Aspects of the political turmoil roiling our nation are relatively novel. The level of intensity is not. In the mid-19th century, political conflicts precipitating civil war polarized society. In the mid-20th century, Americans divided over civil rights, Vietnam, antiauthoritarian foment, sexual revolution and legalized abortion. Today’s political tensions seem strident compared with the preceding 40 years. They’re nothing new under the sun.
What seems unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes, is the degree to which political tensions divide close friends, loving mates and members of the same faith community. Matters of social justice, intersectionality, police reform, immigration, even coronavirus conspire to alienate kindred spirits.
Amidst such turmoil, we must remember that loving relationships are hard-won and have always demanded the ability to navigate differences. We must also acknowledge the necessity of listening to another. Love leans forward and listens. Prideful, selfish ambition towers over and trumpets.
Three principles provide ethical foundations for listening well to one another. First, 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. Speaking the world into existence, God uses the medium and structures of human language to reveal himself to his people. Those who worship the living God speak to him and heed his life-giving word. Idols, by contrast, are deaf and dumb.
“They have mouths, but do not speak ... ears, but do not hear, “ and all who worship them become like them (Psalm 115:5-6).
How does this relate to listening? A life oriented to humbly heeding God’s word habituates one to listening well in all other relationships. Listening to God requires the humility to look outside myself for life-giving truth as well as the discipline to apply that truth in my daily life, even when doing so proves painful. Walking with God this way naturally orients me to listen attentively to creatures made in his image.
Second, we listen to one another as a means of knowing one another. Listening is more than information transfer. Listening to God’s word lights our path (Psalm 119:105), but is more than spiritual GPS. It is life itself (Deuteronomy 32:45-47). God’s word reveals his heart to me, drawing me to love him with all of mine (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
Similarly, as God listens to us, the goal is more than our psychological comfort. By hearing our prayers, God includes us in his mission to contend with the world that is, in assurance of the world that will be (Matthew 6:10; Acts 4:23-31). So both by hearing God’s words, and by praying to him, we come to know God.
In a similar vein, we come to know others by listening to them. Even if we hold strongly divergent opinions, even if we listen to an unfair critic or muddleheaded opinion-monger, listening permits us to know a person to a degree otherwise unattainable. Love welcomes such opportunities.
Listening to others also helps me know myself. Whenever someone is willing to discuss contentious, divisive issues with me, it is a gift. Even if what they say is painful to hear, even if the conversation seems to produce no lasting good, most criticism contains at least a trace of truth I need to hear. I must learn, then, to curb emotive resistance in order to listen well, see myself more accurately, and grow.
Third, listening well to others involves focused control and intentionality. Some witty soul observed that God created us with two ears and one tongue, intending that we use them with corresponding frequency. Perhaps this folksy proverb found inspiration in the Apostle’s 3 exhortation, “be quick to hear and slow to speak,” (James 1:19). Listening anxiously and speaking sparingly is no self-help suggestion from a post-modern life-coach. It’s a command from the Holy Spirit.
Yet, listening is never an end in itself. When God listens he’s always up to something. Many today promote a passive form of listening that lends an ear as a “sounding board” to help the speaker tap inner light in a quest for therapeutic wellness. We are coached to play the listening head, oozing empathy, but bereft of any capacity to discern right from wrong, offer counsel, or, God forbid, actually correct the speaker.
Such idolatrous listening fails to recognize that whenever we listen to one another we must simultaneously listen to God. Jesus embodied 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. Never a dumb smile and empathetic nod empty of the kind of love that is willing to speak the truth in love — willing to rebuke (Matthew 16:21-23), warn (Luke 22:31-34), say nothing (Matthew 27:11-14), redirect (John 21:20-22), or save the day (John 21:15-17).