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Listen. It’s a Ministry.

Have you considered the ministry of listening?

The very word “ministry” conjures up images of preaching, teaching, writing, talking, and counseling. But to minister to someone is simply to serve and love them. And a quiet, neglected, little-talked-about way we serve and love others is by listening to them.

By “listening” I don’t mean simply not talking. We can avoid talking for any number of reasons, even anger or withdrawal. By “listening” I mean something proactive, not passive. True listening absorbs. It doesn’t sit back; it leans in. Real listening is as mentally engaging as talking.

Consider those few times in your life when you really felt listened to. Didn’t you feel loved? Didn’t you leave that conversation more buoyant, more alive, more human?

To listen to someone, to really listen, is to break out of the prison of self-referentiality where we all tend to live. It’s to get out of yourself—to leave Self behind. It’s to hear what another says and resist the instinctive urge to map it on to your own experiences and interpret accordingly. It’s far more than an auditory phenomenon; it’s to shift your focus from Self to another, to step into their reality, to bear their life with them. It is, fundamentally, love.

Christians of all people should be famous for their listening.

But we have had a listening problem for a long time.

Spiritual Deafness

Humanity was plunged into decay and ruin because we didn’t listen well. We listened to the serpent rather than to the One who made us for communion with himself. Ever since, we have exhibited an inveterate and perverse tendency to stop up our ears to the Lord and hearken instead to folly. Throughout the Old Testament, in fact, the normal Hebrew phrase for “obey” is “to listen to the voice of,” and to “disobey” is “to not listen to the voice of.”

In the wake of Eden, Moses called the people to listen to God (Ex. 15:26), as did Joshua (Josh. 3:9), as did the judges (Judg. 2:17). Not only the people but the kings didn’t listen to the Lord (1 Kings 12:15; 2 Chron. 10:15). Eventually the people were sent into exile for not listening (2 Kings 17:14; 18:12).

Through the later prophets, God beckoned his people to listen to him afresh. Now, however, a new strain is heard in the call to listen to God—his people aren’t only to listen to his statutes and rules but also to his insistence on being merciful to his wayward people (Isa. 40:28–29; 51:1–11; Jer. 31:10–14). But the unaided human heart doesn’t want to hear even this. We naturally deflect. We stop up our ears to heaven and joy (Zech. 7:11–12). The fool in Proverbs is, most basically, the one who doesn’t listen (Prov. 12:15).

Ear-Opening Gospel

So what did God do?

He didn’t withdraw. He leaned in. Rather than crossing his arms and stamping off—a perfectly just response to our bizarre recalcitrance—he went out of himself to hear and engage what was most deeply wrong with us. He left self-concern behind and stepped into our reality.

The gospel opens our mouths. But the gospel also closes our mouths, and opens up our ears. Loved, we listen.

What is the gospel? It is the good news that Christ himself loved us enough to leave heaven behind and bear the burden of all burdens, the burden of sin’s fatal punishment.

The gospel is a message that says we were wrong. We sinners needed to hear someone outside of us diagnose our malady. A Christian is someone whose whole existence has been turned around through the acknowledgment that we were wrong all along—that we needed to listen to another.

This gospel both creates words and quiets our words. On the one hand, words are created—loved so deeply, we find a new impulse to tell others of this love. But on the other hand, words are quieted. We no longer go through life so consumed by Self that we are unable to get out of ourselves and listen to another. Loved by a Christ who left Self behind (Phil. 2:7), our hearts relax into loving others by leaving Self behind.

The gospel opens our mouths. But the gospel also closes our mouths, and opens up our ears. Loved, we listen.

Start Listening Today

Dozens of times today, someone will start speaking to you.

A child, wanting something to eat. A co-worker, touching base about an upcoming meeting. A boss, offering a word of correction. A friend, returning a call. A parent, battling loneliness. A pastor, opening the Scripture. A neighbor, saying hello while walking the dog. A spouse, reflecting on the day. A confidante, needing counsel. A relative, boring us with life details.

In each case we can either deflect or engage. The exhortation to be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19) isn’t just a handy tip for life. It’s where the gospel takes us. Why would we not be lifelong listeners, quick to hear?

This doesn’t mean we never excuse ourselves from a conversation to attend to more important matters. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to stop listening—to gossip, say, or to a solicitor who has knocked on your door during dinner. It means instead that increasingly the natural default of a gospel-shaped heart is to enter in to another’s words rather than hold them at arm’s length.

It means we’ll start more sentences with “I see your point” rather than “But . . .” More responses of “That must be hard” rather than “Something similar happened to me . . .” Often it will mean sitting in silence together rather than generating words just to fend off the awkwardness of quiet.

Not only in private dialogue but also in public discourse, Christians of all people should be famous for their listening. If love is the defining mark of Christians, shouldn’t listening be a fundamental mark of how we interact with others—in political dialogue, in discussing race, in sorting through economic issues, in apologetics?

We sin. But God doesn’t shout us down. He gently listens to our deepest need, and meets us there, at the cross.

The central calling of the Christian life is to love. A neglected way we love is by listening. The grace of God in Jesus Christ takes us there.

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