The Art of Listening

When I was admitted to the hospital, I was placed in a room right next to a very needy woman. I don’t know what she looked like, but I could hear her voice: “Help. Help. Help! HELP ME!” At first, her cries made me think she was in a very serious condition. But as time went on, I came to realize that she was just a very needy person. The nurse would come and check on her, then leave. Five minutes later, she’d be crying out for help. The nurses, being busy, couldn’t respond immediately to her cries, and so I could hear her banging the call button remote on the railing of her bed. Bang, bang, bang. “Nurse! Nurse! Help me! Help me!” But with no one responding, her demands turned into desperate whimpers.

Now, hearing all of this and figuring out what was going on, my initial compassion quickly turned into annoyance at her lack of patience and demanding nature. But, sitting in a hospital bed, having had a brush with the realities of death, I shifted into another mode. I shifted into a mode of listening. Not just hearing. But listening…for the voice of God. Not an audible voice. But the voice of His providence. Knowing that there are no accidents, and every moment, every situation is sovereignly designed by God personally for me.

And so instead of reacting with annoyance, I paused, and I asked, “Out of all the people that could have been next to me, why did the Lord give me this needy woman?” After a moment of reflection, I came to the conclusion that this woman was a living parable of me. “Help! Help!” I needed help. There was so much going on inside of me, more than I realized. Unlike this woman, I had been holding it all in, suppressing the emotions and carrying on with the work that I was supposed to do. But that strategy lasted only long enough until my body screamed for the attention it deserved through the vertigo and panic attack. The Lord was telling me, I needed help. And like this woman, I needed to call on others for it.

The day after, I took a lonely hike up a secluded mountainside and just sat thinking about who I could call for help. I made the calls. And the next few weeks were the most refreshing time I had had in years. I felt free to be open. I felt free to share. I was being helped. So many years of life and ministry grinding through on my own. While through the years I had preached against being lone ranger Christians. “Lone-rangers are dead rangers.” I lived as if I were somehow different. And so I had no one really to share my deepest, darkest stresses. I can say that living like that was extremely sanctifying because it brought me closer to the suffering of Christ who suffered alone. But still, even Christ had his inner circle (Peter, James, and John) with him before his darkest hour as he prayed in Gethsemane (Matt 26:37). I’ve come to realize that as a pastor, I need other pastors to listen to me, to counsel me, and to pray for me. In other words, pastors also need to be pastored. I’m thankful the Lord showed this to me.

But here’s the point. I would not have come to realize this if I had not been in the mode of listening. It’s been about a month and a half since my hospital visit. I am now preparing to plant a church. And as I am preparing for the launch, I realize that at some point I transitioned from a mode of listening to a mode of doing. Instead of stillness or quietness in my soul that was looking to see God’s hand of providence in every circumstance, my heart is full of deadlines. The word “deadline” is interesting. Somehow as deadlines approach, in a way, I feel like I am going to die. I feel the pressure, the anxiety, the burden, the dread of death approaching. And no matter how much I may have enjoyed doing something previously, the stench of death infects it like a shirt that has really bad body odor. No matter how much you enjoy wearing a shirt, no one wants to wear a smelly shirt. And so things that usually bring us great joy can turn into torturous tasks as soon as you attach a deadline to them. I started writing this blog with great joy and anticipation. I have so many things that the Lord has been teaching me that I want to share. But for some reason, I began to attach deadlines to writing the posts. And then I felt the pressure of being behind schedule. And then the joy somehow turned into dread. And instead of looking forward to writing, I avoided it. The body odor of deadlines.

As I thought about this, I came to realize this is exactly what is going on in that famous account of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). In verse 40, we’re told Martha was “distracted with much serving.” I never really paid attention to the word “distracted” before. I just thought Martha was busy, busy, busy. But the word “distracted” means “to be drawn away from.” It means to be prevented from giving your full attention to something. And what was it that Martha was distracted from? She was distracted from doing what Mary was doing. In verse 39, we see Mary “listened to his [Jesus’] teaching.” I’m calling this post “The Art of Listening.” I call it an art, not simply because art requires creative skill or ability. But I call it art because what is art? Art is useless. That is, it is useless as compared to real work. We may contrast “The Art of Listening” with “The Work of Serving” or “The Work of Getting Things Done.” Martha, in that moment, was probably thinking that Mary was useless. That’s why she tells Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

What was Martha’s priority? Serving, which is obviously a good thing. But in this situation, and with the attitude Martha had, we’re told that her serving was a distraction. And it was a distraction because somehow she had allowed her heart to believe that serving was the priority, when in fact, the priority was listening. But for Martha, listening was useless. It was unproductive. It was even an obstacle. Martha was drawn away from what mattered most.

This is what I realized was happening to me. So much of my adult life has been lived in the mode of working…serving. And while I may be serving the Lord, as Martha was serving the Lord, I have to stop and consider, maybe the Lord doesn’t need my service? In fact, perhaps my serving is a distraction that is causing me to be unnecessarily “anxious and troubled about many things.”

Why was Martha so anxious? Was the Lord upset at her and demanding that he get better service? Was Mary being lazy and unhelpful? Or was Martha creating these deadlines for herself that distracted her from a greater priority? Somehow Martha had convinced herself that serving was the priority and listening was a useless art. And this mode of thinking created anxiety.

And here is the real point. Sometimes we can get so preoccupied doing good things that we are distracted from the good. Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the good portion.” We can simply say that she chose what is good. She chose what was good over what was “necessary.” There are some things in life that are necessary. Food, clothing, housing, money. We need those things to survive. But what is good? Interesting that Jesus says, in verse 42, that this good that Mary has chosen, “will not be taken away from her.” That tells us a little bit about the nature of this good portion. It is eternal in nature. It cannot be stolen like earthly things (Matt 6:19). We don’t know exactly what words from Jesus Mary was listening to, but the fact that her focus was on things that could not be taken away indicates that Mary was eternally minded; heavenly minded. That she chose the good portion means that she had chosen the one who is good (Mark 10:18). And she did not allow all of the deadlines to distract her from this good portion.

We live in an age where value is determined by monetary and external value. But real value is determined by its goodness. And we can say that goodness is determined by its godness. The more something is directly related to God, the more value it has. And so this is the art of listening. It is the ability in any given moment of your life, even when serving, to see what matters most. It is the ability to submit what is necessary to that which is good. It is the ability to recognize that all the things that we gain in this life are temporary, but our relationship with God is eternal (Mark 8:36-37). The art of listening means being able to be still, that is, to stop all of the activity in our hearts, and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). It is to know that the way to get things done is by waiting upon God (Isaiah 40:31). It means not allowing ourselves to get so busy that we forget that God is working everything together for our good (Romans 8:28), This means there are no accidents. There are no coincidences. Every moment of our lives was purposefully chosen by God to be a part of our story for our good and His glory (Psalm 139:16). And so the art of listening is the ability to see God’s invisible hand of providence purposefully bringing every circumstance, every health situation, every “random” encounter with a person as all part of God’s specific intention to guide you and sanctify you into Christ’s image. And when we have truly learned the art of listening, we cannot help but say with Paul:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

Romans 11:33–36

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