Listening as an Act of Love

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In the late 1980s, in a small group gathering, Dallas Willard said: “Listening is an act of love.” I had chills as I recognized the truth of his statement and I quickly wrote it down. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for thirty years now. And I try to listen lovingly as a spouse, a family member, a friend, a spiritual director, and a church member. When I listen with love or am listened to with love, the competing, clamoring internal voices are quieted down and God’s own voice can be heard.

 

During the recent Christmas holiday my husband, Kevin, and I traveled to Southern California to be with my family. We live in Michigan and don’t often see my family but connect via phone and/or social media and had not visited my family for a few years. I was anxious because I’m not always certain how we will be received—will we be in the way of everyone else’s plans? Will people make time for us? Will people be interested in our lives? Will they listen to us and our stories?

 

My anxiety is grounded in my (unhealthy) desire to not be a bother to people. I don’t want to make presumptions on others because what if I am rejected? I am not certain that people are interested in me and my life so I fret before a visit home.

 

I did make plans to for us to visit Dennis, Susan, and their sons on Susan’s birthday. I’ve been friends with them for forty years while their friendship with Kevin is briefer and as my spouse. I wondered: will they be interested in Kevin? Will my friends talk with Kevin or only to me? Will they ask him questions about his experiences, observations, the state of his soul?

 

As our time together progressed, Susan began asking Kevin about his work. As she talked with him, she leaned toward the dining table and rested her elbow on it with her chin cupped in her hand. She was listening intently to his story of vocational discernment. And the more she listened the more Kevin shared. As she asked follow-up questions about his discerning process he moved into deeper descriptions of his conversation with his spiritual director. Susan listened carefully with a caring heart and his story unfolded. He was feeling heard by Susan. He was feeling loved.

***

When I lovingly listen to another I am giving of myself to that person. I am giving of my time, my mental, emotional, and my spiritual energy as I clear away my own concerns in order to give full attention to the other person.

As Jan Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul, “Listening happens best when we pause and take time to hear more deeply and reflect upon the depths we hear. Our souls simply cannot thrive in a fast-paced life without claiming some time to take things in, uncover what lies deeply within, and mull things over … listening for the soul requires ongoing attention and sustained habits of reflection,” (p. 21).

In the conversation between Susan and Kevin, they both paused at moments to reflect—either in response to a question or in the answer itself. Both of them were reflecting on the unfurling of love within the conversation.

 

I have learned that I am able to listen to others because I have been lovingly listened to: by my husband, family members, my former therapist, different spiritual directors, and friends like Susan. Because I have been “heard into speech” (as Nelle Morton described loving listening), and have been accepted as I am, I can, hopefully, lovingly hear others into speech. I can lean in toward the person with open-hearted freedom and hear their hearts just as Susan leaned toward Kevin across the dining table.

***

Several hours later, after we hugged Dennis and Susan goodbye, we left our time with them feeling loved. We described it as “our hearts were warmed” by the attentive, compassionate, open-hearted listening we received.

Loving Listening

blog loving listening

 

Imagine this: Debbie arrives at church after a challenging week of working too many long hours and racing to complete to meet a deadline. She felt exhausted, raw, and unable to listen to the sermon or sharing time. She needed to share her story with someone in hope to find healing and new life. After church, Mary approached Debbie and asked her how she was doing.  The words began tumbling out of Debbie as she shared the awfulness of the week. Unfortunately, Mary wasn’t really interested in hearing Debbie’s story; Mary wanted to tell Debbie about her week.

Soon Debbie noticed that, while Mary was sort of listening to her, she was instead looking around as if she wanted to find someone else to talk to. Debbie stammered on into the story of receiving a speeding ticket and Mary interrupted her: “That’s nothing. My car got towed this week when I parked it in a tow‑away zone. I had to get my sister to take me to the police impound and pay $150.00 to get it out. I cannot afford to lose that money just now, etc., etc. ….”  Debbie mutely nodded while Mary continued with her story oblivious to the pain that Debbie was still experiencing. Neither Debbie nor Mary experienced God’s loving presence in their interaction with one another. Neither of them was able to listen lovingly to the other.

Imagine this: Debbie arrives home at the end of a troubling week, filled with problems with clients, and, receiving a speeding ticket for racing to her office to meet her deadlines. She was discouraged and exhausted, doubtful about God’s call to use her gifts business. In fact, she was having difficulty hearing God’s voice and believing that God was even interested in the awfulness of her week. After supper, she made a cup of tea and dialed Rachel’s phone number. Debbie thoroughly trusts Rachel to lovingly listen to her, to be present to her, pray for her, and offer words of love and wisdom. Debbie believed that Rachel represented God’s concern for her and called Rachel where they jointly entered into God’s loving presence via the telephone.

At different points of my life I have been each of these characters:  Debbie, feeling raw and discouraged, in desperate need for someone to lovingly listen to me, holding my heart before God in prayer while listening; Rachel, the loving friend, willing and able to listen wholeheartedly to the other; Mary, so self‑absorbed that I can’t even begin to listen to the words someone else is speaking let alone to hear the pain underneath the words. Of course, I like to think of myself as Rachel, the one able to listen with love and wisdom, but, naturally, I vacillate between all three characters at any given time yet I can choose between listening like Rachel or listening like Mary.

Loving listening requires both time and the contemplative act of listening. We allow the other the passing of minutes to tell their story, allowing for the silence to provide those spaces where additional thoughts might surface from below.

Loving listening takes time over a period of weeks, months, and sometimes years. I recently was reminded that loving listening over a period of years can occur in all of our relationship when my husband listened to me lament and struggle with an issue that I’ve been lamenting and struggling with since we met several years ago.

Loving listening requires a contemplative heart, waiting for the other person to share their heart. Several years ago I read a profile of the journalist Barbara Walters about her interviewing trade secrets. She said she often remains silent after the individual makes a statement because usually in that silence the individual will disclose more to her. Loving listening offers silence as a way for people to ponder and reflect without disruption from me.

Imagine this: Debbie arrives at church tired after a challenging week but calm and collected. She was able to talk with Rachel on Saturday and felt listened to and loved. After church she approached Mary and asked, how was your week?  Mary, who needs someone to listen to her, began to tell Debbie her story of her week. And because Debbie received loving listening she was able to lean toward her and began to lovingly listen to Mary.

Telling the Truth

couple walking on street

My fiancé and I were walking in the early evening to the grocery store near the seminary where we lived. I had been worrying about this moment for days—really, for weeks and months. Our wedding day was four months away and I had yet to tell him about the extent of my personal debts. And I knew I had to tell him even though I was terrified and deeply ashamed about my disastrous finances.

As we held hands walking across the street, I took a deep breath and prayed for courage.

“Love, I need to tell you that I have a lot debt,” and the words began to pour out. “I owe back taxes, thousands still on an old student loan, and I owe my parents thousands of dollars.”

I began to cry as he walked alongside me in silence.

“Okaay,” he finally responded. “We’re still getting married.”

As we entered the store, we physically separated as I needed to be away from him as the feelings of shame washed over me. I also felt vulnerable standing in the harsh light of the store—I could see him and he could see me—and I felt exposed, wanting to hide. I could not, at that moment, see how courageous I was in finally telling my fiancé my deep, shameful secret.

We purchased our groceries, walked home, each of absorbed in our own thoughts. Finally, he said to me, “Either you have the best timing or the worst timing, telling me this as we walked in the dark to the store.”

I said, “I didn’t want to see your face when I told you.”

“Well, I’m glad you did and we will work though this,” he said.

Within a few weeks after telling my truth I received a check for a significant amount of money, my apartment rent was reduced, and we received many financial gifts for our wedding. Shortly after our wedding I began a job that enabled me to pay my back taxes and student loan. Most importantly, my parents forgave my debts, for their own reasons that they never shared with me. Nearly twenty-two years later, the only debt we carry is our mortgage.

Of course, this is not to imply that telling the truth will solve all of our problems but bringing secrets out of the poisonous muck into God’s healing light and love begins the healing. I believe, our problems begin to resolve as our healing deepens.

As I look back now, I see that telling my truth began to set me free from the shame and bondage of my debts.