Are There Any Good Listeners Left?
Years ago, in a shallow petri dish (I mean a men's group therapy meeting), everyone was asked to share the two things they struggled with the most in their private life. I was invited by a ministry buddy of mine, and though I did not really want to go, the Spirit nudged my insides to go.
And so the confessions began. Every single man confessed something sexual as one of their top two, and the other was pride or something else resembling a gas station bathroom. When my turn came, all eyes were fastened on me like a tarsier. My first confession, to everyone's disappointment, was, "Deep sadness and frustration from people who are not good listeners, in relationships and in general." My second confession was something specific about relationships.
I was being honest. It is not that I did not love sex like the rest of humanity, or that I never thought of myself more highly than I ought, or that I did not have other character zones that needed sanctification. Rather, at that phase of my life and development, those were the two things I was in great crisis about. It was that first confession that seemed to invoke new divine activity in my soul and life. One of the exasperated statements I made was, "Are there any good listeners left?"
We all have been bad listeners before, some especially bad, some still bad. We all have stolen another person's sharing moment, barging in before they could even finish their thought or feeling or story or explanation. We all have kneejerk-reacted to what someone said, without delaying our words stoically and browsing around in the Spirit for a wise, reality-creating response. We all have listened with the excitement of someone reading a recipe or getting a prostate exam, giving required attention but also trying to go to a happy place. We all have rehearsed in our mind what we were going to reply while someone else was talking, instead of actually listening and entering the truest reality of their words. We all have been too selfish, too scared, too skittish, too tired, too hungry, too grouchy, too sad, too busy, too whatever, to listen well with our whole being. We all have been bad listeners before, and as a result, we all have hurt someone's heart and a relationship.
Should we start with repentance and a communication philosophy reset? As the Holy Spirit brings moments of poor listening to your mind, repent them to Him. You may need to make some calls and apologize and offer a fresh promise to work on it. Then actually work on it.
All Listeners S-I-F-T Out Something
After my men's group petri dish confession years ago, the Spirit increased His illuminating and sanctifying activity in me. Through additional saddening and maddening experiences with professionally bad listeners, He slow-dripped an educational acronym into my thought life: S-I-F-T. SIFT is a play on words that explains the heart and cogwheels of weak listeners: they sift out intimacy in communication situations. Each letter in the acronym reveals one cogwheel of why bad listeners, consciously and unconsciously, listen badly, and as a result, sift out and block out intimacy from their life.
SIFT is also a play on words that explains the heart and cogwheels of benevolent listeners. Each letter in the acronym reveals one cogwheel of why altruistic, intimacy-favoring listeners consistently sift out their lower self in communication situations.
Listening Selfishly vs Listening Sacrificially
The majority of the time we listen poorly because, in those communication moments, we are consumed with ourselves. If we really, truly, genuinely loved with the Jesus kind of love, we would want the other person to feel that we value their emotions, ideas, stories, and explanations. We would consistently go the extra mile to listen with our entire personhood. However, apart from day to day, moment to moment reaching for the Spirit's nature in us, we are all default narcissists, overtly or covertly. We do not care to listen well to others because we care only about our feelings, ideas, stories, and explanations.
If you slow down to notice, pattern-selfish people will occasionally listen with an eerie laser focus. Their eye contact will be flawless. Their body language interested. Their mouths curiously stopped. Do not be deceived by those moments; the pattern-selfish person is not being loving or conscientious. They are lasered in because what is being said directly affects their needs and interests. And so, once again, it is not about what you are saying, it is about what it means for them.
There is no way around it: listening like Jesus will occasionally mean sacrifice. Sacrificing my wish to be heard first. Sacrificing the fact that I am tired and do not really feel like listening (more on that particular issue below). Sacrificing manufacturing a reply while they are talking, when I should be listening earnestly first then manufacturing a reply after they have finished. Sacrificing what my lower self really wants to say in response versus what my higher self should say. Sacrificing the human tendency to be fake or not entirely candid versus responding honestly from my truest inner reality. There is no way around it: altruistic, prosocial listening will occasionally mean listening sacrificially. Do not fight self-sacrificing moments. When that conversational moment comes, die to self-obsessed, lower self listening. Apply 2Corinthians 4:10-12 to your listening (ESV): always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Listening Impatiently vs Listening Intuitively
A second cogwheel I learned in the Spirit about weak listeners is that all of them--yes, literally 100% of them--are impatient. I have never seen an impatient good listener. Never. Not once. And I know a whole lot of people.
What is Impatience, Exactly?
Ecclesiastes 7:8 says "patience is better than pride" (NIV). Hmm, peculiar contrast. We would think patience contrasts with impatience, but Solomon bypasses the surface contrast and gets to the core issue: patience contrasts with pride.
In plainer language, Solomon is saying patience is an outgrowth of humility, impatience an outgrowth of pride. Impatient people are controlled by pride, even if not immediately obvious, even if that pride is covert, sublimated, or Christianized. In communication, they do not have the time or basic curiosity to come down to your level and listen to your reality, at least not consistently. You can always spot this type because they have the communication skills of a motorcycle and you have less than ten seconds to say what you need to say. After that they barge in and pick up where they left off, or, they get that glazed, tortured look in their eyes and leave the conversation mentally. Talking with them is like searching for a needle in a needlestack.
Unresolved Internal Cares
Another driver of impatience is unresolved internal crises. Jesus gives Martha, and us, quite an educational moment in Luke 10:38-42. After Martha impatiently lashed out at both Jesus and Mary, He replied, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things." The Greek word Luke uses for "worried" is merimnao, it means "anxious and troubled with cares". The word he uses for "upset" is thorybazo, it means "disturbed". Thorybazo has a Latin root (not a Greek or Hebrew root, interestingly), and that root is turbe or turba, which means "a crowd", from which we get our English word "turbulence". Jesus is saying, "Martha, you are impatiently lashing out because you are troubled with unresolved inner cares, which are crowding and disturbing your mind with turbulence that you then vomit out on others."
Is this true of you? Are you impatient with others because you have not learned to sit at the feet of Jesus everyday and pour out your inner crises onto Him? Jesus cannot pour His healing Oil into you until you first pour out all your anxiety onto Him. 1Peter 5:7 (NIV): Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. God requires empty vessels be brought to Him. Perceive the deeper meaning in Elisha telling the widow to collect or "embrace" or "welcome" as many empty vessels as possible (2Ki 4:3). The Oil only gets poured in to empty vessels. As long as you hold in all that turbulence and do not learn how make exchanges in the Presence, you will continue to be poisoned by unresolved internal crises that make you an unstable, impatient person. And an impatient listener.
We might think the opposite of impatient listening is patient listening, however, that is not the case. You can listen patiently, calmly, even sensitively...and still never hear the reality coming from someone's mouth. Patient listening no doubt has value, but that value is limited. Think of the times a sweet carebear listened to you patiently, but never really seemed to get the spirit, the heart, the infrastructure, the full reality of what you were saying. Or think of times you have done that for others. Patient listening is therapeutic on a certain level, but it is only the attitudinal base upon which sits a higher form of listening: intuitive listening.
Intuitive listening does not mean speaking for someone. It does not mean declaring their feelings or thoughts or experiences, which might happen in the realms of prophecy or Spirit-powered counseling, but not intuitive listening. Intuitive listening is silently entering the full reality of what the person is saying and not saying, which requires some level of sensing and discerning. Then, at the right moment in the conversation, it is asking probing, creative, sometimes-surgical, discovery questions. If you do this patiently with a kind spirit, it can make a person feel exceptionally loved. Believe me, they will notice you spent the time and mental energy entering their reality, and asking questions that are not perfunctory. If you really love people, I mean really love them, intuitive listening comes more naturally because you actually care, not just acting like you care.
Listening Fearfully vs Listening Fortudinously
It can be scary listening to someone talk. What if they say something that challenges my reality? What if they share naked emotion, and I am not comfortable with nudity of the soul? What if the more they talk the more I become attracted to them? Another cogwheel of poor listeners is many of them are afraid of what they might hear, and therefore, consciously or subconsciously, they dominate the conversation or show noticeably uncomfortable body language or hang up the phone or walk out of the room or keep conversations short.
True, there is no telling what might come out of someone's mouth. They might say something that challenges my current reality, or belief structure, or schedule, or projects, or behaviors, or comfort zone. They might say something that forces an action on my part, like the disclosure of a significant injustice or crime, or on a lesser level, something negative but true about one of my relationships or alliances. On a romantic level, they might say something that stirs up romantic interests and passions, again challenging my reality. To be a listener like Jesus, you need to have a strong stomach. A stoic stomach. If you are too squeamish, too skittish, too awkward, you will not be a stoic listener, at least not consistently or when it matters most.
As born-again children of God, we have the unique blessing of not having to manage life alone. If your listening skill is weak because of a nervous stomach, it is a reflection of your relationship with the Lord. It is a sign you have not yet learned to manage life situations, and especially your inner world, in the Presence and in Scripture. Most telling of all, it is a sign you are a limited listener with the Father Himself. The Father's voice destroys fear and equips us tactically to handle any and all situations smartly. Learn how to dig into the presence of God, how to vent and vomit your inner world onto Him, how to learn His voice in Scripture and however else He may speak. Not only will this teach you how to walk on water in daily life (living above, not beneath or overwhelmed), but it will destroy your skittishness and equip you with a strong, stoic stomach for listening.
Listening Tired vs Listening Therapeutically
A kinetic reason some people are weak listeners is because they are simply too physically and mentally exhausted to listen well. This could be due to a number of things. For example, after a long ministry day filled with teaching, preaching, one-on-one ministry, and fellowship conversations where I need to be on my toes, I do not have much kinetic energy left to listen the way my loved ones need. If what they are sharing is urgent and time-sensitive, then I have to find new strength in the One who never gets tired, and He faithfully re-manifests every single time. However, if it is not urgent or time-sensitive, I gently share that I have energy only to eat hot wings or Chinese and talk about funny things. I reassure them that I want to hear them, but let's reschedule after I eat or maybe tomorrow?
This is precisely where and why many people are weak listeners. They force themselves to listen when they should gracefully opt out, with a reschedule and reassurance.
The Theology of Continual Exhaustion
What if someone is continually exhausted, so much so that they are psychorelationally unavailable for long periods of time? Amazingly, in Scripture God has provided a theology of exhaustion. First I will do a fascinating overview of exhaustion in God's Word, provide interpretation and application, then full circle back into the subject at hand, listening.
Esau sold his birthright due to exhaustion (Gen 25:29-34). What a staggering message.
God defeated Israel's enemy, Sisera, by waiting for him to become exhausted (Jdg 4:21). God is not ignoring your oppressor. He may be setting him/her up for a Sisera-like ending. Let them spin their wheels, eventually those wheels will come off.
Ahithophel, as part of Absalom's coup, proposed attacking David after he was exhausted (2Sam 17:2). Another staggering message.
Shobi the son of Nahash, Machir the son of Ammiel, and Barzillai the Gileadite revealed themselves as true friends of David only when he was exhausted (2Sam 17:29). Who feeds you in your weakest hour? Who kicks you when you are down, or exploits you?
God instrumentalizes our exhaustion to make us thirst for something greater and better that He has in mind. Selah on David's exhausted prayer in Psalm 63:1, and the greater and better in the rest of the prayer. (The context is 1Samuel 22:5, 23:14.)
Do not exhaust yourself trying to get rich, Solomon wrote (Pr 23:4). It is unnecessary because those who prosper in their souls first can prosper in all things (3Jn 1:2 NKJV).
Everything in life is exhausting, Solomon wrote (Ecc 1:8), apart from God, through God, and to God. Even excessive studying is exhausting, he added (12:12).
There are healthy and unhealthy work habits. Solomon called unhealthy work habits "the labor of fools" that leads to continual exhaustion and disorientation about basic things. Ecclesiastes 10:15 (NASB): The labor of a fool makes him so weary that he does not even know how to go to a city. We will revisit this in a sec.
Everyone becomes exhausted from time to time, even people who seem like they should not (Isa 40:30).
Jeremiah experienced exhaustion from holding in (suppressing) the ministerial words and manifestations God gave him to deliver (Jer 6:11, 20:9). This is a titanic truth that is little known; I have never heard it taught in this frame.
Sinning is exhausting, God said (Jer 9:5). Think of how stressful and depleting it is to maintain a big lie, maintain an affair, avoid law enforcement, chase the next high, try to make people like you, keep winning lawsuits, etc.
God said Babylon's exhausting efforts at survival and self-preservation would only be fuel for the fire of His judgment (Jer 51:58,64, Hab 2:13). What a message. The more we exhaust ourselves to get our way, to survive and self-preserve (apart from God), the more we are adding fuel to the fire of God's disciplinary consequences in our life (1Co 11:29-32, Heb 12:5-11).
People are exhausted and aimless, Jesus observed (Mt 9:36). The Greek in Matthew 9:36 is "weary and scattered" or "faint and cast aside"; see the NKJV and YLT.
The Lord has a lot to say about this, right? I did not include several exhaustion passages because I will present them now in the interpretation and application section.
One, exhaustion is serious and dangerous. Remember Esau, Sisera, David, "the labor of fools", and Jeremiah. Pray through and think through how to manage your body and life habits to keep it away as much as possible. Exhaustion is so leverageable the Antichrist will use it strategically during his time in power, Daniel 7:25 says (NASB, underline mine): And he will speak against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law... Wear down the saints (exhaustion) and manipulate times and laws (schedules, timetables, etc.). Goodness, hear the word of the Lord church. The spirit of Antichrist is already here doing this, Paul said (2Th 2:7,8) and John said (1Jn 4:3).
Two, if you are too exhausted to meet with God daily you need to make immediate changes either on a structural level (job, school, family obligations, etc.) or a managerial level (eating healthier, time management, saying No, streamlining, delegating, improving efficiency, planning better, etc.) or both. God promised to keep us out of prolonged or recurring exhaustion, to be "the shade of a huge rock in an exhausted land" (Isa 32:3 NASB), to make us walk, run, and fly exhaustion-free (40:31). However, He manifests that kinetic grace through our face-to-face, voice-to-voice daily intimacy with Him, and, through structural and/or managerial changes we make when that kinetic grace rises within.
Three, regarding structural and/or managerial changes, Scripture commands us to strengthen what is exhausted. That means it is something we control to a certain degree. Isaiah 35:3 is a command (NASB): Strengthen the exhausted, and make the feeble strong. The literal Hebrew is, "Strengthen the sinking hands and make firm the tottering, stumbling knees." The imagery is of a body fatigued and approaching collapse. After daily intimacy with Him, we are responsible to strengthen what is exhausted through proactive changes. Some of those changes you already know you need to make, but some of them will require more prayer, brainstorming, and getting good advice.
Four, there are moments or missions from God that might include temporary exhaustion, but He will give grace to manage it, minimize it, and keep it at a non-destructive level. For example, Gideon and his soldiers, doing the will of the Lord, became exhausted pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, kings of Midian. See Judges 8:4,5. God sustained them supernaturally to complete the mission. A similar thing happened when David was pursuing the Amalekites. They were all exhausted, some more or less depending on their fitness level (1Sam 30:10,21). God sustained the fitter ones supernaturally and they completed the pursuit and recovery. Jesus became exhausted from sorrow to the point of death, yet His perseverance in prayer invoked new energy and vision (Mt 26:38). Paul experienced occasional exhaustion (2Co 11:27,29), even despairing of life itself at times (1:8), but his and his team's endless dependence on God in prayer revived him every single time (1:9-11).
It is important to differentiate, then, when your exhaustion is coming from spiritual and/or practical changes you need to make versus a temporary, controlled exhaustion that might happen during a difficult mission from God.
Finally, God's ultimate plan and cruising altitude for His children is not exhaustion, but the life described in Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV): Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Jesus is not merely offering inner peace here, He is offering a lifestyle. He says "learn from me", indicating this is a lifestyle to be learned. The conceptual equivalent is living a Sabbath life, described in Hebrews 4:1-11. It takes some time to learn and grow into, but the mature born-again life is supposed to have a level of ease and flow and music to it. That does not mean life becomes perfectly free of challenges, but it should eventually have an other-worldly baseline of stable rest, yoke easy, burden light. It should eventually resemble pleasant music with supernatural rhythm and flow, not endless striving, struggling, trying, and perspiring. Isaiah 40:31 words it differently, but is saying the same thing: the cruising altitude of a mature life in God is to walk, run, and fly exhaustion-free.
The most practical form of listening you can offer, when your energy levels are incapable of confluent, creative listening, is listening therapeutically. Listening therapeutically means listening strictly to provide emotional comfort, accomplished with warm body language, simple but sincere words of validation, and relationship-appropriate physical affection. In a sense, listening therapeutically is somewhere between not listening at all and listening S-I-F.
Listening strictly to provide emotional comfort is pragmatic at times of weariness, however, it should not be the norm. Listening in an intimacy-favoring, reality-creating way (S-I-F) should be our norm. This is the way Jesus listened during His incarnation. This is mature listening that reflects true, real, deep love for those we communicate with.
"Listen Junior, Listen!"
Years ago, when the Lord first convicted me to dedicate myself to becoming the very best listener I could be ("Listen Junior, listen!"), the shifts in my relationships were immediate. I was surprised, overjoyed, and saddened all at the same time. I never imagined how many relationship issues, that I swore were because of this and that in the other person, were actually because I was sippy cup listening. Even the tiniest changes in my listening habits resulted in far-reaching butterfly effects. The very simplest and most elementary change--letting the other person finish and making sure I heard them correctly--led to inner healing moments, surprising closeness, new trust, and counterintuitively, more influence and credibility for my own words. Amazing what happens when we shut the hell up and actually care. Really care.
Listening sacrificially means our lower self has zero place in communication situations. Higher self, yes, lower self, crucified and nonexistent. Listening intuitively means silently entering the full reality of what the person is saying and not saying, which require some level of sensing and discerning. Then, at the right moment in the conversation, asking probing, creative, sometimes-surgical, discovery questions. Listening fortudinously means listening with a strong stomach and stoic presence. If you are squeamish, skittish, nervous, or touchy people will limit what they share with you, blocking (sifting out) intimacy. Listening therapeutically means listening strictly to provide emotional comfort, accomplished with warm body language, simple but sincere words of validation, and relationship-appropriate physical affection. It is a pragmatic, and still loving, form of listening when your energy levels are incapable of S-I-F listening.