“It should be no surprise that we are no longer able to perform the greatest service of listening that God has entrusted to us – hearing the confession of another Christian – if we refuse to lend our ear to another person on lesser subjects. The pagan world today knows something about persons who often can be helped only by having someone who will seriously listen to them…But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been entrusted to them by the one who is indeed the great listener and in whose work they are to participate. We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 76. [Italics mine].
Because in the next and final chapter, Confession and the Lord’s Supper, Bonhoeffer will explore confession in some detail, I will only briefly touch on confession in this post. Confession of sin and struggle to one another is greatly misunderstood and this misunderstanding leads to lives of isolation and mistrust. It is possible to be with one another and yet live in relative isolation. We may be in close physical proximity to one another and yet live in inner isolation. As a pastor I have seen many examples of brothers and sisters who have “gone to church” together for decades and yet do not really “know” one another. It is not unusual to counsel professing Christians who “go to church” and yet live lives of isolation – not knowing anyone and not being known. This does not mean that these people do not spend time with others, it means that spending time with one another is not the same as knowing one another. Activities together are often a smokescreen to cloak our isolation; ultimately it is only when we listen and pay attention that we know another person.
Where there is no trust there can usually be no confession, and without attentive and respectful listening there usually can be no trust. Our society trusts (to some degree) the trained and licensed psychologist or psychiatrist because not only is listening to people “their job” but because they are also bound by legal standards of nondisclosure. We do not trust one another because we worry about disclosure, we worry about condemnatory judgement, we worry that the forgiving words of Christ will not be spoken to us by our brother, we worry that our brother will think less of us and that our confessed sin or struggle will be seen as our identity, and we cling to our self-righteousness. Healthy confession can only be encouraged and nurtured in a safe place, and the Body of Christ ought to be the safest place on earth.
Bonhoeffer refers to God as “the great listener”. We might also refer to God as “the One who pays attention”. He knows about the sparrow, He knows the hairs on our head, He knows us from the inside out. Are we attentive to others? Do we give others our time, our attention, and our ears? Are we listening with “the ears of God”?
Prayerful listening is listening with the ears of God; it is paying attention to the other person and at the same time asking God to open our ears to hear what the person is saying – often this goes beyond the actual words spoken because people will not always say what they mean and clarifying questions may be required. Time is also required, for people often do not say what they really want to say until they know we are listening to them, and so they begin by talking about lesser things until they sense they can trust us in that moment – they need to know that they have our attention before they will say what they really want to say. Only after we have prayerfully listened to the other person, and listened to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, can we speak a Word of God to others.
For most of us the above requires practice and discipline. We must learn to consciously put others first, we must learn to surrender our time to God and to others. This does not mean that we are tossed to and fro throughout the day and are subservient to interruptions, nor does it mean that we cannot say, “You are important to me and I want to spend time with you and listen to you, but I have an obligation right now that I must meet, can we please schedule time together?” But again, it is only with practice and experience that we can learn how to listen to God and to others. There is a time to give place to interruptions and there is a time to acknowledge the interruption and then schedule future time with the person. At the core of this is the Lordship of Jesus Christ – does the day belong to me or to Him?
Am I listening to others with “the ears of God”? What is the other person saying? Am I filtering what I hear through the Scriptures? Am I listening to the Holy Spirit guide me in the Scriptures as I listen? Do I hear the heart of the other person? Am I wearing and using the Divine stethoscope?
With all the medical technology we have today the stethoscope is still in use; there is something about a doctor listening to my heart and lungs through a stethoscope, there is something about the physical connection – for a few brief moments the doctor is actually listening to the inner rhythms of my body. Can I not give others time to listen to their souls? Can I not listen with the ears of God?
What about you?