Exploring the most overlooked spiritual discipline
Exegesis for an Avondale academic’s sermon has led to the publication of a paper about what the authors say is the most overlooked spiritual discipline.
Listening and hearing are rarely mentioned in lists of spiritual disciplines despite the Bible mentioning the words, which Scripture treats synonymously, about 700 times. Almost three quarters of these mentions are in the imperative or instructive form as a practice to be followed. This is according to research by Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud and Paul Bogacs from the Discipline of Humanities and Creative Arts at Avondale College of Higher Education, whose paper appears in an international journal for ministers.
The two note how books of the Bible emphasising listening seem to be those with a focus on gospel, instruction and prophecy. The list of spiritual qualities the Bible associates with listening is half as long again as the list of books. “As self-centred beings, we are in desperate need to hear from the Source of truth,” write Reynaud and Bogacs. “Even as Christians, we find it easy to confuse our own will and desires with those of God.”
So, listening to God requires practice. Reynaud and Bogacs list four ways through which to do this: Bible study (the Word); solitude, prayer and confession (the Spirit); submission and mutual accountability (spiritual mentors); and trial and error (experience). They are realists, though, acknowledging the difficulty of learning to hear a God who is not present in human form and who rarely speaks audibly.
Why practice the spiritual discipline of listening? Not just because that is what God did when He sent Jesus. Not just because it improves wellbeing and our relationships with others. Simply “because God asks us to listen.”Paul Bogacs and Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud, “The practice of listening—Part 2”
So, Reynaud and Bogacs demonstrate from the Bible the value of the practice of learning to hear each other and learning to listen to oneself. The former is important because others “are the concrete realisation of the presence of God.” The latter because it “allows me to identify my own needs and have them addressed instead of sublimated and ignored.”
Reynaud and Bogacs note the nervousness of Protestant Christians about inward focus out of fear of pride and self-sufficiency. “But the largest book of the Bible also contains the greatest density of introspective language,” they write. “Imagine the Psalms without their powerful expressions of the poets’ own soul. Try removing all of the ‘I, me, my’ statements from the Psalms and see how poorly and ineffectively they read. It was in recognising their own pain, distress, anger and joy that the psalmists burst into song, sought the Lord with passion, and praised His name with abandon.”
The first part of the paper ends with a focus on Jesus, the “Master Listener,” and “Ishmael,” the God who hears.
Jesus listened to His Father. Reynaud and Bogacs note the many references to Jesus praying, with a few of them detailing He could pray for many hours, even all night. “While we do not know the specific content of those hours in prayer, He cannot have been talking the whole time; a good part of His prayer time was listening.” Having listened to His Father, Jesus listened to others. “His heart was hypersensitive to those around Him, to the point where He could hear their unspoken, even unrealised, cries.” And Jesus listened to the speaking of His soul. “He could tell the difference in His spirit between a purposeful touch and the random shoving of the crowd. . . . He grieved over an unrepentant Jerusalem. . . . [And] He begged for relief from the impending cross.”
Reynaud and Bogacs also make this simple yet profound point: “God was so serious about listening to His children that He became one of us.”
The second part of the paper explores the practice of listening as applied to the role of a minister. Bogacs and Reynaud describe developing the art of “being present” as one of the foundational concepts of pastoral care. Based on their study of the research, the two write that “healing occurs not so much as the result of what we do or say but as the result of an empathic, accepting relationship, built through genuine, caring presence.”
They give psychological reasons for why listening seems counter-intuitive, referring to John Gottman’s term “flooding” to describe the process of our rational thinking being overrun by a “cocktail of chemicals designed to trigger a ‘flight or fight’ response.” They also refer to Daniel Goleman who speaks of “emotional hijacking.” This occurs because the neural pathway from the part of the brain relaying signals from our senses to the part storing emotional memory is quicker than the pathway to the part of the brain we use for refined, critical thinking.
“We need to first soothe our own reaction and then endeavour to return, using the listening skills that we have developed,” write Bogacs and Reynaud. The ability to do this, they add, hinges on our self-awareness. “If we are in tune with our own emotional reactions, then we can become skilled at emotional containment.”
The authors’ advice for ministers includes: acknowledging emotions; spending time alone; listening intently, leaving the telling of their story until another time; and offering more prayers of thanks than requests.
So, why practice the spiritual discipline of listening? Not just because that is what God did when He sent Jesus. Not just because it improves wellbeing and our relationships with others. Simply “because God asks us to listen.”
The paper came out of Reynaud’s study of the Bible for a sermon he preached first at his local church and from a men’s small group that focused on good communication. As Reynaud began learning and applying the discipline, he discovered “listening fixes far more things, and fixes them far better, than talking. It’s paradoxical. I’m still not a natural listener, but disciplining myself to do it has paid off big time, especially in leadership roles.”
“The most overlooked spiritual discipline—Part 1” and “The practice of listening—Part 2” appear in the February and April issues of Ministry.