Dr. John B. MacDonald
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Are you a good listener?

For most of us the busyness and stress of daily life robs us of valuable skills for listening actively. U2 captures something of our frenetic lives: “speed dialing with no signal at all”[1] – much activity devoid of true purpose.

Those reading this blog include businesspeople, police officers, homemakers, office workers, doctors and lawyers, pastors and missionaries, sales people, construction workers, teachers and students. All day long, no matter what our occupations, we scurry to meet the demands laid upon us.  

For us there is little opportunity, and even less sympathy, for stepping out of our busyness to listen to God.   

A case study  

I’m going to use a case study to introduce you to four qualities of active listening. Although it’s a negative model – how not to listen – it may help you identify patterns that have taken root in your life.  

Take a moment to click here and read the scene in Luke 10:38-42.  

Today, we’ll focus on Martha.  

Jesus and his disciples are guests in Martha’s house. The demands of culture, both then and now, dictate what good hosts do for their guests; they make them feel welcomed and “at home.” Usually, this includes a meal.   

Mary, is sitting on the floor, probably with the disciples, listening to Jesus. Martha is too busy to listen.  

Here are four qualities for active listening.   

1.         Giving undivided attention to the person speaking  

We are told that Martha is “distracted with much serving.”   

I think many of us sympathize with Martha. After all, isn’t she doing the noble and necessary thing – preparing a meal; doing what a responsible hostess should be doing?   

We put a high value on being busy. In our busyness we seek purpose, identity, acceptance, and approval. James Houston comments on this busyness:  

The Desert Fathers (a protest movement against worldliness in the early church) spoke of busyness as “moral laziness.” Busyness can also be an addictive drug, which is why its victims are increasingly referred to as “workaholics.” Busyness acts to repress our inner fears and personal anxieties, as we scramble to achieve an enviable image to display to others. We become “outward” people, obsessed with how we appear, rather than “inward” people, reflecting on the meaning of our lives.[2]  

Like Martha in the “busyness” of doing, we are distracted. Addicted to busyness we no longer listen to God.   

Ask yourself whether you are giving undivided attention to listening to God. If you’re not, could busyness be your ‘drug’ of choice?   

2.         Being non-judgmental  

In her distraction, Martha questions the Lord’s concern for her. Do you sense a tone of accusation creeping into her words as she says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”

She is feeling unappreciated in her busyness. A victim mentality prevails: “Jesus just doesn’t care about me.”  

When God speaks do you listen non-judgmentally? Alternatively, do you justify your busyness and judge God for not caring about you?  

3.         Seeking to understand the other person before seeking to be understood  

Martha’s next words reflect growing intensity as she instructs the Lord what to do: “Tell her … to help me.” To her, what she is doing had become so important that Jesus has to be told what to do.  

In her ‘doing’ she became distracted; then doubtful; then demanding.  Her agenda of ‘doing’ had become the priority – even to the extent that God has to be told what to do.  

Do you listen to God to understand what he is saying to you? Or, are you seeking for God to understand you – and get with your program?   

4.         Being still and using silence  

Jesus identifies Martha’s condition: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things ….”   

The Greek word translated “anxious” or “worried” denotes an inward uneasiness; “troubled” or “upset” an outward confusion and bustle.[3]  She was fretting inside and fussing outside.   

Reading into this (hopefully, not too much) we might hear Jesus saying:  “Martha, you’re not putting first things first. We’ll eat, but not yet; and when we do, let’s keep it simple. Come, sit here with me.”  

Are you like Martha so worried and upset about the activities and demands of life that you can’t be still and silent for even a few moments to listen to God? What does that ‘say’ about how you are experiencing God?   

Here are the four qualities of active listening you can build into your relationship with God:

  • Giving undivided attention to what God is saying;
  • Being non-judgmental about what God says;
  • Seeking to understand God before seeking to be understood;
  • Being still and using silence as you listen to God

What can you add?

Next week let’s reflect on this theme with a focus on the positive things we can learn from Mary.      

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[1] Brian Eno and Danny Lanois, “Unknown Caller,” on No Line on the Horizon performed by U2 (Universal-Islands Records, 2009).

[2] James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1996), 27. Underlining added.

[3] M. R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers, 1972), 183.

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