A time for listening

Published 2:04 pm Saturday, March 21, 2015

by Andrew Book

Listening is a lost art. It is a casualty of the self-centered world in which we live where most of us are convinced that we are the most important people in any conversation — therefore we should spend most of our time talking rather than listening. More than one person has hypothesized that the rise in the counseling profession is tied to a longing simply to have someone listen. Counseling is extremely valuable, but simply having relationships where we listen to each other would be a great help to many of us.

The apostle James gave some great advice, saying “everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). An old proverb put it a little more bluntly: “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.” We are invited to adopt the habit of listening (at least) twice as much as we talk, and we would be well served to embrace this plan. It would change the way we interact with the people around us and would give us the chance to really get to know them — something that is impossible if we do all the talking.

While we do a poor job listening to one another, most of us do an even worse job of listening to God. It would seem like listening to God — the one who created the universe — would be high on our list because surely God has things to tell us. Yet when we look at our lives of prayer the vast majority of our time is spent with us talking at God. I am certainly guilty of this as well. I have written columns over the last few weeks about “A Time for Praise,” “A Time for Asking,” “A Time for Complaint,” and “A Time for Thanks and Trust,” all of which talk about prayer primarily as us talking to God. Today I am going to focus on the equally important part of prayer that is us listening to God.

Prayer is not the coin which allows us to access the heavenly vending machine of divine favor. It is not a tool for us to get what we want or a bulletin board for us to post our complaints. Instead, prayer is how we are in relationship with God and like any true relationship, communication must go both ways. The challenge for us is that we are not able to sit down with God the way we might sit down with a friend as she pours out her heart over a cup of coffee. Listening to God requires practice, patience, faith and a willingness to be changed.

Listening to God requires practice and patience because developing an ability to hear from God does not happen overnight. It requires that we immerse ourselves in those words that we know to be from God (the Bible) to teach us what God is like and the kinds of things which are important to God. This allows us to have an understanding of the kind of things that God might be saying to us. (For example, scripture is quite clear about God’s love for us, so if we are trying to listen to God and think God is telling us we are “unloved and unlovely,” then we can quickly discard that thought as not being from God!) Knowing God through God’s Word takes time and study — but it is worth it to help clear the path for us to listen to God.

Listening to God is also an act of faith. We live in a world where the phrase, “God told me” is greeted with more skepticism than the idea of an honest politician, and yet we do believe that we have a God who wants to talk with us. We need to have faith to embrace what we hear as truly coming from God and we need faith to act in response to God’s call. Finally, we need a willingness to change. God speaks to us more as we respond to the last thing God said. As we are faithful, we will hear God’s voice more and more often. On the other hand, if our actions don’t reflect a desire to live out God’s words to us, then we will find God speaking to us with less frequency. Our conscience is a good example of this: when we listen God will prick our conscience more often and when we ignore it we will dull it to the point that eventually we have no conscience left!

My hope as you continue to pray through the Psalms this week (see The Psalms Challenge below) is that you would not just talk to God, but also listen to what God might be saying to you and act on God’s words.

This week at Courtland United Methodist church we are focusing our Sunday worship on the idea of “A Life Shaped by Responding to God.” We would love to have you join us as we respond to God together!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or andrew@courtlandumcva.org.