Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The First Duty Of Love Is To Listen

It was a late night after my seminary class gathering. As I walked into the waiting area to catch the next train home, these words which formed the SBSTransit thought of the day caught my eye, “the first duty of love is to listen.” This was one of the most famous quotations of Paul Tillich, an eminent Protestant theologian. He died about forty+ years ago but his thoughts on how theology should correlate the gospel to modern culture, by answering the questions thrown up by that culture, are still influential enough to be discussed in seminaries today.

The words of Tillich could well have been echoing God’s admonition to us in James 1:19 that we are to be slow to speak and quick to listen. From my past years of ministry, I have come to realize that many people, including myself, have the habit of speaking more and listening less. When someone comes to us to share a problem, we are prone to break into the conversation and immediately suggest a solution instead of allowing that person to finish. When someone makes what we think to be a simplistic or unworkable suggestion, we pre-empt the person with our own conclusions and brush off the suggestion without allowing the idea to be fully articulated. That is why I really admire my former theology professor for his reaction when he realizes he has unconsciously broken into a conversation thread. He would immediately apologize and ask that person to continue with what he was saying. Would that more of us, including myself, were sensitive like him to the times we are too quick to speak.

People talk to us for many different reasons. They may be seeking comfort from some inner struggle or relief from sorrow. They might simply be nervous about some impending situation. And sometimes, they just need to vent their emotions. Many times they come to us not seeking solutions but mainly a warm heart and sympathetic ear. The act of talking becomes a cathartic moment for them, helping to lift their fears and burdens. We need to determine their need at the moment so that we may know how to react. We can never be a good listener if we are jumping to conclusions as others are talking. We should let the other person tell the whole story before we respond.

We can develop in our listening sensitivity and we should develop it because God has called us to minister to one another in our community. Parents are natural listeners. They listen raptly in adoration as their children recount the things they just did or describe to them the work they put in to finish their latest drawing. Parents too are naturally inclined to put aside their own needs in order to listen intently so as to help their child work through a difficult situation. We also have the example of God to follow. We come to him all the time with our fears and frustrations, unfulfilled hopes, unrealistic expectations and demands, etc., and we come with confidence knowing that he listens to every word that we say. We can be assured that he does not brush aside our feelings in the manner that we are wont to do to others. Thus, we have the ability and we have the example to emulate.

If we are to be known as disciples of Christ who listen to their master’s command to love one another, then Tillich’s reflection should not be a burdensome chore to us. Rather, it should fill us with joy to know that, humble and small though our efforts may seem, God is using us purposefully in this community. We may not be trained counselors able to offer profound wisdom about overcoming adversity but we can listen with intent and sensitivity. We may also find that many times, that act of listening is enough for effective ministry to one another.

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