The task was simple: Engage someone in conversation—ask about her life, work, class-load, past, or dreams for the future—and don’t interrupt once while she shares.
I’ll never forget when I received this assignment as a junior in college. I considered myself a good listener and was excited for an easy A.
Then I learned how often I interrupt.
The next day, as one of my dear friends shared her heart over a mug of coffee, I quickly realized that this assignment was not easy. It became apparent how naturally I interject with my own stories as people share theirs. I wanted to show I identified with my friend, but she didn’t need my points of identification—she needed someone who would love her enough to listen.
That day my pride took a much-needed blow by the stinging reality that I was neither quick to hear, nor slow to speak.
Three years later, I see how God used that assignment to begin teaching me about how the gospel directly correlates to serving others with my ears.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger… (James 1:19)
Serve Others through Silence
One of the best acts of service you can give someone is your ears and heart engaged at the same time. Roaring into every conversation with your guns fully loaded with the “right” answers to fire at people is not the most helpful or loving approach to serving others in conversation. It is through words that people give us their stories and hearts, so why would we not learn to cherish and serve one another, and represent Christ well by listening well?
We must discipline our flesh (which includes our tongues) and cultivate the service of listening. This is counter-cultural and extraordinarily like Jesus, who didn’t just tolerate people’s stories, concerns, or requests, but listened well and then responded appropriately by answering their needs. Jesus still seeks to operate this way through us, his body, the church.
We also must remember that listening isn’t passive. As loving service, it’s an active and self-sacrificing role that, according to Janet Dunn, “invites another person to exist.”
With open ears, solid eye contact, and phone put away, you’re telling someone, “I see you. I hear you. I’m championing you across the table and in the midst of your struggle or victory. I value your thoughts above my own right now.”
Listening forces our dependence on the Holy Spirit and silently affirms that he, not our words, is what the person beside us needs most. We listen to God through his Word and Spirit and then, when the time comes for us to speak, our words are more likely to be seasoned with salt and ready to point our listeners back to him.
Serve Others through Discernment
Knowing the gospel allows us to proclaim it and apply it to the needs revealed in others’ stories. As you sincerely listen while someone shares their heart, whether it’s the story of their life, recent events, or prayer requests, you will hear what they believe about God, what they believe about themselves, and discern the particular area that needs to be addressed by the good news of Jesus.
You might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t the gospel the same no matter what story?” It is. The gospel never changes, but the way it is applied can vary. Contrast the self-righteous, performance-driven teenager to someone who lives to chase fleeting happiness and temporary satisfaction. Both need the gospel, but it’s applied in different ways. We won’t know how God wants to meet their individual needs or how the gospel is good news for them unless we’re listening to him while we listen to them.
Are you listening for how your specific audience needs to hear the gospel? How does it apply to them? The gospel is always good news, but what is good news to them in this moment, this situation, this trial, this victory?
Serve Others through Action
The loving service of listening is not solely for the purpose of verbally sharing the gospel. When you take time to hear someone’s heart, you’re also listening for ways to intentionally demonstrate the gospel. As we listen to people, we look for ways we can bless them through living acts of service.
He’s been struggling to tackle the big paint job in his house? How convenient!—it just so happens you have some friends from church who would be willing to demonstrate the gospel through sacrificially giving their time and energy to painting.
She has a family member in the hospital? Create a meal schedule for her. They have children in college or on the mission field? Send a care package. She’s an exhausted mom who could use an hour to go to the grocery store? Offer to babysit her kids and sneak her a gift card for a coffee treat.
As Jeff Vanderstelt said, “The ways to bless others are endless if you listen closely.”
May our listening speak highly of the compassion and character of God that he has revealed through his Son. May we never shrink from declaring anything profitable (Acts 20:20), but also humble ourselves to create a space safe for people to unload their hearts and minds and receive grace and mercy to help in time of need.