Listening: A Sign of the Church?

I recently received a rare and priceless gift.

The gift was . . . listening.

A friend of mine made a 35-minute drive to join me for a couple of hours at the hospital where my father was dying. She sat next to me in a waiting room and heard me recount incidents, feelings, and needs during the last several weeks of my father’s life. She listened as I played a two-week old recording of a conversation with my father. She spoke very little while communicating so much. She only shared about her experience with the death of her father-in-law upon being asked. Her attentiveness to my story made a connection; her gentle, kind presence informed me she was with me; and her empathic listening conveyed she had all the time in the world. She communicated to me that I mattered.

Whether a tale of celebration or sorrow, the telling of one’s experiences and having someone listen to those accounts is essential to who we are and who we are becoming. No matter the culture in which we were raised, we are story-telling and story-listening people. Our histories, our theologies, and our own lives are made up of stories. Many of you will tell or hear a story before the day is complete. It may be about the eating of awful cafeteria food, the laughing at the cat’s latest antics, or the comforting of your son who had fallen. Our stories, whether big or small, are strung together and make up who we are.

As humans we seem to have an insatiable desire for a good story. We read books, we binge-watch television series, and we go to movies. Although some of us romantics may not always admit it, conflict makes a good story. It may be the conflict between people, with circumstances, or with one’s self. These are the stories that generate a magnetic pull within us. From Curious George to Star Wars, we are drawn into a dilemma or a difficulty with a longing to know how the hero of the story resolves the struggle, be it internal or external.

But . . . why is it that when a person is telling a story of their current conflict are we quick to react rather than listen?

We might minimize: “Oh, everyone goes through that!”

We might try one-upping: “Well, when my father died . . .”

We might advise: “You should call this agency, and they can give you some ideas,” or “You should read this passage of Scripture so you can be encouraged.”

We might educate: “You know, I have a book that would be helpful.”

We might diagnose the issue: “You have a demon of depression.”

We might label the person: “You are paranoid.”

We might try comparing: “At least you don’t have it as bad as those living in Syria.”

We might spiritualize: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

We might give clichés: “You got this!”

And . . . I do it too. When I do, I must say it is not my proudest moment.

Listening is a rare commodity. I join many others who have experienced its scarcity. I have heard in grief support groups that it is difficult to find someone to listen to their stories. This may explain why grief support groups exist: They are providing a gift that is a rare find.

This causes me to wonder: Could it be that one of the reasons we are willing to pay counselors $150 to $200 per hour is because listening is in short supply? However, that, too, may not be a given. I heard a story of a counselor that sought for another counselor who would listen empathically, and this person saw several before finding one who was less about tooling out advice and more about presence.

Listening is vital for humanity since we have a basic need to be heard. Having this need met assists us so we are able to flourish and thrive. The telling of the story is a way to heal emotionally, a way in which we find meaning. Not only is the telling of stories helpful for us, but it also appears that listening to stories may have its benefits. For example, The New York Times reports of a study in which patients with high blood pressure who listened to stories on DVD of patients with similar experiences did better than those who listened to DVDs about health topics such as reducing stress [Pauline W. Chen, MD, “When Patients Share Their Stories, Health May Improve,” The New York Times, February 10, 2011]. Thus, both the telling of and the listening to stories are healing.

As I pondered about listening’s healing aspects, I began to wonder about the church’s tenet of divine healing. What if telling and listening to each other’s stories is a way in which God heals us? Take, for instance, my own church tradition which is Pentecostal. Pentecostals highlight both healing and testimonies in their theology. Healing has been called a distinct characteristic of Pentecostalism [e.g. Candy Gunther Brown, ed. Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, Oxford University Press, 2011], and we tell testimonies when such a divine intervention occurs. Besides the telling of testimonies as a means to theologize, we underscore the stories of the Book of Acts and proclaim that what happened in Acts is happening today. Thus, it is not a surprise that sermons traditionally include stories both from our lives and from Scripture. It would seem that with such an emphases on stories that we are prime candidates for being identified as listeners.

Yet, I am concerned that the church in general, and in some sense Pentecostals in particular, seem to have a soiled reputation in this regard. Rather than empathically listening to a person’s story of suffering and how the Spirit is moving, the church is known to speak forth such clichés as “You need more faith,” “You must have sin in your life,” “You need to pray and fast more,” or “You have a demon.” Granted, there may be occasions when any one of these statements may apply to the situation at hand, but my concern is speaking forth such phrases without sensitivity to the Spirit. I wonder if this lack of listening has contributed to the formulation of the phase, “The church is the only army that shoots its wounded.” Pentecostals particularly are reputed to put forth a victorious life of faith in the face of someone’s suffering, generating a call from Pentecostal scholars to strengthen a Pentecostal theology of suffering [e.g. David Courey’s What Has Wittenberg to Do with Azusa? and several works by Martin Mittelstadt as well as works by Keith Warrington].

In light of this, I wonder if it would be helpful to formulate a theology of listening that would move us toward listening being a sign of the church. Consider with me that listening may be a means by which the church community reflects the image of God who is relational. The Gospel of John speaks about the listening that occurs in the triune Godhead (I am indebted to Theresa Latini for this insight). The Son listens to the Father in that he speaks what the Father tells him (8:26, 28; 12:49; 14:10). Jesus talks of the Father listening to him (11:42). The Spirit listens in that the Spirit does not speak from the Spirit’s own authority, and in the same way, we listen to the Spirit who will speak to us (16:13). Furthermore, we listen to Jesus in that his sheep hear his voice (10:3, 16, 27) and listening to God is a sign we belong to God (8:47).

In considering the above paragraph, it struck me that Pentecostals already have a foundation to emphasize such a sign:

  • Pentecostals stand still and listen amidst a song service as a holy hush blankets the congregation.
  • Pentecostals speak about listening to or discerning the Spirit.
  • We uphold the gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy, word of knowledge, or a word of wisdom which involves listening.
  • We talk about listening to God’s Word, hearing the voice of God, seeking God’s direction, or God speaking to us.

It would seem appropriate, then, to include listening to the Spirit when also hearing a story of ongoing suffering. Such listening in the community of faith would not only mirror the relationships of the triune Godhead but also participate in what the Spirit is currently doing, which includes groans of intercession for us (Rm. 8:26). In short, empathically listening involves listening to the Spirit.

But why does the church fumble in listening? I wonder if we falter partly because of a failure to listen to ourselves in that we are unaware of our own triggers. As we listen to another’s story of difficulties, we may be unmindful of feelings of helplessness in us which generates a response of advising or educating because we are seeking to fix their situation. The other’s story alerts us subconsciously of our own finiteness and vulnerability so that we become uncomfortable due to a desire to be empowered in our own world. It may be the other’s ongoing suffering is challenging our own theology of God’s providence, and we become uneasy with such theological wrestling. Thus, rather than listening empathically, we no longer listen to the Spirit, but we respond with unhelpful comments out of our own needs. In light of this, I contend that empathically listening includes not only being attuned to what the Spirit is doing in the other but also to what the Spirit is speaking to me.

When considering how we might try to meet our own needs when hearing someone’s story, listening could be viewed as a practice of self-discipline. Paul reminds the church in Galatians that the whole law can be summarized in one command: Love your neighbor as yourself (5:14). We love our own selves by listening to our bodies’ signals: by feeding ourselves when we are hungry; by providing ourselves with water when we are thirsty; and by caring for ourselves when we are in pain (see also Eph. 5:28-30). In the same way we love our own selves by listening to our bodies, we may love others by listening to them. Such listening may be a way we walk in the Spirit rather than follow after the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). That is, empathically listening may be a practice of self-denial. For instance, there are times when I am listening that I notice an urge to interject my own story or to educate. On those occasions (when I am able to catch myself), I imagine holding the reins of big powerful horses and pulling back on the reins by saying, “Whoa!” To put this in terms that Paul describes in Galatians 5 and 6, I am practicing the denial of my flesh by saying, “Whoa, Pam!” to my desire to make the conversation about me by educating, advising, minimizing, or comparing. Instead of indulging in my own selfish desires, I attempt to walk in the Spirit by carrying the other’s burden (Gal. 6:2a) through the listening of the other’s story. Through listening, then, I fulfill Christ’s law of loving each other as Christ has loved us (Gal. 6:2b). Through listening, the fruit of the Spirit is evident in love, kindness, patience, and self-control (5:22-23). Thus, empathic listening becomes a sign of the disciples’ love for each other. This, then, is an invitation to other Jesus-followers to make the rare, priceless gift of empathic listening to the other’s stories a sign of the presence of Christ’s church in the world.

(To read more on the subject of stories and pastoral care, see Karen D. Scheib’s Pastoral Care: Telling the Stories of Our Lives. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016.)

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