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A church member shook Pastor Smith’s hand after worship and enthusiastically stated, “Great sermon, Pastor. You ought to submit that one to Preaching.” “Thanks,” replied Rev. Smith who then quietly noted, “I hope to have all my sermons published one day, perhaps posthumously.” Nodding in approval, the church member added, “I’m glad to hear that – the sooner, the better!”
Admonishing her husband, a wife sighed, “You never listen to me anymore.” The husband dismissively walked away and exclaimed, “I don’t want to hear about it!”
In his book The Lost Art of Listening, family therapist Michael Nichols writes, “Listening is so basic that we take it for granted. Unfortunately, most of us think of ourselves as better listeners than we really are.”1
Why do many marriages thrive, while others fail to survive? Why do many families flourish, while others seem to falter? Why do many sermons inspire, while others lack fire? It often depends on how well people listen. Consider your own pulpit ministry. As you actively listen and learn from God’s Word and from God’s people, your preaching becomes all the more vibrant and vital. Consider your congregation. As members actively listen to God’s Word, as they hear and heed Christ’s call, as they prayerfully respond to the Spirit’s leading, they become all the more fruitful in fulfilling your congregation’s mission.
Frederick Buechner contends, “To live without listening is to live deaf to the fullness of the music. Sometimes we avoid listening for fear of what we may hear, sometimes for fear that we may hear nothing at all but the empty rattle of our own feet on the pavement. . . . ‘But be not afraid,’ says [he] ‘for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He has been with us
since each of our journeys began. Listen for him.”2
Of course, listening and learning to listen is a life-long process. It is a gift that God gives to each of us. What we do with this precious and priceless gift is our gift to God, to one another and to ourselves.
Pointing out the paucity of listening in our interpersonal relationships, the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier wrote, “it is impossible to overemphasize the immense need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood. . . . Listen to the conversations of our world, between nations as well as those between couples. They are for the most part dialogues of the deaf.”3
Charles Swindoll suggests that the phrase “dialogues of the deaf” also describes Christians who study Scripture, but seldom put God’s Word into practice. Rick Warren bemoans this kind of inactive listening among believers. In the e-newsletter PreachingNow, Warren observes, “The Dead Sea is dead because it takes in water but doesn’t give any out. When any Christian’s schedule consists completely of receiving biblical input but has no planned outflow of ministry or evangelism, his spiritual growth will be limited. Study without service leads to stagnation.”4
In order to recover from this “hearing and doing” deficit, as described in James 1:22, we also need to heed James’ counsel in verse 21. In no uncertain terms he commands, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:21-22).
James Draper observes that a chief culprit in spiritual hearing loss is the moral filth so prevalent in our culture. This sludge can infiltrate our lives and limit our listening to the Lord. In fact, Draper notes that the root word for “moral filth” in this text carries the meaning of having a hearing impairment due to wax in the ears. He writes, “Just as having wax in the ears keeps one from hearing properly, so filthiness in our lives . . . can keep us from hearing God properly. It can prevent God’s Word from having free access into our hearts.”5
How, then, can we overcome the problems of spiritual and relational hearing loss? Consider a principle, a parable and a process of preparation.
Variously known as in-depth listening, total listening or perceptive listening, this kind of active listening involves far more than inactive silence. Active listening involves an awareness of what is being said verbally and nonverbally, as well as what is not being said. It is perceiving not only with the ears, but also with the eyes; not only with the mind, but also with the heart. Active listening, both relationally and spiritually, is strenuous work. Michael Nichols clarifies what it means to actively listen. “The act of listening requires a submersion of the self and immersion in the other . . . Learning to listen involves a paradox of control: controlling yourself and letting go of control of the relationship. It is like letting the other person drive. To listen, you have to let go.”6
Submersion of myself and immersion in the Other. Being self-controlled while allowing the Other to have control. Is this not what it means to die to self and live for Christ (Galatians 2:20)? Is this not what it means to be “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17)?
To actively listen to the Lord is nothing less than life-giving and life-transforming. At the same time, the learning curve is life-long.
Like other aspects of spiritual growth, active listening efficacy is hard to assess. Is there a way to measure just how well that person in the pew (and in the pulpit) is listening and learning to listen to the Lord? According to Jesus’ teaching in John 15 the proof is in the fruit.
Think about your life and those to whom you preach God’s Word. How well are you listening to the Lord? Is there new growth and renewed power day-by-day and week-by-week? As you study God’s Word and serve God’s people what are some of your new discoveries about the Lord, about yourself, about ministry? As you receive and respond to God’s Word in your preaching, do you see evidence of fresh fruit? What about those folks in your congregation? In your mind’s eye, look on those familiar faces. Are there some who have hearts and minds that seem almost impenetrable? Were some once energetic and enthusiastic about spiritual matters, but now amid varied difficulties much less so? Are there others with what seems like allconsuming occupations or preoccupations, vocations or avocations? Do these folks give so much time to these demands that they now spend far less time with the Lord? Finally, are there growing disciples who are learning to listen, who are receptive and responsive to God’s Word, faithful in seeking God’s will and fruitful in doing God’s work?
Jesus knows firsthand that many people will hear the preaching of God’s Word. He also knows that comparatively few will become active listeners who produce abundant and mature spiritual fruit. Jesus forgives us and empathizes with us in our own struggles to truly listen and learn from him. He also understands our difficulties and disappointments in ministry when others are less than receptive and responsive to God’s Word. We know this from Jesus’ Parable of the Sower.
Do you recall the events at the midpoint of his three-year public ministry? Jesus is preaching the good news of the kingdom of God in several Galilean towns (Luke 8:1). Huge crowds are gathering everywhere he goes. Many hope to witness a miracle. Many hope to hear the powerful preaching of this highly popular prophet.
In your mind’s eye, can you see the milling multitudes pressing closer and closer as the carpenter-turned-rabbi is about to speak? Can you imagine the excitement and enthusiasm? A hushed quiet falls on the vast gathering. In his strong and clear voice Jesus tells a simple, but somewhat puzzling story:
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” When he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:5-8).
And that was that. End of sermon. Short. Sweet. Simple. Like a long-awaited and much-anticipated prize fight that ends with a crushing knockout punch about twenty seconds into the first round. Jesus landed one powerful point. As Haddon Robinson might say, Jesus delivered his message “as a bullet and not as buckshot”7 Jesus said what he wanted to say. His sermon was over. He got up and walked over to the Twelve. No doubt many in the multitude wondered, “Is that all? Is he done? Just a short message and no miracles? We traveled all those miles for that?” Murmurs arose asthe vast crowd dispersed. Most turned and left just as quickly as they had come.
Talk about a tough audience! Most held the very highest expectations of their Preacher, but held themselves to the lowest accountability in terms of careful listening. No doubt many who departed were dumbfounded, or disappointed, or downright critical.
Of course, Jesus was teaching by way of a parable, which someone long ago defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”. Jesus’ parables were always memorable. But their deeper spiritual meanings required his explanation. No doubt the casual followers and curiosity seekers in the crowd were left in the dark when it came to mining these gems of spiritual truth.
By contrast Jesus’ committed disciples-the Twelve and those closest to himremained in his presence, asking for and seeking deeper meaning (Luke 8:9). They were listening and learning to listen. Consequently they were able to receive Jesus’ further teaching which brought his timeless spiritual truths to light (Luke 8:11-15). Or, as I. Howard Marshall notes, by listening at a deeper level they were able “to take hold of the parable, to apply it to themselves.”8
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus is calling each of us to actively listen to God’s Word and to actively live our Christian lives. Insightfully and incisively, he points to four soil types representing four kinds of listeners who still occupy our church pews today.
Hard-hearted persons, like the unyielding ground in Jesus’ parable, have often let so many world views plod over their minds that they tend to become rather sour and cynical. They may see themselves as too enlightened and too urbane to accept the simple teachings of the Bible. They may ridicule preachers who challenge them to turn from their sin and to turn to Christ as Savior and Lord. In time Satan, like a spiritual bird-of-prey, steals any seed sown on this well-trod ground. Meanwhile the clay of dismissive doubt and settled skepticism hardens into an unyielding unbelief. Shallow-hearted persons, like the rocky soil of the Judean wilderness, may show encouraging signs of early growth. But like fledgling plants in shallow soil, they do not send their roots very deep. Shallow-hearted disciples often struggle when their early excitement dulls and their emotional fervor fades. Like strong winds pummeling a young plant, these believers may be uprooted when their faith is derided by unbelieving friends or family members. Like a blazing sun scorching a parched plant, they may become highly stressed, wither and shrivel when they face trials, trouble and testing. Strangle-hearted persons, like soil filled with intrusive invaders suffocating and sabotaging new plant growth, may formerly have been faithful and even somewhat fruitful for Christ. But like soil full of thorns and thistles, a strangle-hearted disciple’s life becomes so cluttered and crowded by competing priorities and pursuits that they no longer actively listen to the Lord. What is it that chokes a believer’s desire to listen and live for Christ? What stymies the strengthening of spiritual roots? What stifles the production of mature fruit? Jesus refers to the weeds of worry, the nettles of riches and the brambles of pleasure. These are the thorns of which he warns.
Finally, Jesus concludes his parable by telling about a fourth type of soil and fourth kind of listener-the disciple with a noble and good heart, a receptive and responsive heart to God and His Word. The soil of this believer’s life is not hardpacked, but soft; it is not shallow, but deep; it is not thorny, but fertile and well-cultivated so that the seeds which are sown take root and bring forth an abundantly fruitful crop. To his disciples Jesus explains this part of the parable by indicating that those with receptive and responsive hearts do three things (Luke 8:15).
First, they hear the Word of God. I. Howard Marshall observes that Jesus’ disciples must continually listen to God’s Word, for “those who pay heed to it will receive further spiritual insight, while those who fail to pay attention will be deprived even of the little they seem to have.”9 Second, they retain the Word. That is, they literally hold fast to the Word, taking it into their possession, keeping in their memory, perhaps by memorizing God’s Word.10 Third, by persevering, by their steadfast and patient endurance these disciples produce a fruitful crop. As Paul writes, “. . . the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8-9). Again, we witness the dynamic interplay of hearing and doing; receiving and responding; listening to the Lord and living for the Lord. In such noble and good hearts the seed of God’s Word germinates to produce abundant fruit and a kingdom crop.
Perhaps we need to ask: As preachers, how can we grow as hearers and doers of the Word? How can we nurture receptive and responsive hearts? How can we develop listeners who hear and retain God’s Word, listeners who persevere and become productive in God’s service? Answers to these questions offer good news and bad news. The bad news is that there is nothing that we can do. The good news is that with God, the divine Gardener, all things are possible.
Just as soil cannot change itself, there is nothing that we can do, by ourselves, to create new hearts within ourselves or within those to whom we preach. What has to happen to soil for it to ultimately become fruitful? Those of you with green-thumbs, those of you who are blue-ribbon gardeners know the answer. You know that soil must be plowed and prepared in order to be productive.
In recent years on Memorial Day weekend one of my “honey-do” tasks has been that of rototilling the ground for our family garden. After my modest effort, I’m thankful to let two expert gardeners take over. My wife, Esther, grew up on a farm north of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she learned a lot about gardening. Our son, Peter, has followed in her footsteps. Each spring they meticulously plan the placement of particular vegetables, herbs and flowers. But before a single seed is sown, they carefully prepare the soil. If the soil is too hard-packed, it must be raked and loosened.
If the soil is stony, the rocks must be removed. If the soil is overgrown with weeds, they must be cleared out. Why do they go to such work? Being good gardeners, Esther and Peter know that the only productive soil is well-prepared soil.
In the same way, the divine Gardener is the One who prepares our hearts, as preachers, so that we can become more productive in his kingdom. Only when our hearts are prepared are we able to be useful implements in the hands of the divine Gardener for preparing the hearts of others. Only when our hearts are receptive and responsive to God’s Word are we able to proclaim God’s Word and to productively do God’s work. James Boice says this about our divine Gardener, “He can break up the hard ground, uproot the rocks, and remove the thorns. That is your hope – not you, but the Gardener.”11 It is the divine Gardener and his Son who prepare our hearts, and who declare, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16).
What is a prepared heart like? A prepared heart is a repentant heart – softened and sensitive, free and fertile, clear and uncluttered, receptive and responsive, persevering in faith, and thereby able to produce fruit to glorify the divine Gardener. A prepared heart is one that listens and is learning to listen to the Lord. It is a heart that listens to those persons around us who are loved by the Lord, just as we are loved, and who, like each of us, are made in the divine Gardener’s image.
Learning to listen is a life-long endeavor. It is one of the most precious gifts given to us by God. It is one of the most priceless gifts which we give to one another. What we do with this precious and priceless gift is up to each of us. But if we are to be wise stewards of this gift, and help others to do the same, let us listen and learn to listen to the Lord in new and fresh ways. As Jesus said, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen . . . He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:18, Luke 18:8).
Gary Bruland is Pastor of First Baptist Church of Howell, MI.
1. Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening (New York: Guilford Press, 1995), p. 11.
2. Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 78.
3. Paul Tournier, To Understand Each Other, quoted in Charles Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1983) p. 61.
4. Rick Warren quoted in PreachingNow, ed. Michael Duduit, Vol. 1, No.9, May 28, 2002, www.preaching.com.
5. James T. Draper, Faith That Works, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1981), p. 54.
6. Nichols, p. 250.
7. Keith Willhite and Scott M. Gibson, eds. The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 13.
8. I. Howard Marshall, NIGTC Commentary on Luke, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 320.
9. Marshall, p. 328.
10. W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 424.
11. James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 235.