Attentive Listening

Attentive Listening

By Pat Knight

Mary of Bethany, a sibling of Martha and Lazarus, possessed enviable listening skills. When Jesus visited their home, she sat at His feet with her rapt attention hanging on each of her Master’s words. Mary unabashedly worshipped Jesus, captivated by her Friend to the exclusion of all others present.

 On the same occasion when Mary and Martha prepared a dinner for Jesus and His disciples, Martha demanded. “‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’” (Luke 10:40). To Martha’s surprise, the Lord commended Mary’s actions, tenderly replying, “‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has shown what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:41-42).

Both Mary and Martha loved their Lord, but Martha allowed distractions to divide her devotion. No doubt she wanted a delicious, perfectly presented dinner for her guests, straight from Martha Stewart’s handbook. But, it was Mary who displayed compassion, kneeling before Jesus, intently absorbing every word, noticing each gesture, studying His facial expressions, and discerning silent or spoken aspects of His conversation. Mary listened audibly and visually.

On that evening of dinner fellowship six days prior to Christ’s crucifixion, Mary poured a pint of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet in anticipation of His upcoming sacrifice. She didn’t ask her Lord’s permission; she intuitively knew that Jesus would approve of her gracious act. Surrounded by men, Mary wasn’t intimidated. Loosening her long hair to wipe Jesus’ feet of excess oil displayed Mary’s humility; a respectable woman didn’t unbind her hair in public. Her submissive spirit was apparent; caring for feet was servant’s work. Mary’s actions spoke volumes. By anointing Jesus’ feet, she demonstrated that she understood Jesus’ teaching about His future death and burial far better than His disciples did.

Listening is an active art. It takes commitment to heed God’s words. To hear well, we must concentrate fully, not permitting distractions to eclipse our attention. Adequate listening skills allow us to know the will of our heavenly Father for our individual lives. We hear God speak to us through His Word as He communicates His love, commands, and our relationship to Him and to others.

God has surely listened and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me.
—Psalm 66:19-20

Prayer time without listening is simply a one-sided conversation, a monologue rather than a dialogue. “Love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life” (Deuteronomy 30:20). Prayer and praise, listening and love, complement one another as we interact with Jesus Christ in a personal relationship.

God no longer speaks audibly or in dreams to believers as was His custom in times past. Now the Holy Spirit interprets God’s messages and illuminates God’s written Word, making His personal guidance and wisdom available to us.

While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (Mark 12:35a; 37b). When was the last time you listened to your Lord during prayer, from His Word, or while reading Christian literature, reacting with extreme satisfaction and great pleasure, the kind of attention Almighty God deserves?

Let us not miss the sovereign plans about which God desires to advise us through His Spirit. Live in anticipation of His words, confident that our two-way communication is functioning to full capacity. More than any other discernable sound in our world, yearn to recognize God’s soothing words. He provides power to persist toward the ultimate goal of spiritual victory as we listen, follow, and trust Him explicitly.

A father used a game of ball toss as an object lesson to instruct his son regarding a well-balanced conversation. For a while the two threw the ball back and forth, settling into a predictable rate. Then, the father dropped the ball and refused to continue the volley. When the bewildered son asked his parent to explain his behavior, his father compared his actions to those of an unbalanced verbal discussion: just as dropping or hogging the ball disrupts a game, such is the way with conversation involving an unequal exchange of listening and speaking. Concentration is required to keep the ball in motion just as shared dialogue keeps conversation moving. Prayer, like a game of ball, is participatory activity. The alternative is talking to oneself, and we all know how non-stimulating that can be!

Our Lord is never too busy, distracted, or preoccupied to harken to the emotions attached to each word. God listens with love. Though He is aware of the intent of our hearts before we speak, God is pleased to hear from us. “‘Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear’” (Isaiah 65:24).

If we maintain candid, vivacious communication with God, as Mary of Bethany demonstrated, our listening skills will soon produce pleasing acts of worship to Him and service to others. Jesus promised, “‘You are my friends if you do what I command’” (John 15:14). What a privilege, to claim the sovereign Savior as a personal friend, who listens to us and expects attentiveness to His voice. Could there be anything more satisfying?

Before you pray, ask the Holy Spirit to clear your mind of entangled thoughts and distractions, to focus entirely upon the glory of God. Then your heart will be receptive to His guidance. In the quietness of your prayer time, ask God to reveal Himself. He will gladly open your mind and heart to reveal paths to follow Him. “Listen to my instructions and be wise; do not disregard it. Blessed are those who listen to me” (Proverbs 8:33-34a).

Learn to be attentive to your Savior with the bold singlemindedness Mary exhibited. Incredible interactions occur at the feet of Jesus as we submit, weep, confess, and listen for our Master’s divine words designed solely for our needs.