A Discipler's Guide to Spiritual Conversations (3/7): Listening
Francis Schaeffer was asked what he’d do if he had an hour to share the gospel with someone. He responded by saying he’d listen for 55 minutes and then, in the last 5 minutes, have something meaningful to say. In other words, he listened in order to speak the gospel.
In a world where everyone loves to share and few like to listen, those who slow down with others so they can hear their stories will find out where people are in life, what they’re celebrating, and what they’re struggling with in life. I’ve heard it said (and experience has proven this true) that adults learn on a need-to-know basis. By this I mean, if someone doesn’t think or feel the need to know something, they usually aren’t compelled to learn. If we don’t take time to listen and learn what people value, we may not know what to share. Or said in a more positive way, by listening to people, we learn their starting point -- their beliefs and values -- which helps us to learn “what they feel like they need to know”. There’s simply no way to disciple someone from where they are if you don’t first know where they are and what they desire to know.
Tragically, most of us, if we’re honest, are well versed at proclaiming truth and quite immature as listeners. Whether our desire to share truth comes from a heart of love (a good thing) or a desire to prove ourselves (a sinful thing), often the effect on the hearer is the same -- “These Christians don’t really understand me and I don’t understand why Jesus is relevant to me.” (Or something similar). In our zeal to see people “repent and believe”, we fail to listen to what their story is about. We miss hearing what their belief is and what they trust in, what they hope in, what they truly worship. Please hear me carefully. Don’t read what I am not writing. I am not advocating people remain in the beliefs and behaviors keeping them at arm’s length from Jesus or that you avoid speaking truth. I am urging all of us to consider how Jesus often listened to the desires of people’s hearts, He heard their story, and spoke truth in light of their present beliefs and values.
Consider the woman at the well (John 4). While the story is well known by most Christians, the practice of Jesus may seem foreign to how we share the Gospel. For many of us, we would have been more comfortable with the story going something like this:
Jesus approaches the woman at the well. He knows that for her to be out fetching water at this odd time of day, she must be an outcast from society. Probably, as someone who has suffered abuse and is deeply entrenched in sin. Assuming this, Jesus walks up to the woman and says, “Woman. Something is obviously wrong. People don’t come out to get water from this well this late in the day. Well, unless they are trying not to be seen. It is your sin that keeps you in shame and hiding. If you would receive the free gift I am offering, you would be free from what is destroying your life.”
We realize the above retelling is not true. However, the truth in this retelling is still present in the “words” of Jesus. Yes, the woman was suffering in her unbelief. Yes, she felt shame and disconnect from society. And yes, she needed the salvation Jesus would offer in Himself. So why did Jesus waste time asking her questions instead of just getting to the point? Well, I think the answer to this important question is why listening is a valuable function in discipleship.
Adults learn on a need-to-know basis. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it is going to be valuable or memorable for someone. Being told you’re a sinner and need a savior isn’t important if you don’t actually believe you need rescue! Being offered the free gift of life in Jesus is of no consequence if you still believe there is such a thing as an independent life across the street from Him who is life Himself (John 14:6; Col 1:15-20).
In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus gives us an amazing lesson on listening. He doesn’t begin with sharing truth, but begins a conversation and listens to her. In doing so, He reveals her true reality. But this unveiling of truth isn’t just revealed to Jesus (He seems to already know something about her), but revealed to the woman as well. As she shares she hears, and upon hearing her need is apparent. Now she is ready to learn.
How might our spiritual conversations be different if we started relationships by truly being present and listening to people? What if we fought the urge to give answers and patiently listened and asked questions until what people “need to know” is revealed to us?