By Casey Tygrett
We may hear those who speak to us from different theological platforms. But have we really learned to listen to them? If not, we may be missing the most spiritual thing we can do when confronted by those with whom we disagree.
The conductor steps to the platform. His back is firm and straight, posture perfect, and he lifts the baton gently into the air. The musicians with their instruments wait for the moment and the motion to begin the performance. The musician’s score contains different parts, but all the performers are pointed toward one pinnacle—the sweeping moment that brings all the instruments together.
Any good musician can hear the distinct instrumental parts of an orchestral work. Why? I believe they’ve learned to do something deeply spiritual. It’s the same practice that characterizes all the helping disciplines—sociology, psychology, and Christian pastoral ministry. It’s simple, really. Great ministers, like great musicians, have learned to listen.
• When we evaluate premarital couples, we talk about communication and listening to each other.
• When we deal with married couples in crisis, we talk about communication and deeper levels of listening to the other person.
• When we counsel individuals in crisis, we listen closely for the “problem underneath the problem.”
Listening is what I would call “hearing through the ears of love.” It requires we actually give a rip about the person who is talking, and enter into their world in a real and even incarnational way.
The strange thing is that when we begin to talk about cooperation across theological, denominational, or religious lines, there is often a distinct lack of listening. There is a great deal of hearing—largely because we’re looking for points to dispute—but not much listening with a loving intent. We stress the idea “we are Christians only,” which requires faith. But the second half, “we are not the only Christians”—which requires hope and love—is drowned out.
In our two-party world, listening with a loving intent sounds too much like tolerance, or making concessions, or conforming to culture. What if there’s something inherently “spiritual” about listening? What if listening through the ears of love is the greatest interpreter for what it means to be “Christians only” in a world where there is no doubt we are “not the only Christians”?
It is best to start small. Everyone is a spiritual being. God breathed his spirit into us. Since sin entered the world, our spirits have been frustrated. The breath of God in us faces government-grade red tape from our minds, misguided motivations in our hearts, and destructive habits in our bodies. The spirits that were meant to long after God find themselves instead longing after everything BUT God. Our spirits are longing for the wrong thing. Our spirits are on life support without Christ, but they are still present.
And what’s true for us is also true for every person we encounter, each of them made in the image of God, each of them a spiritual being. This is why listening is a spiritual exercise.
So if we disagree with someone but want to love and partner with him, what do we do? We must shut up and listen to him or her, acknowledging the spirit within them.
The Best Example
The best illustration of this comes from Acts as it describes that place where, as we all know, listening comes naturally: a church board meeting.
The issue at hand in Acts 15 is whether Gentiles must become Jewish through circumcision before they can be saved. There were a lot of people in that room who thought they were right and everyone else was, well, not right.
The trouble began when Paul and Barnabas got into a sharp dispute with the circumcision crowd (vv. 1, 2), and it merited a meeting in Jerusalem to settle the issue.
One of the mind-blowing details is, “Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said . . . ” (v. 5). Consider that for a moment. The meeting of the early church included those whom Jesus was constantly in conflict with, only now they were part of “The Way.”
How and when did the apostles welcome these guys into the group?
The key is in Luke’s description of how the meeting ends: Peter talks, everyone listens, and Peter relays the fact that God has given his Spirit to Gentiles without discriminating (vv. 8, 9). Then everyone listened as Paul and Barnabas talked about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles (vv. 12, 13), and in the end James concluded the meeting by welcoming the Gentiles without circumcision.
The whole church decides on the welcome policy (v. 22), and that includes the Pharisee Christians. They heard what was going on and they were on board. We don’t know if they did it with smiles and cheers, but they were on board.
All of this happens because the council was willing to think about the Spirit of God in others and listen to what was really going on.
The apostles knew how to do this because Jesus modeled it for them. Jesus knew when to speak, when to stay silent, and when to invite people into the discussion.
As his followers, we would do well to practice the same thing. How often do we miss moments of healing and partnership in huge kingdom projects because we’re hung up on someone else’s social ethic or political leanings? Instead, when we practice the discipline of shutting up and loving through listening, we find ourselves at a common table, passing the salt, and having access to each other’s lives in healthy and God-honoring ways.
Jesus and the early church model a different way of interacting—a spirituality of shutting up that allowed people to come into a partnership with him; an experience of teaching, training, and correcting that leads ultimately to a greater understanding of what God is up to in the present world.
Beyond “Not Talking”
In this way, the spiritual discipline of shutting up doesn’t simply mean “not talking,” but it can mean asking questions and seeking to understand. Asking questions—good questions—takes an ability to avoid trying to correct what we are initially hearing, which opens up dialogue. It means asking questions because we want to know the answer, and not just criticize the answer.
As Christians, we might end up cooperating with people with whom we disagree on a great many things. Yet, if we believe all people are created in God’s image, and we all share a spirit that longs to wake up and run back to him, we’re starting from the same place. There’s no reason we can’t go together and bring Heaven to earth in the meantime.
I understand, however, that the people we are trying to help might be antagonistic toward us.
We must remember what Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27, 28).
Curse here is a word of division and separation. It’s a word that sets God’s approved people apart from those who stand condemned. Perhaps in our hearts we cultivate the belief that, since a person or group doesn’t have our heritage or doctrine, they aren’t as blessed as we are. (Remember, that idea goes both ways.)
Jesus welcomed those who were cursed. He stood against the Pharisees because they couldn’t see any cooperation or value in those who were not blessed as they were. He listened to prostitutes and tax collectors, ate with lepers, and messed up the definition of both blessed and cursed. How? He exercised the discipline of shutting up, being present, and listening in such a way that he invited them into something bigger.
Anticipating a Symphony
I think about Revelation, where John recounts several times the idea that every “tongue, tribe and nation” will be seated at the great banquet, dwelling in the new Jerusalem, and reveling in the presence of the One who’ll end sorrow and pain forever. It is a stirring painting of God’s greatest good, broadcast in high definition, but it is also a symphony. Literally, it is the bringing together of sounds and voices (sym-phony), and if we are not open to the spirituality of shutting up, here and now, we will be deafened by the voices yet to come.
“Christians only” is a beautiful melody, but it belongs in the greater symphony of all of those who love and follow Christ. We miss the beauty of that music if we refuse to practice the spiritual discipline of shutting up.
How do we begin? Here is a simple act: find someone from another theological tradition, another branch of the Christian family tree, and ask him or her to join you for a meal or coffee. Ask questions that are open-ended and not manipulative, and then limit your rebuttals and comebacks. Hear and listen to the replies, no matter what is said. It may help to say this beautiful prayer from spiritual director Aelred of Rievaulx: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst.”
May you find yourself enchanted by the symphony of goodness, beauty, and truth that comes when we harness the spiritual power of simply shutting up.
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor with Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois. He is also a blogger, retreat leader, and adjunct professor at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.