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Essay

The Listening God

By March 14, 2013 2 Comments
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Over the years I’ve encountered students who are adamantly convinced that pastoral care begins and ends with God’s word.  If by this they meant Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word, then I would heartily agree. For pastoral care is participation in his ongoing ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world. But instead, they mean the proclamation of the word of forgiveness. And while I could highlight the particular strands of Protestant theology and the contemporary theologians who have influenced this narrow depiction of ministry, I’ve come to think that the problem is much more pervasive–a theological amnesia, a forgetting that God is a listening God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God so that we may speak the Word of God” (Life Together).

Of course, much Christian theology emphasizes the speaking God, and rightly so. Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God who creates and sustains all life. God speaks life into being. The Word reveals the fullness of God to all humanity. If we want to know God, we listen to God’s Word, Jesus Christ. For his life, death, and resurrection constitute God’s love letter to humanity—a letter that is spoken and heard again and again. Scripture is the written word of God that witnesses to the incarnate Word. By the power of the Spirit, we encounter God in scripture and experience our lives as woven into God’s grand narrative of healing and reconciliation. There are the preached word and the sacramental word as well. Through the former, Jesus Christ is proclaimed in particular times and places through particular idioms and stories. Through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we participate in the life of the Word and receive God’s words of promise.

Yet deep listening—listening that originates in the Triune God—undergirds all of this speaking. God hears the cries of God’s people. God hears the mutual recrimination and blame of Adam and Eve and all whom they represent. God hears the prayerful and sometimes bitter longing of barren and betrayed women. God hears the agony of enslaved Israel laboring under oppressive pharaohs. God hears the stubbornness of king Saul, the penitence of king David, and the petition of Hezekiah. God hears the cries of the psalmists for justice, mercy, truth, freedom, healing, and salvation even when those longings are masked by vengeful outrage. 

God, in Jesus Christ, first listens and then speaks. That this Word is a listening Word is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Jesus’ walk to Emmaus (Luke 23:13-35). Three days after Jesus’ execution, two of his disciples set out on a seven-mile journey from the bustling city of Jerusalem to the quiet village of Emmaus. Perhaps they needed the external quiet in order to wrestle adequately with their internal cacophony of thoughts, questions, feelings, and needs. As journeys go, this one was more inward and spiritual than outward and physical. Engulfed by shock, disappointment, and distress, these men wandered in bewilderment. They were threatened on all sides. The tortured death of their beloved friend, the supposed Messiah, led them face-to-face with nothingness, with the obliteration of life. Their association with Jesus made them vulnerable to violence. Two of their women friends made incomprehensible claims about an empty tomb, a missing body, and dazzling angels. Yet it was all too much for them. Their world—their very belief structure—had shattered. They could not transcend their situation. They were inwardly lost.

At this point of greatest need, God in Jesus Christ joined them, and as is often the case in situations like these, they did recognize God’s presence. So unbeknownst to them, Jesus walked beside them and entered into their experience. He listened deeply. He asked open-ended questions. He avoiding explicitly answering their questions and glossing over their angst in some superficial manner. He facilitated a deep indwelling of their own situation by creating space for their internal wrestling. When he finally spoke, he explored with them their own life story—their communal history as the chosen people of God—and their particular history as his disciples. He reflected on their stories in light of the biblical narrative. In this lively dialogue marked by attentive (and eventually mutual) listening, Jesus fed their souls with wisdom and understanding. When he broke bread with them, the scales fell from their eyes. As a result of having been seen and heard at the deepest levels of their existence, they now knew themselves, God, and the world differently. Their encounter with God in Jesus Christ, which began and continued with deep listening, comforted and transformed them.

The listening God is a ministering God, a healing God, a reconciling God. I wonder what our relationships with God and neighbor might look like if our theology began with attentiveness to this God. I wonder how much our failure to listen and follow this God undermines the mission of the church and leads us away from God and neighbor. As Bonhoeffer writes, “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother [or sister] will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words” (Life Together).

2 Comments

  • Cindi Veldheer DeYoung says:

    Theresa, thank you for this thoughtful post. I may actually use it in discussing things with a student I'm mentoring this year, since his basic stance is that the Bible is his pastoral care textbook.

  • Theresa Latini says:

    You're most welcome, Cindi! Blessings on your conversation with your student.

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