. He already understands. Even so, He’s not bothered when I tell him how I am feeling and what’s on my heart. In fact, until I do this I will never be able fully to listen to Him.
This doesn’t mean that I have to spill my guts every time I go to God in prayer. It does mean that I have to spill my guts on a regular basis though so that I am confident that my Father understands me. I also need to remembers that Jesus, my great High Priest who is interceding on my behalf, is familiar with everything we humans go through. Jesus understands me.
The practice here is to learn to speak to God who invites to be understood. The next practice is to learn to understand God.
Practice #2 – Learning to Listen Empathically
Hearing and listening are not necessarily the same thing. I can listen to my wife and repeat back everything she says without actually listening to her. I can even type this post out and give counsel to someone at the same time but it doesn’t mean I am listening to that someone.
To listen to someone requires an intentional effort on my part to look into the heart of that person. What is my wife feeling when she talks to me? What heart issues are behind my son’s disappointment? What is that breaks God’s heart or brightens His day? If I am to truly listen to God then I must learn to pay attention to His whole being and feel what he is feeling.
Jesus Still Speaks Today
It is still possible to “Listen to Him!” today. In fact, it is even more possible because we have been given the Holy Spirit. There are probably a lot of ways that people listen to Jesus. Here are few ways that have proven fast and true for me.
Way #1 – Scripture
Jesus speaks most to me through Scripture. When I read my Bible my ears are full of God’s voice. I hear God saying walk this way or that. I hear words of encouragement and words of rebuke. I am convinced that my Redeemer lives and is speaking to me.
Way #2 – A Still Small Voice
I talk with Jesus in my mind (and sometimes out loud). I know that might sound strange but if Jesus is alive then it is no more strange than talking to a friend. At times Jesus talks back. Always, this still small voice is in line with the voice I hear in Scriptures. If it doesn’t line up then I don’t listen to it.
Way #3 – Community of Believers
God speaks to me through other believers. Kind of a scary thought, I know, but true nonetheless. When ever the body of Christ gathers together and each member brings a teaching, prophecy, revelation, song, hymn, psalm, tongue or interpretation God is speaking and I am commanded to listen.
Way #4 – Circumstances
Sometimes God speak to me through my circumstances. What seems right and best at the time? What corresponds to what I have heard from God through Scripture, through His Spirit, and through others? There isn’t always a still small voice and an audible or visible sign of approval.
Listening is Part of Discipleship
Ultimately, listening is part of discipleship. I am commanded to listen to Jesus and to obey everything he commands. I must teach you how to listen to Jesus and to obey everything he commands. Then we listen to Jesus and obey everything he commands. Then we must teach them to listen to Jesus and to obey everything he commands. And the cycle goes on.
What is Jesus saying to you?