Learning To Listen

A colleague insulted me the other day.  To my face.

I’m not sure she did it on purpose, or even fully grasped what she was saying.  She just dropped the bomb and left me staring slack-jawed.  When I told my husband and my mother about it, later, wondering if I’d overreacted, they confirmed I wasn’t just imagining things.  I had been insulted—and pretty baldly, at that.

My feelings weren’t hurt, exactly.  But the insult confirmed a thousand different grievances I had about this person and reminded me how intolerable they’d become.  I’d already disliked working with them; this just made everything a little bit worse. 

I chewed on this during conversations with my mom and husband, and I thought about it during my afternoon walk. Late that evening in my prayer time, the consideration led me to what has been for me lately a pretty persistent prayer request:

God, could you, um, help with this?  And if you want me to be stuck around this person, can you at least give me the ability to manage it and not sin in the process?

I prayed aloud for a long time—something I do when I need to empty the bucket of my mind and find some calm.  Then, having spent all my frustrations, I relaxed and stopped thinking for a while.  I’ll just sit here with God, I thought.  If He wants to say something, He can.  If not, we’ll just be together in quiet.

I sat there for a few minutes, relaxing.  I won’t lie; I got sleepy.  It had been a long day and I was glad to be at the end of it.  I stretched out my fingers and toes, considered putting on my pajamas.

Love is patient, love is kind.

The verse skimmed the surface of my mind out of nowhere. And then it wouldn’t leave, nagging at me until I grabbed my phone and reread it.  Every Christian is familiar with the love verses; what was less familiar, for me, was them popping up out of nowhere when I was enjoying a soak in the tub. 

I have learned to recognize these moments as time when God speaks and I need to sit and think clearly about what He means.  In this instance, I came to understand that God might well choose to intervene in my situation and remove this particular problematic person.  He might not.  But that is also not God’s current concern about me.

God, I blurted during my prayer, can you fix this?

Mm, was his reply.  Are you loving well?

And no: I wasn’t.  I was not being patient, nor kind, I had been moved to anger that very day, and I was the definition of self-seeking.  A simple moment of conviction: I apologized.  It changed my behavior the next day.  And I still don’t know what God’s going to do about this person, but I also recognize that isn’t something I can control.

But I wouldn’t have learned any of this if I hadn’t shut up.

Here’s the thing: I am a writer and a scholar.  I love words.  I talk and analyze all the time.  A small group leader once diagnosed, very correctly, that “you live in your head almost all of the time.”  I do.  Words are how I bond, stories are how I understand the world, and reading and talking and writing about God are the primary ways that I have developed my relationship to Him.

But they are not the only ones.

I’m not good at having a quiet mind.  I’m not good at being still.  Five seconds of silence with God summons up a thousand questions, complaints, random thoughts, or distractions.  To focus on God without constantly talking at God and/or teasing out a thought, thinking about how to write it down, is foreign territory for me.  To focus on God for the sake of being with God is a skill, and a difficult one to learn.

And yet this I where I am learning to hear God speak.

When I was struggling to get over my flying anxiety, the small group leader of my Bible study—also a therapist—taught me a series of breathing exercises.  She extolled their virtues: the breathing would calm down body, which would calm down my chaotic brain.

So I tried them two days later when I found myself panicking over an upcoming trip.  When I returned to our small group, I told her that they hadn’t made much of a difference, unless it was that I had learned how to panic while deep breathing.

 “You have to do those breathing exercises every day,” she told me.  “And then they’ll become muscle memory.  After that, when you panic, your body will know what to do.  You will have taught it.”

I feel like listening to God is a little like that.  Some nights it feels…well, like me sitting in the bathtub.  No verses, no inspiration.  But it’s a God-honoring, a way to set myself aside and give Him time to work with me how he likes.  And more often than not, I’ve found He does speak: I think of something to someone, I remember to apologize, a verse appears in my mind from the vasty deeps. 

What keeps you from hearing God?

Is it a lack of time spent in Scripture?  It’s hard for God to draw from the well in your mind when the water’s dry.  Is it because you don’t allow yourself moments of pause and silence—because your phone fills up all the empty moments God might otherwise speak?  Is it because you’re convinced you know what God will say?  Is it because you’re listening to a thousand voices talking about God but you’ve stopped actually listening for God himself?

Let me offer some pointers, if you’d like to listen for God a little bit more than you are right now:

  • Make room for quiet in your life.  I mean bored-quiet, just hanging-out-with-your-brain quiet.  Find a time and a place where you are not interacting with other people, not listening to engaging music, not working on an engaging project, not reading something or playing a game or glancing through social media.  Baths work for this.  Crochet does too, for me, when it’s mindless.  So does being in nature.  Make that time and space for at least a half hour.
  • Fill up your life with God’s voice.  And by that I mean Scripture.  Spend a little while taking a vacation from everyone else talking about God.  Stop relying on other people listening to God and train your own ear, for a minute.
  • Invite God in.  Ask a question.  Tell him what you’re trying to do.  Let God know you’re trying to create a space where the two of you can just spend time together and where you are open to listening, if He has anything to say. 
  • Be patient, wait, and pay attention.   Listening to God is not like listening to a person, where you ask a question and God says, “Right, about that…”  Just pray, and then relax, and see what comes to mind.  Often, I find God speaks or guides me through Scripture or through the noticing of a particular detail or thought that makes sense in the context. 
  • Confirm.  If you feel like God’s speaking to you, especially about something significant, take time to be discerning.  Pray about it, ask for continued guidance, and run what you think you are hearing by trusted believers. Compare it against what you know from Scripture.
  •   Practice.  Practice.  Practice.   It’s hard to listen for God when we’re so used to talking at Him.  You won’t become comfortable with it after only one time.  Give yourself a chance to get used to the process!

God wants to spend time with you.  God wants you to know Him.  God very  much desires for you to have a sense of what He wants from you.  He won’t withhold.  If you want more of Him in your life, He will always, always, always answer the prayer.  So don’t be afraid to start listening for God.

He is willing to speak.

4 thoughts on “Learning To Listen

  1. I am sorry for the encounter you had with your colleague. I read this post with amazement because you spent time, energy and emotion really trying to process this interaction, breaking it down to the point where you were able to grow in faith and understanding. Did this bring you closer to this person? Probably not, but it brought you closer to God while putting some ‘holy space’ between you and her, and that space is so important because it will provide a buffer for you. When you get too close to a person like this you are vulnerable to their hurt. You can let God stand between the two of you and He can protect you from her words and guide you in yours. win win
    xoxoxoxo
    Regina
    (actually, my first reaction was ‘let me at her! how dare she hurt my friend!!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Regina, you make me smile! I have that same reaction when I hear stories like that from friends too. That defensive instinct kicks right in! You would probably laugh so much about this person – I do, because they just say the sort of things that no one in their right mind would ever think to voice aloud. No filter, for good or ill – people like that always catch me off guard. It’s true I am a thinker and an analyzer at heart and YES, it brings me closer to God. I love the concept of holy space as you phrased it – it is true that God does seem to tug us just a little away from the deep emotional engagement that we can have with people that often gives them more power over us than they should have.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Do you ever think about whether or not people think about things to the extent that you do? You really put time and energy into assimilating this encounter. I bet your colleague dropped her vitriol and walked away, never giving it any further thought. A supervisor of mine once said “Regina, they are occupying prime real estate in your brain without paying any rent. Time to evict.” Hahah! I love the Missouri mindset. I think of that often though. He was so right.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hah! I suspect many people don’t and there are times I long to be those people. For me, it’s interesting….sometimes I do dwell on things/people because they bother me or I’m worried about them, and I DO need to evict them. WIth extreme prejudice, lol. But sometimes, as in this case, it feels like God is presenting and re-presenting something to my mind because He wants me to take something from it, learn something, or to DO something… And sometimes it takes some muddling for me to figure out which is which, too!

        Liked by 2 people

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