Updated: Aug 7, 2021
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. | Proverbs 18:13
When I was 16, a girl I was a camper with at a Christian camp began to share that she had been raped several years earlier. I quickly shut her down, saying we were going to be late to the game. In my mind, I thought that if I heard her details, it would just replay over in my mind, and I didn’t think I could “handle” that. I have long regretted my selfishness in that moment—for yes, I only thought of myself and how that information would affect me. Upon going home that year, still with my regrets, I made a decision that I would never shut someone down again, no matter how ugly I thought their information would be.
Within the past few months, no fewer than five people have told me something along the lines of, “I just didn’t know who I could talk with about this.” What they really communicated to me was that they felt they did not have anyone in their lives they could trust with their information. Many circumstances have led to these confessions: because they had been turned away by pastors or other leadership in their lives; because they had been shut down with cliché verses or pithy spiritual statements by “friends;” because they thought the listener would perhaps be shocked by what they had to say, by the depth of pain they felt, that maybe someone else would recoil by what they were thinking and how much they hurt.
"Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
Everyone wants to be heard. Few people take the time to listen. It takes little energy to hear someone and then give them a verse. It takes much energy to truly listen to someone for the purpose of understanding them. Listening means time, giving yourself to hear things maybe deep down you wish you hadn’t heard, sitting with someone who hurts and hurting with them. It takes wisdom to be quiet sometimes, to ask questions to further clarify at other times.
But church, we must do these things. People can carry around silent grief and trauma for months, maybe years, because they have been quickly shut up by a “well meaning” acquaintance with a verse so the speaker could feel he or she had done a good Christian job, but made the listener feel she shouldn’t share such a sacred vulnerable part of her life again.
Church, we cannot claim that we believe that Christ is sufficient if we merely shut someone down with a Bible verse and think that that is what ministry looks like. Sufficiency means He is present every day, every moment. Sufficiency means He has answers beyond Romans 8:28.
Why do we bear each others’ burdens? Because this “fulfills the law of Christ”—namely that we love others as much as we love ourselves (Galatians 6:2; Matthew 22:39). If our habitual response has been to self-protect, let us learn instead to protect others, as well as their information and hurts. Let us grant gracious community to those in our local congregations by being the first to sit and listen, places of safety people know they can share their deepest hurts. Of course we confront sin. Of course to teach others the truths of God. But we also listen to ensure we are not answering before we fully know what the situation looks like.
One of my most impactful professors from college oft-said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Listening means we love someone else more than what we think we need to say next.
Whom can you listen to today?