I was only 21 years old when a family asked if they could meet with me to discuss how their marital difficulties were affecting their teenage daughter and son. At the time, I had “pastor” in my title, but I wasn’t yet married and certainly didn’t have any children.
As I read the email, I wondered why they contacted me. I was part of a large staff that included people with titles such as “care pastor.” Surely others were more suited for a job like this. Yet they had emailed me. What wisdom could I possibly bring to such a situation? What would I say? How could I help?
Lending an Ear
When I feel like I have nothing to bring to these moments, I remember my ears. They are, without question, the most valuable asset in pastoral ministry. I cannot tell you how many times I walk away from counseling sessions or visiting someone without having said much at all, yet feeling like I have given them the attention their problem deserves. So often what people need is to be heard with great effort.
This is what I decided to do when that couple finally came to the church to meet with me. As they explained their situation, all I had were my ears. I gave them my full attention, I asked them questions to clarify, and I sought to truly understand their situation.
A moment from the meeting sticks with me to this day. As the husband was sharing their situation, he said, “I guess now that I’m talking about it, I’m realizing how much I’m at fault.” He looked at his wife with tears in his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I hadn’t said a word.
When I meet with people, I sometimes wonder if I’ll be able to give them my mind by providing a great, theological answer. Or I worry I won’t be able to give them my heart by articulating deep empathy. These can be difficult parts of me to bring to the table. But my ears are always available, even though I often forget how valuable they are.
Pastoral counseling is dynamic, and each meeting is unique. Many meetings require me to speak with great conviction. Some meetings require me to speak a lot. But I’ve never regretted listening and I often regret speaking.
Our world is crowded with attention-grabbers. Everything in your phone is working to monopolize your eyes and ears. Our work demands our attention. Our families seem to never get enough of it. In a world of noise, listening—true, active, humble listening—is the powerful ministry of the Father in which we get to participate.
God’s Focused Attention
We know that God hears our prayers—at least, we say we know this—but have you ever considered what it means that he listens? Think about your friends who you would describe as particularly good listeners. People hear you all day long, but there’s a kind of presence a good friend gives you that cannot be replicated easily.
They sit with their eyes focused on you, their posture is active, and they’re not checking their phone or darting their eyes across the room as you speak. To assure you they are picking up everything you say, they nod and sometimes repeat your phrasing or mimic your emotions. Their face changes, their head tilts, and they laugh before you can. They’re right there with you. As you think through these traits, you might be thinking about how rare it is to find a good listener.
God, the almighty creator, is a tremendous listener: “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1–2, ESV, emphases mine).
“We are surrounded by noise,” wrote Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder. “The world is a mob in which everyone is talking at once and no one is willing or able to listen. But God listens. He not only speaks to us, he listens to us. His listening to us is an even greater marvel than his speaking to us. … Our feelings are taken seriously. … We acquire dignity. We never know how well we think or speak until we find someone who listens to us.”
Unsure of what we want from God, our prayers are often more rambling than refined. We stumble to put together words. We murmur in the dark and try to thread together the scattered thoughts from our day. Meanwhile, God is listening. He is attentive. He reacts.
Upon the first sin in the garden, God did not blast heavenly rage at the human beings. Rather, as a good listener, he asked questions: “Where are you? … What have you done?” (Gen. 3:9, 13). God is the one who, when the people of Israel “groaned because of their slavery” and “cried out for help,” took the time to listen: “God heard their groaning” (Ex. 2:23–25). After God inquired in the garden, Adam and Eve were exiled; after hearing Israel’s groans in captivity, the Lord began his rescue. Both the acts of banishment and redemption started with God’s posture of listening.
How does it change your prayer life to know that God not only hears your prayer but listens to you? How might it change your ministry?
You might have the same response as the psalmist: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:2, ESV). This word inclined can also be translated “bent down.” It brings to mind a mother getting eye-to-eye with a child or a father bending on one knee. God is directing his gaze toward us, inclining his ear. He is not preoccupied nor is he busy. God has never found himself without time. He will never be distracted. God’s great power is often expressed in his rich attentiveness to the entirety of creation. When we know God is not simply tolerating our prayers but engaging with them and responding at his discretion, our attention will focus. We will, in turn, say with confidence, “The Lord has heard my plea” (Ps. 6:9, ESV).
Remarkably, pastors and spiritual leaders have the opportunity to image the listening God to people: We get to “incline” our ear to them and “hear their cry.” We get to show them the full attention God is already giving them, which just may bring them healing.
A Unique Kind of Ear
Sometimes it’s healthy for us pastors to think of ourselves as just like other people. But in other situations, it’s equally important to remember how people see us differently than they see everyone else. I loved the innocence of young students I would pastor when I worked in youth ministry: One student called me “the Jesus guy.” People often place us in a unique category.
Because of this, we have the potential for great good and great evil. Pastors can be dangerous; as a mentor told me a long ago, “In ministry, we are messing with peoples’ lives.”
Nevertheless, through our strange and unique position, we have a rare opportunity. If we listen before we speak and give people our undistracted attention, we give them something other listeners cannot. As much as I’d like to think, I’m just a friend listening, that’s not the way many people see me. When someone’s pastor listens to them, they feel God listening in too. When a pastor does not listen, talks over them, or over-explains their feelings, they sense God might do the same.
I’ve been a non-denominational pastor for over a decade. Because I do not wear vestments and people rarely call me “Pastor Chris,” I can forget the power I hold: the power for tremendous grace and tremendous harm. If pastors can use this power like God does by inclining our ears, we can participate in a radical ministry of healing.
Our dignity is often restored by a mere human listening to us; how much more so if we have God’s heavenly ear bent toward us? As a pastor, I get to see firsthand the healing work of listening, and moreover, I can join in that work with the Spirit’s help and power.
Chris Nye is a pastor, writer, and sometimes professor living in Silicon Valley with his wife, Allison. His latest book is Less of More: Pursuing Spiritual Abundance in a World of Never Enough.