I remember the experience like it happened yesterday—it was senior year of high school and I had just been elected captain of my school’s soccer team. Everyone was looking to me as a leader, both on the field and in the classroom (or at least that’s the way it seemed to my egocentric mind).
Soccer practices had been going well, and I thought I had been effectively governing the team. I was already sure that we were going to make it to the state championships because of my vocal leadership. But during an early-season practice, I lost my patience and lashed out verbally at one of my teammates. Much to my surprise, she immediately broke down in tears and ran off the field. Astonished, I followed quickly to apologize and to try to make it up to her. Her response to my hasty apology surprised me: “Jacki, I can’t take it anymore. You keep talking and pushing us so hard with your words. I just need you to stop talking and start listening to us.”
I was speechless. Listening? What did she mean I wasn’t listening? Through subsequent conversations with my coach and teammates, though, I realized how terribly I had listened to those around me before speaking. I found out that this fault was tearing my team apart more than it was bringing us together.
The Danger of Not Listening
Maybe this is an experience that you’ve had before. Or maybe you’ve been on the other side of the coin, in situations where you haven’t felt heard. It can become all too easy to keep talking and talking, never pausing to allow space for others to speak. It is, by contrast, all too difficult to realize that you’re not listening well.
What is at the root of this inability to listen? Pride. As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, pride is a “proud or disdainful behavior or treatment.” This pride is blinding, often causing us to not see our behavior toward or treatment of others in the same light. This is one of the devil’s tactics; he loves to trick us into thinking that this behavior and treatment is acceptable.
Even worse, he likes to make us forget that our relationship with God is a two-way relationship. When we forget that, we get in a bad rhythm of asking, yet never waiting long enough to listen for him to answer. I’ve been there.
Thankfully, Scripture gives us examples to help us to take those steps toward attuning our ears and our hearts toward the Lord and others. Let’s just focus on one of those steps for the moment, by starting with Mary, Martha, and Jesus.
Step 1: Stop (Luke 10:38-42)
Picture this scene with me… Jesus, the Jesus who is the promised Messiah, is coming to your house for dinner. The preparations must be made in a short amount of time, and the pile of tasks seems insurmountable,—you want everything in your humble but cozy home to seem welcoming to the King of Kings. Despite all your efforts and work though, things aren’t quite ready when he arrives. Upon entering your home, he takes a seat next to the fire, where your sister quickly follows to sit at his feet and ask questions. What nerve! Who would think it’s okay for her to sit down when there are still so many preparations to be done? Frustrated, you try to work even more quickly, thinking through everything that needs to be finished before the meal is ready. You focus so intently on the preparations that you drown out the voice of Jesus as he’s speaking with Mary. But finally, you can’t take it anymore, so in desperation you cry out, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40).
This story is well-known for a variety of reasons—including the lesson it teaches us on the importance of stopping. But the other half of stopping includes listening. Martha was so busy with all of the preparations for the meal that she failed to listen to what was most important. This is what Jesus calls out to her in his response to her plea:
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).
This world provides countless ways to stay busy and distracted, whether through music, social media, news, advertisements, family, friends, work, authorities…the list goes on and on. But Mary has learned that these things pale in comparison to simply stopping and listening to the Lord. Unlike Martha, who felt the need to continue to be productive, Mary was content to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he had to say.
Step 2: Listen
This story brings some questions to mind: What about today, when we can’t just sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him speak in person with us? How do we listen to someone who is no longer physically with us like he was with Mary and Martha?
There’s a sense of loneliness this can elicit—one that I felt strongly the summer before my freshman year in college. I had been writing prayers and crying out to God constantly from the time I arrived at the camp my college offered to incoming freshmen. It was in the middle-of-nowhere-northern-Wisconsin. Plus, our phones had been taken away for the week, so I had no way of contacting my parents. I felt completely and utterly alone.
About halfway through the camp, each student experienced a “solo” time. For this, we spent six hours in the woods; sitting on a tarp with our Bibles, a journal, and a bottle of water. As if that wasn’t hard enough, we were also told that we could not leave that six-foot square tarp.
So, there I sat. Lost and afraid and alone. After the first two hours, I fell silent. I had run out of things to rant to God about through journaling and praying aloud. That was when I started to listen. In the next four hours of my silence, I felt him begin to speak to my dry and thirsty soul. It wasn’t an audible voice, but rather this soft reminder from Scripture:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
All I needed was to be still. All I needed was to give space to allow God to speak into the fearful corners of my heart.
Listening to God: How to Get Started
How often do you do this? How often do you take time to simply be in the presence of the Lord? I pose this challenge to you over the coming two weeks: take fifteen minutes each day to put away all distractions, and simply be. Allow the outside voices to cease, so that God is given room to speak. It may not happen the very first day, but don’t lose heart—he will speak in his perfect timing.