Bonhoeffer as Counselor: The Priority of Listening

The discipline of listening is one I find very difficult to maintain. But it seems this is not just my own personal struggle. My conversations with others who counsel find them admitting the same. Far too often, most of us are trigger-happy with our counsel. As biblical counselors, we seem to always be ready to speak, to offer advice, to tell people what they should do. But listening is also essential. Godly listening is a patient, others-focused, intentional expression of biblical love; perhaps an expression that is too often lacking in us. If I were able to invite a brother from the past, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to teach a one-hour session to my counseling students (and their teacher!) this is partly what he would say about the priority of listening.

Brotherly pastoral care is essentially distinguished from preaching by the fact that, added to the task of speaking the Word, there is the obligation of listening. There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother’s confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects. Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But 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 that we may speak the Word of God.

Too often, one of the most difficult Scriptures for any of us to apply as we counsel one another is James 1:19, “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak.” But how important it is! May the Holy Spirit grant to us self-discipline to apply the grace already given that we may grow in this essential area of one-another ministry.

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