Listening with the Heart: A Powerful Witness

by Mary Schaller

The topic for their small group that night was “Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?” 

It was a relatively new group composed primarily of people who were either new to faith in Christ or still trying to decide whether to place their trust in Him. They were doing a series called The 7 Big Questions, discussing questions such as the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the reliability of the Bible. 

The three facilitators, Greg, Jon, and Jon’s wife, Leslie, were just getting to know the participants over the past few weeks. I had been a coach to them as they navigated launching this new group. When I texted them the following morning to see how the group had gone, I got this reply from Greg:

Seemed to go well. But I left very unsettled…tried to figure out what emotion I was feeling….sadness, inadequacy, emotionally drained. I gave up and turned it over to God. I felt the superficiality of the group in some ways as people shared deep pain and it wasn’t adequately acknowledged. Responses were more about discussing the idea rather than recognizing someone just described an experience of deep pain and sorrow. If I did it again, I would think long and hard about how to manage it, respond better or more empathetically and provide follow up resources. I guess it went OK, but it didn’t feel like it when I was done.

Jon had a similar response:

I kind of felt that way also. But when I said that to Leslie, she said she thought it went well. We agreed that we talked and understood the ‘why’ behind the question in a ‘head’ way, but didn’t really get into our ‘heart’ enough.

Greg, Jon, and Leslie are all seasoned facilitators. They knew the basic arts of listening and asking questions. I was curious to explore what they were feeling after that session. What was the unsettledness?

When Does It Become Personal?

Shortly after I heard this report from them, a neighbor came over whom I hadn’t seen in a while. Patrick was not doing well. He said he just found out that his best friend Mike’s 25-year-old son had tragically died from a fall after he slipped while taking a selfie and fell 40 feet from a cliff into the river at a nearby state park. 

He received the call the previous day and was grieving the tremendous loss of his friend’s son. Patrick was sad because he knew this man since he was born and he was struggling with what to do to reach out to his best friend. 

What could he possibly say? 

I think we are so desensitized to suffering, death, and loss in our culture now that we don’t fully know how to empathize with another’s pain. I think I must have responded in a similar way to Jon and Greg in their group, listening with my head to the tragic news, but not with my heart. 

Finally, Patrick asked me, “How would you feel if this was one of your sons who had died?” He wasn’t trying to be critical. I think he wanted a more compassionate heartfelt reply from me. And if it was one of my children who had died, I’d be unable to speak with the grief in my heart. 

Not knowing what to do or say next, since I knew my neighbor is a Christian, I asked him if I could pray with him for his friend’s family. He was appreciative and we spent some time in prayer.  

I felt like God softened my heart for my neighbor and his friend in that prayer time. This was a young life that was cut short by one simple but tragic misstep. In the subsequent days I prayed regularly for Patrick, his friend, and his friend’s family as they grieved the sudden and tragic loss of this young man.

How Would Jesus Handle This?

Recently, a pastor friend of mine was preaching a sermon series on eight relational practices of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke that included noticing, praying, listening, asking questions, loving, welcoming, serving together, and sharing. I was disarmed by the passage he chose for listening: Luke 8:40-48. 

Imagine the scene as if it were a Hollywood movie. Jesus arrives in town and is swarmed by a crowd. Jairus, an important community leader, rushes up to Jesus and begs him to come heal his young daughter, who is dying. As Jesus sets out, the people press in on all sides.

In this urgent moment, a subplot emerges: the hemorrhaging woman in the crowd. This Jewish woman has endured over a decade of social isolation because of her illness. She has spent everything she had on painful, ineffective treatments, and now she casts all her faith in Jesus, by simply touching his cloak.

She reaches out.

Suddenly Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?”

Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus felt power going out of Him. He looks around to see who touched Him. Mark’s account (5:21-34) says that the woman came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told Him the whole truth.

Here is the amazing part. Despite the important assignment Jesus was on, He stopped and listened to a sick, ostracized woman. His care for her went beyond her physical healing, and He took time to hear her story, to listen to “the whole truth” about her.

That was genuine listening. 

The pastor concluded in his sermon that true listening is much more than hearing words. It’s discerning the depth of what is being said, what is being felt, and what needs to be communicated. Jesus was a master at this. That’s why He could even feel a simple touch in a crowd of people surrounding Him.

A good listener is empathetic—but most of us have a hard time getting outside of our own frame of reference. When people express emotion or pain, often our knee-jerk reaction is to fix them or give them relief. We find it difficult to join them where they are; we feel discomfort and want to hurry them to a different emotional state.

What about Listening and Empathy?

Empathy offers comfort, not pat answers, and tries to understand and even experience the other person’s feelings. It starts with where the person is and tries to understand rather than change, remembering that only God can change a human heart. Karen Kimsey-House is a coaching expert and the creator of the Co-Active philosophy of relationships. She warns:

When you’re not listening well, you’re not fully present. You miss what’s behind the words, the deep truth that’s coming from a person. It’s not about hearing the words spoken per se; it’s about connecting with the heart.

Listening is a process of communication that extends much further than simply hearing. Listening requires you to concentrate, derive meaning from the sound that is heard, and react to it.

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask people how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that they are asking about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. Or to paraphrase, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?”

Do we really want to know? Do we have time to hear their answer? In this busy age we live in, do we have time for that conversation, that glance, that touch?

Perhaps our words and empathic listening will be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence. 

Or lead to an evangelistic conversation.

Genuine listening requires that you look the person in the eye, conveying your interest and attention, hold the look, lean in a little, and say, “How are you?”

Then keep quiet.

Simone Weil said, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’” Be genuinely interested in hearing the other person’s story—the truth of what is going on right now. Don’t correct, preach, talk over, or editorialize. Don’t offer your own opinions. Just listen to theirs.

If you will genuinely listen to people this way, they will almost always tell you how they really are. They may even tell you things that may shock you. People become extraordinarily open when they sense that you’re really paying attention.

Genuine listening opens the possibility of entering into an authentic conversation in which we allow God to control the outcome.

Listening is an important skill in all relationships, and it is exceptionally important when we can show love and compassion to those who don’t know Jesus. It’s surprisingly natural to point people to the Father, the source of that love, when people have experienced that love from us.

Mary Schaller (@MarySchaller1) is president of Q Place, a ministry that empowers Christians to engage in meaningful conversations about God with people who believe differently through small groups. She was an entrepreneurial marketer and founder of three technology-related business ventures and then minister of small groups at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. She has an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is the author of How to Start a Q Place, and the co-author of The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations.