Active Listening

We all enjoy talking to an active listener. As in the Bible, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5). Yet they’re hard to find!

Think of a time when you read a book that captured you—an insightful story that stirred you to call a friend to talk about it. You meet and after some pleasantries you mention the book. The friend nods but stays quiet. Then you share a little more and add some key details. He responds, “Sounds like you enjoyed it.” That’s all. No questions. So you finally get it: he’s not interested!

You’ve done it too. When someone starts to shower you with sports news—and you don’t care a whit about sports—you start to notice lint on the carpet or the wood grain on your table. Or if a couple goes on too long about the colors of their home remodel, or a colleague starts to gush about the food on her latest cruise—well, it’s hard to pretend you’re fascinated.

So, given all the banal chatter and dull indifference in life—which we too often support—the appearance of an active listener stands out as a rare gift.

What makes an active listener? Someone who knows there’s treasure available in every soul; and in every ordinary encounter. The only question is whether there’s enough time to find the treasure in a given conversation. And when there is, the active listener goes after it.

The active listener isn’t selfish. He may be persistent, yet he doesn’t intrude. “So,” he may ask, “what were you hoping for?” Or maybe, “Did he ever surprise you?” And, ultimately, “Did he say anything you want to take with you for life?” The questions are honest and open-ended. There’s lots of space for self-disclosure.

Even if you’re being superficial—just passing some time—active listening friends want more. The treasure you offer isn’t necessarily in what you say but in who you are. They know there’s a depth available in you even while they walk across the bridge of your early, unformed thoughts. So the skilled listener soon draws us into self-discovery. They aren’t lazy.

Notice a theme here. Active listening brings humility to a friendship. It reflects a Philippians 2:3 heart—counting others more important than self. And this self-emptying impulse offers space for our friends to open their hearts to us when we’re together.

Now another question about active listening: does it apply to our knowing God?

Does he ever offer himself to us? Does he hope to be heard? Does he want us to know him? Or is he detached and insular—too far above us to be bothered?

We may know the invitations in the Bible to “seek first the kingdom of God”; and to love him with all we have to offer. But there’s still reason for doubt: if he wants us to know him why doesn’t he ever show up? When we asked him to protect our job he failed to help and we were let go. Or whenever we ask him to give us what we want, nothing happens.

Of course he’s already answered our skepticism: “I did show up … and you crucified me.”

Our self-protective response is to say, “But that wasn’t me! That happened centuries ago, in a very different time and place. If I’d been there in Jerusalem I would have been a loyal follower!”

Maybe … and maybe not. Certainly an active follower in Christ’s days on earth would be one of his active listeners today, right?

We can assume this because Jesus was a winnower—always separating those who postured from those who actually responded. Those who responded wanted “truth”—“As he was saying these things, many believed in him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:30-32). But there was more to it: his winnowing was linked to love—“If God were your Father, you would love me” (verse 42).

Jesus also elevated “truth” with Pontius Pilate just before he was crucified: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

What does this tell us? At least this much: Jesus attracts those who love his Father and who have an appetite for truth. It was what Jesus said—his words—that offer both the Father and the truth that comes with knowing him. And to know God is to love him.

In other words God is an active communicator and his people will, in the nature of knowing and loving him, always be active listeners to what he offers us. The humility of repentance creates space in us for his love to prosper.

So with his word still available today—in the Scriptures—let’s delight Jesus by reading with active hearts. In hard places be sure to ask questions and then keep reading until answers appear. Spend more time reading for relationship and less time looking for blessings! And, finally, let him know how much you enjoy being with him!

I’m sure he’ll be pleased.

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