What does the Bible say about listening?
We often hear about the importance of listening to others—spouses, partners, children, coworkers, fellow Christians, people of ethnicities different from ours, people from other cultures and worldviews, and even the church’s critics. Still, we hold back. Why?
Sometimes, it’s just easier not to listen. Listening takes effort and patience. Sometimes we fear that listening will lead to compromising God’s standards. Other times, we worry that in listening, we’ll hear information we aren’t prepared to handle. Or we worry that by listening, we aren’t doing the job we’re called to do, speaking the truth about Jesus. It can be hard to listen when we hear things that we’re powerless to change or when we don’t have answers or solutions. But is it possible that listening is a way to reflect Jesus? Can we listen to people from opposing worldviews without slipping into compromise? Are there ways to listen that lead to true dialogue? Can listening minister to others even when we can’t change their circumstances? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
God made me a talker, a storyteller, a woman of words. Listening is not something I do naturally. I grew up in a home where I felt invisible and unheard. If I needed to ask a question or share a story, I had to be quick enough to fit everything in during commercial breaks on network TV. To this day, I must remind myself to slow down when I speak. Because I value others and have learned there is a great benefit to hearing what they have to say, I’ve explored what God says about how we are to speak with one another and serve one another through listening.
Which Bible Verses Mention Listening?
God tells us that He sees, He hears, and He speaks— in contrast to idols created by human hands. Psalm 135:15-18 ESV says, “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.” In other words, if we serve the living God, we will be people who see, hear, and speak, but if we make a practice of idolatry, worshiping what isn’t God, we risk shutting down our ability to see others, listen to others, and speak truth to others.
Our God is a living God, not something we’ve created out of wood, stone, or gold. 1 Peter 3:12 ESV says, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.” Psalm 34:17 ESV says, “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Our God is a listening God.
In Genesis, we read the story of Hagar, the Egyptian servant of Abraham and Sarah. When Hagar is pregnant with Abraham’s child, she runs away into the desert to escape Sarah’s mistreatment. There, she encounters the Lord who sees her. She refers to God as El Roi, “the God of seeing” (Genesis 16:13). Furthermore, God tells her to name her son Ishmael which means “God hears” because “the Lord has listened to your affliction (Genesis 16:11).” Throughout Scripture, we read that God hears our prayers, cries, and praise, and in the Genesis passage, we learn He “hears” our affliction.
Because we have a listening God, one of the ways we reflect Him is to listen to others. James, the brother of Jesus, writes this command to all believers in James 1:19 ESV, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Every follower of Jesus is called to be quick to hear and slow to speak. So, your grandma was right when she cautioned you that God gave you two ears and only one mouth to indicate that you should listen twice as much as you speak. In this, others will know more about God through you, and they will see that our God listens.
What Are Good Listening Traits?
Maybe you’re like me, and you’re not a natural listener. Perhaps you’re a quiet person, but you still struggle to give others a listening ear. Good listening skills can be learned and cultivated. Here are five habits of good listeners.
1. Slow conversations down, allowing yourself to focus on what the other person is saying instead of mentally planning your response. One way to do this is to announce you’re doing it. Say, “I can tell you’d really like me to hear you out, so is it all right if we take our time with this conversation. I have thirty minutes. How about you?”
2. Reflect or summarize what the speaker has said before you respond. Repeat to the speaker either what she said or summarize what he’s told you and ask if you’ve heard correctly before you take a turn to speak. This allows the speaker to confirm that you’ve heard accurately or correct any misunderstandings before composing a response.
3. Ask clarifying questions. It’s good to ask things like:
- “You say you’d like more support. Can you tell me what support looks like to you?”
- “You said you’re feeling overwhelmed. Can you tell me what’s contributing to that feeling?”
- “It sounds like you don’t feel valued, but maybe that’s not the right word. Do I hear that correctly, or would you say it differently?”
4. Hold back from interrupting. This is very hard for many of us, but the Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that love isn’t rude. Interrupting is rude. Hence, interrupting demonstrates the opposite of love. If the speaker is saying many things, ask if they mind if you take notes. This way, you can focus on what is being said and then look back at your notes when it’s your turn. As you take notes, make a checkmark in the places you felt like interrupting. This will remind you there was something you wanted to mention in response to that statement or question.
5. Remind yourself that God listens to us, understands us, and offers us kindness, patience, and compassion, all without compromising His truth. In Jesus’ name and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be like Him. Invite the Holy Spirit into your heart during conversations and ask Him to prompt you to keep listening.
Too often, we aren’t patient listeners because we aren’t truly interested in what the other person is saying, or we’ve already decided we’re right and they’re wrong. This isn’t a listening problem but a heart problem. The good news is that when we confess our lack of love, compassion, interest in others, or pride, God is ready to forgive and transform our hearts, freeing us to tune into the other person. When people sense our love and attentiveness, it’s easier for us to share our differing thoughts without shutting down the conversation.
Consider how you feel when someone listens, really listens, to you! Like others, you are more likely to feel valued, accepted, loved, and more willing to reciprocate when others truly listen. When you feel heard, you feel safer to share your thoughts and even offer a different perspective.
When Should We Listen Instead of Giving Advice?
Advice giving can be a risky business. When to offer counsel or advice to someone depends on a) the nature of our relationship, b) the signals we’re receiving from the speaker, and c) verbal confirmation of those signals by request.
When we’re in an authoritative role with the speaker, such as a supervisor, parent, coach, or mentor, there is often an understood expectation that we may offer advice in a conversation. However, if we’re listening to a spouse, peer, partner, fellow believer, coworker, or friend, we’ll want to be sensitive to their openness to advice. Perhaps they’re telling us something as a way of venting or just processing, and they’re not looking for our counsel. It may be that they’re in an emotional or agitated state. In that case, even if they could benefit from our advice, they’re not in a place to receive it. That’s why we need to listen for signals.
People who are open to advice use phrases like:
- “I’m at a loss with this situation and looking for any ideas.”
- “I don’t know what to do or even where to start trying to solve this.”
- “This is really frustrating for me. I’m wondering what God would have me do.”
When we hear phrases that sound like the person is open to or requesting advice, it’s important to confirm that before offering it. If we don’t hear any signals, we’re wise to reflect on what the person is saying and refrain from offering solutions. This can sound like:
- “You are really struggling right now.”
- “That does sound challenging.”
- “I can see why you needed to process this situation.”
We can confirm a speaker’s openness to advice by validating what the person has said and asking clarifying questions.
- “You have clearly been thinking a lot about this situation. I have some thoughts. Are you open to my sharing them with you?”
- “I’ve had some experience with trying to hear from God. Tell me some of your ideas, and then, if you’re open to it, I can share some of the things I’ve tried.”
It helps to ask what they’ve tried or who else they’ve spoken with about their concern before offering your advice. It may provide insight into their actual openness to advice and how they have previously tried to address issues.
It’s important, especially when we’re first getting to know someone or first hearing of their concerns, to listen, ask questions, and attune to the Holy Spirit before jumping in with advice, even if we’re certain we have godly counsel. These steps create a stronger foundation for exchanging ideas and for ongoing relationships.
How Do We Listen to God?
The key to being an effective listener is to make a habit of listening to God. We do this by reading and studying His Word, praying and then pausing to allow the Holy Spirit to direct our thoughts, and making time for silence in our lives, so our ears and minds aren’t full of distractions. We also listen to God by listening to biblical teaching, spending time in conversation with other believers, and seeking counsel from mature, godly friends and mentors. God has revealed Himself through the prophets, His Word, Creation, and through Jesus Christ. We can hear Him through the whispers of His Holy Spirit, who is always aligned with His Word.
Part of the gospel’s good news is that we serve a living God, a God who sees, hears, speaks, and acts. Listening to others is a way to reflect who God is, minister to them in all kinds of circumstances, and cultivate relationships where truth can be spoken. We all want to be heard. Listening creates win-win conversations that lead to God-honoring communications, congregations, and communities.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/iQoncept
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
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