Paul Woolley considers the importance of listening, for disciples of Jesus in today’s world
This article was published in the September to December 2022 edition of Rapport magazine.
The best management consultants are those who talk least’, my new management consultant friend told me the other day. ‘They sit, and listen, and observe what’s really going on.’
That got me thinking. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? Isn’t that something that He excelled in? Jesus got alongside people and He listened carefully and attentively – often to some of the most broken people in society – and He observed what was really going on (John 8:1-11). Jesus was also intentional about putting aside time to listen to His Father (Luke 5:16). It was from this place of listening that He was able to speak and act in meaningful and transformational ways about life in God’s kingdom – where what God wants done is done. Even as a boy, Jesus was found sitting among the teachers in the temple, listening to them and asking questions.
In His commitment to listening, Jesus models something vitally important for His disciples, ancient and modern. Discipleship is a life of learning from Jesus how to live in the kingdom of God. It follows that every true disciple of Jesus is a listener. The theologian John Stott said, ‘One of the most important – and much-neglected ingredients of Christian discipleship is the cultivation of a listening ear. Bad listeners do not make good disciples.’
What, then, does this commitment to listening look like? If we are to be authentic disciples of Jesus in our everyday lives and work, we need to listen in three distinct but related ways. We could call this triple listening.
Listening to Scripture, the world and the church
In the first place, we need to listen to the voice of God in Scripture. The Bible is the most reliable source of knowledge about the most important matters of life. In that sense, the Bible isn’t a ‘religious’ book, but an all-of-life book that centres on God’s revelation to us in Jesus. ‘It is a truism to say that we have to listen to the Word of God,’ noted Stott, ‘except perhaps that we need to listen to him more expectantly and humbly, ready for him to confront us with a disturbing, uninvited word.’ In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul exhorts his readers to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:2). It is through listening to the Scriptures that, by the power of the Spirit, our thinking can be reframed and our lives can be transformed.
The second aspect of listening required of Jesus’s disciples is possibly more contentious. We need to listen to the world. We need to observe what’s going on in the culture around us and why – on our housing estates, in our organisations, in our schools and colleges, in our society. Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, encouraged followers of Jesus to ‘take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’ In exhorting people as he did, Barth wasn’t suggesting that we should listen to God and to our fellow human beings in the same way or with the same degree of deference.
In the words of Stott:
‘We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it.’
The third aspect of listening essential for every disciple of Jesus is listening to the church. We need to listen to one another in community, to the challenges, struggles and opportunities we face in our everyday lives and work, from our different theological traditions and networks.
It is through such listening that we can live more fruitfully as whole-life disciples wherever we are. If we practise triple listening, we’ll be able to imagine what should be going on around us as part of God’s big story – from creation to new creation, centred on His mission to save the world through Christ, which climaxes at the cross. We’ll be able to create a new story, acting faithfully in response to the needs in front of us in a way that brings God’s kingdom. We’ll be able to serve up a taste of heaven in the here and now.
If we want an outstanding example of a triple-listener, it’s difficult to think of someone better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, anti-Nazi dissident, and founding member of the Confessing Church. It was Bonhoeffer’s listening to Scripture that helped him to understand that every human being is created in the image of God and of incalculable worth, and also that we have a predilection towards evil. It was Bonhoeffer’s listening to the culture of 1930s Germany that sensitised him to the rise of nationalism and the evil of the Nazis. It was through listening to Christians across other theological traditions and denominations that Bonhoeffer founded the Confessing Church in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi ‘German Evangelical Church’.
Of course, the impact of Bonhoeffer’s listening was particularly costly. His vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia programme and genocidal persecution of Jewish people and other minorities resulted in his execution. It can be challenging to follow Jesus. But Bonhoeffer, like countless others, understood that the cost of non-discipleship is infinitely greater than the price paid to walk with Jesus.
So, how might triple listening help us live as disciples of Jesus in the everyday spaces and places we live and work? It’s unlikely that our circumstances will be as extreme as Bonhoeffer’s, but if we listen to Scripture and seek to apply it to all of life, listen to what’s going on and why in the cultures around us, and listen and learn from the wider community of God’s people, that will make a radical and practical difference in our everyday lives.
Modelling godly character
First, we’ll model godly character. Perhaps that will involve displaying self-control by keeping a cool head when a colleague or customer is provoking you. Triple listening will remind us that it’s in our everyday circumstances that God forms our character to be like Jesus so that we can better reflect His character to those around us.
We’ll make ‘good work’. Sometimes, our everyday tasks can seem a bit meaningless, or just a means to an end. But triple listening will help us realise that God is intensely interested in our work and that everything we do is for His glory.
Ministering grace and love
We’ll minister grace and love. This looks like the friend who came with me to the hospital at 1am when she had an (at that time unwritten) essay due in 10 hours. It’s found in the boss who doesn’t just fire someone, but gently offers support and comfort in the redundancy meeting. Triple listening will help us see what’s going on and respond appropriately.
Triple listening will help us mould culture. We can mould culture to express the life of God’s kingdom by countering the blame game of the corporate world by admitting when we’ve made a mistake, and offering forgiveness to those who slip up as well. We can mould culture by quenching gossip with a positive word for the person who is always the butt of jokes.
We’ll champion truth and justice. Whether we realise it or not, this is something that we get to do every day. It can be as simple as making sure other people get the credit they deserve when we could have taken it for ourselves. Big or small, this looks like standing up to promote good, fair, and just practices.
Triple listening, finally, will help us talk about Jesus in sensitive and relevant ways. This isn’t about delivering a pre-packaged gospel ‘warhead’ and retreating to a safe distance. It’s about sharing something of Jesus with those around us in ways that make sense.
Essential practice for disciples of Jesus
So triple listening is an essential practice for disciples of Jesus. It’s through listening to the word, the world, and one another that we bear witness to the love, healing, acceptance, grace and holiness of God. That will change us. But it won’t just change us. It will change the people and places around us – for good. It will change our neighbourhoods and organisations. It will change everything.
‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’Revelation 2:29
Paul Woolley is CEO at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), an organisation working to catalyse a movement that envisions and empowers Christians to live as disciples in their everyday lives licc.org.uk