Lessons in Listening

The troubled man scarcely bothered to take a breath as he poured out his unhappiness over his host of issues.  He was a true victim and wanted me and others to share in his pain.  And, yes, it was painful!

What I knew from many earlier conversations was that the present 30 minute survey of his broken life (and he, indeed, has a number of challenges) would be similar to those that had gone before: it was massively lopsided.  In our exchange of words my few comments were swamped by his sea of concerns.  My sole role, I knew, was to say every now and then, “Oh, that’s terrible!” or, “I’m so sorry for you!”  Prior efforts in many earlier conversations to confront my friend’s self-consumed pathos, or to redirect our themes to some more constructive pathways, had always been met with anger and more self-pity.

As for the main theme of this call—“where have all my friends gone?”—I already knew the answer: they had to get on with their lives!  My friend would call regularly until they were driven to despair by his demanding neediness.  So, one-by-one, the bonds were broken.  They had all given up on him—even though some were truly compassionate care-givers.

Why am I sharing this downbeat report?  Let me respond by asking another question: How do many of us treat prayer?

Is there a balance between our speaking and our listening?  Or do we pour out on God all our neediness and insist that he solve things as soon as possible?  I ask this because the prayers I often hear in church can be as lopsided and self-concerned as my friend’s plaintiff calls are.  And, with that comparison, I can’t help but wonder how our truly compassionate Lord feels as he listens to us.  If he’s at all alert he must know that his only proper responses are either, “Oh, that’s terrible!” or, “Okay, I’ll get right on that for you!”  Responses, by the way, that would actually undermine his standing with us.

What if, on the other hand, our prayers are meant to be part of a much bigger conversation?  What if our new life in Christ has opened the door for us to be included in God’s own Triune communion?  So that our variety of challenges and concerns are well known by the Father and are being engaged by the Son?  Would that invite us to start asking some real questions and to start offering heartfelt reflections instead of just listing our woes?  Could our prayers lead to a real conversation with God in which he begins to open our eyes to see him more clearly and to know him more fully?

Job, for instance, certainly had real issues.  And as he poured out his complaints he managed to drive all his friends to silence.  But not before they beat him up with angry—and unfounded—character charges.  We the readers know all along, of course, that God was not only aware of the issues; he was the ultimate instigator of Job’s troubles as he pulled Satan’s tail to stir an attack.  And by the end of the book we find that Job finally shut up and started to listen.  God then sharply challenged him; yet this part of the conversation generated huge growth in Job and, potentially, in all of us.

I’m sure we all can engage God as better listeners; and ask our questions or make our requests in light of what he has already shared about himself.  Why, for instance, do the Scriptures call on us to tell God, “Thank you!” as a refrain for everything else we pray?  Is it because that’s an appropriate response to our being invited to share in the communion of God’s love as we speak?

So let me end with a question to you, the reader: how do you pray?  Can you offer some relational insights about how prayer has become a lively and life-changing part of your faith?  Is there a pathway out of our self-obsessed litanies into something more mature and satisfying?

If you have any prayer insights to share with us, insights about how prayers are part of your own real relationship with Christ, please comment!

20 Responses to Lessons in Listening

  1. Rob Trenckmann January 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    Great post Ron–I love the comparison!

  2. Tracy (Sean) Smith January 24, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    I appreciate your insight, Ron. Thanks for your thoughts on prayer.

    The tone of your writing left feeling a little cold though, and I’m fairly certain that was not your intention. I work in a couple ministries with people who have suffered sexual abuse, as well as people coming out of prison and drug rehab. I do believe that God is the God of compassion and that people often have to pour out their hearts and concerns before Him. Likewise, we, as the body of Christ, need to often let people pour our their hearts and concerns. Sometimes people are so “stuck” in their past that they have difficulty moving forward in Christ. Talking it over with a loving, caring person can be critical to gettting them “un-stuck”. I’d hate for someone to think that God became “inpatient” with them or that they couldn’t tell Him everything.

  3. Ron Frost January 24, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    You’ve touched an important point, Sean. Thanks, and let me take advantage of it.

    My response is to push the question back to you. We’ve both worked with hurt and damaged people, so your point that people can get stuck emotionally by their hurts is tragically clear from experience.

    And we know that God isn’t impatient with us in the ways we can be with each other. In fact it’s my confidence that God’s winsome compassion and mercy is offered to all of us with a ’70 times 7′ commitment to forgive that gives me both personal comfort and a basis for patience. And that’s not to suggest that the man I noted needs to be forgiven for his self-protection; rather that we have that sort of kind God listening to us.

    In practice, then, my friend always knows I’m available for those 30 minute calls. He has real worth and value to me. But it’s still painful and I meant to share that tone here. What I find most painful is that he’s not moving forward in any measure that I can see. For that I grieve; and I felt it needed to be discussed. I see the problem as very wide; not as narrowly confined to the “more” abused.

    So, the question I have for you, and/or for any others, is how do we begin to regard God in proper terms, in terms that reflect an authentic relationship? Do we leave people as victims? No one wants that. How do they gain a freedom to listen?

    To add another factor here: we all have spiritual gifts and you’ve shared a response that speaks from your own heart/gifts. So coach us from your own compassion in how to move someone forward. Can my friend ever learn how to have a relationship with God that is rich and full? Or is he forever crippled? You’re being properly protective. Good; but can you offer a pathway forward?

    It’s a crucial question because at some level we’re all victims of a broken world, so the potential for many to remain as victims is deep and wide. I’m thinking here of any who embrace the identity of a victim (with the proper sympathies that derive) that can be an end rather than a starting point towards the healing/freedom offered in Christ.

    Another way to talk about this (as in a much earlier post) is to see Jesus as the ultimate victim (taking our sins upon himself), while not remaining a victim. Given the cross, isn’t someone who dies “in Christ” also invited into that same freedom? So please help us here.

  4. Terry Jackson January 25, 2011 at 7:32 am #

    My best conversations with the Father are when I am doing something else (hey, I’m a guy!) I can have a conversation as a sit in my office but it is a much more productive conversation if we are taking a walk or driving in the car together. It also adds a different dimension to ask another friend to come along. Now it’s a three-way conversation and that’s even more interesting!

  5. Scott Douglass January 25, 2011 at 9:30 am #

    Listening to another person is very demanding physically and emotionally yet God does that for us all the time when he hears our prayers. Equally there are those who need to be listened too even when they seem to repeating themselves. They are seeking to gain a voice that was lost due to abuse and a host of many other things. That voice is the same that God hears of us. We are needy and God recognizes and knows that we are needy but that still does not stop Him from listening. To listen to the brokenhearted and empathize with them is what we called to do. This may open the doors for the person to see God in you and also for God to work in the person. Probably the most profound thing that a caring person can do is listen. Listening to a person gives them a voice which they need at the moment so that they can become confident in themselves and also in God’s ability to help them. But it first might take a listening ear. As the person gains his confidence he will eventually rely less and less on another and see God as Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God in their situation. Also when this person becomes stronger he might seek to silence the other opposing voices in their life that are destroying him. These voices and the lies they represent can and may eventually be dealt with but the person needs to take a more proactive approach toward knowing God and his ability to help and heal them. Persons and problems may vary but listening is a start to restoring a person in many different ways.

  6. Ron January 25, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    Thanks, Terry, for your comments. What you capture in the imagery of a car conversation (something I’ve certainly enjoyed with you!) is, indeed, the kind of reciprocity we have available to us in Christ. The actual world all but evaporates while our relationship with him prospers when we ask a big question and then reflect in silence on what we know of him from the Word. I’ve found, for instance, on my trips to the Oregon coast and back, that after asking a question and then turning the radio or CD off, all sorts of Scriptures start to come to mind within the shape of an actual response. No “voices” but still a real sense of communion follows.

    Scott, you raise a good point: that listening may help promote listening. But I wonder if the same question I asked Sean doesn’t apply in the case of victims who find comfort in remaining victims. In the case I referenced I’ve been a faithful listener for a few years now but he’s never moved out of his role as a gushing fountain of neediness: always expressing needs while seemingly blind to the prospect that his demands are actually blocking pathways to having those needs met (through ordinary listening). So what do we do (if there’s something to be done) to help him or others start to turn a corner? Do you have an experience or two to offer us, either in human terms or in a person’s spiritual transformation?

  7. David Avilla January 25, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Wow, what a provocative conversation! The direction has forked off in a couple directions that beckon for more thought. One major thread here is a consideration of how to serve people who seem stuck in their past and who are responding in anger and self-pity instead of grasping hold of the healing that God may have for them. What processes does God have to minister to those people?

    The other thread is the one that Ron summarized in the last sentence of his original post: “If you have any prayer insights to share with us, insights about how prayers are part of your own real relationship with Christ, please comment!” Let me take a swing at that ball first.

    I have some experience praying for situations and praying directly for people in person. The church I have attended for the past 30 years is a “praying church” where intercessors meet to pray each Saturday and where a prayer team is up front each Sunday and available to pray for people. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t that way and I couldn’t call us a “praying church”. Now I think we are, though there remains much to learn!

    As I am seeing God as a triune community into which He invites us to participate, my prayers are changing! I am seeing how my assumptions about God, framed in the construct of His power have affected my prayers. When I view Him primarily as all-powerful, then my requests are framed in convincing and cajoling him to act on my behalf with his power. Maybe if I fast for a week or 21 days, then he will hear me and move on my behalf with his power? Or, if I can just attain a greater degree of devotion and commitment, then, surely he will attend to my plea. My efforts are focused upon moving God to use his power. And my efforts are focused upon my “doing” rather than “responding” to the burden that the Holy Spirit might share with me as I intercede. Let me share an example that is real-time and close to me personally.

    There is a friend at church who is the very best guitar player I have even served with on a worship team, he has three teenage daughters and his wife has been friends with my wife since high school. Jack is not yet 50 years old and has been battling stage four melanoma cancer for over a year and a half. The cancer treatment therapy has become increasingly toxic and he recently began losing his hair, can’t see out of one eye because of pressure on his optic nerve, and his strength is waning. Jack is a beloved member of our small church community and recipient of focused prayer ministry on Sunday mornings and also at our larger city-wide prayer gatherings in the San Jose area. Over a year ago, our church leadership called for fasting and prayer commitments where people sign up for a slot on the weekly calendar. So I have had the recurring opportunity over the past year to bring Jack and his family before the Lord on Friday mornings. I learned from Oswald Chambers’ devotional classic to ask the Holy Spirit how to pray for Jack, and I practice that each week before I begin. Consistently, the burden I sense in response to that prayer for guidance is NOT to pray for physical healing but to pray that Jack would know the presence of the Holy Spirit walking with him through his time of adversity. I sense God wants to make Himself known to Jack in the midst of his trials, not necessarily rescue him out of them! Surely, all his friends and family are seeking God’s healing for Jack. But I must observe that almost all of the public prayers for Jack over the past year and a half have been for God to move in His healing power upon Jack to restore him.

    My view of God really does impact my prayer focus! Think of other situations where our focus might go normally to a resolution where God can “show His power” – our friend needs a job, a wife and husband are estranged, a couple struggles with their finances. All those people desperately also need to experience the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit to whisper into their hearts of His care and strength for them IN the situation, not just to rescue them out of the situation. Can we believe that God may have more blessings for those for whom we pray through knowing Him as the God who joins them in their suffering and sustains them with His presence? For me, that kind of growing understanding of God as a relational community has impacted the way I pray!

    I have found a great resource to help focus on listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. It’s a daily devotional book by Sarah Young called “Jesus Calling”. You can get a copy through Amazon.

  8. Ron January 26, 2011 at 4:09 am #

    Thanks so much for what you’ve offered here, David. It catches my point in writing this post: a call to turn away from self-concerned and utilitarian prayers to a more relational “listening” stance. And you nailed the problem: that in our demanding prayers we treat God mainly as a power-broker who is slow to respond. That’s not the Triune God of the Bible!

    The reason for using a human analogy as my starting point wasn’t to pick on my friend and those like him, but to invite us to see something of what our imploring and demanding prayers must sound like to the One who loves us deeply and knows us intimately. It was a call to pray in the context of real communion with God.

    Yet there’s another direction in this set of posts that invites more notice: my question of HOW we move from being needy and demanding to being thankful and trusting as we pray. David, your answer of how a growing awareness of God’s triune community started to make a difference for you is profound: and it’s also the key to my own transition.

    Are there any more responses or other options? Or is that the key we need to bring to the door of our prayers?

  9. Dorie Halsey January 27, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    I do not believe that I can exactly attribute my feelings to God in that if I am weary of listening to another that he must be weary as well. Nor do I believe that praying requests necessarily means self obsession.

    Praying requests seems to be a learned way and culture in the American church. (I realize that is a broad generalization.)
    If that is our culture and there is so much more to prayer, then how do we change that culture and how can we grow and mature in the way that we pray?
    A few ideas:
    1. Leaders can help. I used to love the prayer summits lead by Terry Dirks and Joe Aldrich in Portland, OR. They would lead prayer in so many different ways. Time to offer praises. Offer scriptures. Offer attributes. Bow in confession. Listen in silence. And so many more ways.
    2. Spend time in fellowship and prayer with believers who have a different prayer and worship culture. I have enjoyed and learned from praying with brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world both here in my city and abroad. Praying with my friends in Uganda, teaches me a different way.
    3. Pray with the Bible open. Reading and pausing and seeing what comes to mind then.
    4. For me personally, one of the ways that I cultivate listening prayer in my life is through regular fast days. I choose a day that I am not at my job. I do not usually come with an agenda. Instead I come for the purpose of listening. I ask God, “What do you want to say to me today?” I read my Bible on and off through the day. I go for a walk. Things begin to come to mind. Every time through the day that I feel a little hungry I am encouraged again to ask God what he wants to say to me. Sometimes I think of specific members of the trinity to talk to but usually not though I usually think of the Spirit communicating back to me. I really enjoy those days. The time goes quickly. And I am often surprised by the topics that come to mind, that I listen about, and that we talk about.

    This was a thought provoking post and one I really enjoyed. Thank you.

  10. Dorie Halsey January 27, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    One more thing from me. I have a friend, who is a child of our heavenly father, in Northeast Uganda. I love her dearly. One year her husband was away for ministry. Her little girl died. Her boy became ill and severely brain damaged. The crops failed. The animals were stolen. There were so many raids and killings. She had other young children to care for but how? Friends said come drink with us, and so she did.
    She drank the local brew and became to some degree brain damaged herself and severely addicted. 20 years later she walks in shame because she continues to struggle. I believe her hope and her home is in heaven. Sometimes earthly brokenness remains broken in an earthly way. Someday she will arrive to her heavenly home, and there, for certain and forever, be healed.
    When I am in Uganda, I give her hugs, and smiles and tears, and allow her to lead me through the village by the hand.

  11. Ron January 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    Dorie, I guess we’ll have to disagree on this one, though I need to express once again my deep sympathy for the needy and the broken among us (a challenge we all share in some measure!). But that can’t displace something more basic: how God made us.

    I believe we MUST relate our personal disappointment in experiencing a lopsided ‘conversation’ to what God feels. That’s not because I’m reshaping God in terms of how I operate; but because that’s how he operates and how he made us in his own image: “Let us make man in our image . . . male and female”.

    God’s own triune communion, as the basis for our proper communion, is reflected in gospel conversations that reflect mutual exchange based on mutual love (thinking, especially of John 12 & 17); and, with that, we recall Jesus speaking of how he does what the Father shows and tells him based on their shared glory of the Godhead.

    I think this is an important issue as reflected in an ongoing promotion of the mystical tradition in Christian circles that relies mainly on how much God is unlike us (called the via negativa or apophatic theology). It is rooted in what Pseudo-Dionysius drew from the pagan philosopher Plotinus; and was carried forward by figures such as Maximus the Confessor, Erigena, Teresa of Avila, and St John of the Cross. The tradition presumes that God is utterly unlike us in most respects. While it’s an increasingly popular view these days, it’s simply not supported biblically.

    It certainly is true that God is utterly unlike us in our fallenness, but he IS like us in the most fundamental of human realities: that of our being lovers. And that’s because He made us as lovers (a love of reciprocity and mutual affection) because he’s the One who “is love.” It’s in that context of loving reciprocity that proper prayer finds its basis. Cries of desperation may be a starting point in moving towards that love, but they don’t reflect the love of the Godhead as poured out to us by the Spirit.

    I should quickly add, Dorie, that I’m not trying to link what you said to this broader context, but any premise that the “unlikeness” of God and humanity can be an agreed-upon-starting-premise stirred this.

    So there’s lots to talk about here. Any thoughts on this aspect of prayer from others?

  12. Dorie Halsey January 29, 2011 at 3:16 am #

    Sorry. I got stuck on not wanting to assign our fallen parts of our criticism, to God and missed your point earlier. This is a great post with lots more to think about. Thanks.

  13. Ron Frost January 29, 2011 at 6:10 am #

    As I reviewed my last comments I realize that I was overly sharp, despite a real concern: sorry, Dorie!

    That focus also deflected from affirming my real appreciation for what has been done through the “Prayer Summits” that Dorie noted. Dennis Fuqua continues to lead this notable ministry that takes up prayer as an opportunity to engage God meaningfully and within community. In some cases it has restored Christian fellowship in cities once sharply divided.

    So, too, the idea of reading the Bible and then praying in response to what we read, is certainly much closer to a real relational engagement of both the Scriptures and praying than many other forms: it includes both listening and speaking. Thanks for those good leads.

  14. Duncan Sprague February 4, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    Sorry I’m late into this discussion. Finally getting around to catching up on some past posts.

    I thought I’d add a small thing that has changed the way I listen in prayer. A number of years ago, a dear friend and mentor invited me to stop talking so much in my times of prayer. He said, “The Triune God is already in a lively conversation about you. You should stop and listen to what they have said and are continuing to say and sing over you.”

    It stirred my self-obsessed flesh to want to hear what God might be saying about me. But when I stopped to listen, both in the Bible and thoughtful reflection, I realized that the dialogue was about a much larger love story that I was being privileged to join in on. This small shift—beyond my self-obsessed smaller story, into His God-obsessed larger story—has made a seismic shift in the direction of my prayers; deepening my desire to enter a convertation and share in the same other’s-centered content that they share with one another.

  15. Ron February 5, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    Thanks for that important insight, Duncan.

    There’s often an underlying assumption in our prayers that God is somehow a static listener who needs to be nudged into action while we’re the bold (dare I say, “heroic”) activists. In truth we’re just starting to learn how to listen when we enter into a living faith and, as the eyes and ears of our hearts become more alert to God’s ongoing conversation within himself and with others who know him better than we do, we begin to catch what he’s saying and begin to learn, haltingly, how to speak in turn. And, with that, to experience a growing joy in our bond to him.

  16. Phyllis Parish February 11, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    In reading through all these posts I think I have grasped the point at issue, Ron, and feel I can contribute a little. Saved at 22 from a self-obsessed mind-set, with strong enticements to self-pity due to abuse I have slowly grown over the years after many studies on prayer that seemed now to have been mental exercises rather than incentives to closer relationship with God.

    I am now 67 and since our local church week of prayer in January 2011, experiencing something new. It was as if the Lord directed me to lay aside all my earnest Bible study, which I have delighted in for 45 years, while finding prayer difficult, and just read through the Bible and LISTEN to him. The result was that the thing I was studying so hard to get hold of, (a heart knowledge of Gods personal love for me rather than just an accepted doctrine) was simply revealed to me from verse 1 of Genesis, and on-going through the O.T. (I’m at Leviticus 13 now in the treasure of Gods detailed design of the tabernacle and priestly approaches which show his great desire to be near to us). I am also reading in Luke where the words of Jesus are being illuminated to me beautifully, and in Psalms again, not so fruitfully.

    I think there has been an attitude shift in me FROM feeling I cant get by without my beloved Bible Study and rarely enjoyed prayer hour, and saying prayers around the Lords prayer pattern – ( To miss any of this I didnt feel complete) – TO dropping it all completely to just read and listen and talk to him about what he communicates to me. This was a bit scary at first but I now am enjoying listening and responding to him, also musing over what he gave me in the morning all through the day.

    Could I suggest an approach to your friend who seems stuck in his past? … Could you ask him WHY he thinks God allowed all those things to happen to him, and if possible suggest he ask God himself then listen for an answer. As a student this was suggested to me by a counsellor and when I did ask, God answered me. His response entirely satisfied me and I have ever since felt totally wanted; this was a great healing stream for one with deep rejection pain. If he is unable to ask and listen, perhaps you might be able to suggest some bible study he could do to discover the reason that way.

    I hope this adds something helpful to the discussion.

  17. Ron February 12, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    What you shared, Phyllis, of God’s caring engagement, is crucial. It’s something we all need to experience: “when I did ask [him to address the pain], God answered me.” Until we are open to listening to him from the heart this new peace that you so graciously expressed and experienced, can’t happen. Thank you.

  18. Becky Douglass February 15, 2011 at 5:41 am #

    I was recently reading through Philippians and was struck with something which has affected how I pray. In 1:6 we have Paul’s assertion that GOD IS AT WORK in the Philippians’ lives. Then he goes on to pray for their response to that work. Too often I find myself praying “God please do this …” It almost sounds like he doesn’t really want to do something, but if we ask nicely he will consider it! But really the hang up isn’t with Him, it’s with us. He IS at work in every situation, we need to be praying that we will open ourselves up to what He is doing.
    What assurance it gives me as I pray to start with the fact that He is already at work! Then it becomes a listening process to understand what I need to do to be involved in what He is doing. Or if I am praying for others, to pray that they will trust His work and follow Him through whatever circumstance they find themselves in.

  19. Ron February 16, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    Amen. Thanks, Becky. Paul’s prayer that the “eyes of our hearts” be opened was for believers, wasn’t it.

  20. Marenda February 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    I started praying from a script for people from my work cause I had a desire for their salvation and the ephesians prayer for my church staff. At first it was repetative but God knew my heart to love them and prayer for them. I didn’t have the communications skills or know him well enough to communicate what he wanted me to pray or what I wanted to pray. Now I find my self praying for them throughout the day. Also begining to see things from his perspective and memorizing other verses I can pray for for them. He also shows me things to pray for. If prayer is the closest connection to God I want to do it has much as possible and as frequently as possible and with a greater depth the more I get to know my savior. I also started to notice when I saw frequent answers to prayer and it allowed me to be more aware of walking in the spirit that I was just starting to get involved in something that was already happening these things weren’t just happening cause “I” was praying but I was getting involved in what God was already doing in there lives. And it has drastically changed mind. Elisabeth Elliot wrote things happen with prayer that wouldn’t otherwise happen without it and that keeps me going. I love that.

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