People are hard, tricky creatures. The inborn complexity of both the communicators and listeners makes putting up with people, even the ones we dearly love, difficult. It’s hard to know how to listen to others with compassion and take all they say in love and respect. Recently God has been laying several actions on my heart to make me a better person for my friends to go to. Here are five things God’s teaching me.
1 – Listen.
It feels like this should go without saying, but listening is genuinely hard in a culture that encourages instant gratification. Admittedly, I have often surrendered a full understanding of my friends’ words and body language to the desires of my own heart, choosing selfishness over selflessness. In order to listen, we need patience. Humans ramble and whine and cry, and God asks his children to have patience and love. Not only does listening require patience, but it also requires selflessness and pure motives.
2 – Avoid distractions.
American culture makes this one hard. Phones, social media, background noises, and other people clammor for constant attention. In truth, no one can give full attention to anything if they try to give attention to everything. By shutting all the extra noises out to listen more effectively, Christians can show the love of God in very visible and practical ways. Their actions say, “I love you, and I love you more than my phone. I love you more than my Instagram. I love you more than my favorite tv show. In this moment, you matter most to me, and I will not let the little things stop this sweet time with you.”
3 – Make eye contact.
“Look at what is before your eyes” (2 Cor. 10.7a). It’s a simple little thing, but it matters. It helps us to focus; it helps others to see that we prioritize them. As Jesus reminded his followers, “The eye is the lamp of the body,” filling the whole body with light (Matt. 6.22). In a very practical way, eye contact can illuminate conversation. It helps our own understanding when we actually take note of our friends’ expressions, their hesitations, and the flitting facial tells that we know so well.
“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matt. 13.16).
4 – Use appropriate physical touch.
Observing and respecting the desires of others is prime here. Some people don’t like to be touched. Others love and need the feeling of a hug, or of another person’s hand clasping their own. I’ve found it common that older people, particularly women, and young children, under the age of about eight, desire physical touch, while older boys and men may prefer physical distance. Of course, each person has different preferences, and recognizing those allows us to better minister to them as individuals.
5 – Don’t talk.
Just be there. This may be the sweetest and most overlooked way to show love to friends, and it is most definitely the hardest. Silence is awkward and potentially uncomfortable, but if we can offer no helpful words, why speak? When Job sat in the ashes, scraping himself with broken pottery, stripped of his wealth, mourning the loss of all his ten children, discouraged and disrespected by his wife, and covered head to foot with sores, he probably didn’t want to hear lectures, questions, or trite reassurances. In grief this deep, human words rarely bring comfort. Where words fail, however, the presence of a friend can bring peace. Job’s three friends are best known for their painful, callous response to his grief, the blame they heaped on Job’s overloaded shoulders; what they are not remembered for is their silent, week-long vigil, when they simply stayed by Job’s side. They wept for him, and “no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2.12-13). In many cases, our wordless presence best comforts people.
At the heart of all these individual thoughts are two twin towers: love for God and love for people. As in everything, love forms the basis of a Christian’s life and interactions with others. For the Christian, the simple act of listening lifts the focus off of himself, even off of other people, and places it only on God’s glory. If we are God’s temple, the best way we can bring him glory is to keep ourselves clean, full of love and pure intentions towards others.