While in China, I had conversations with several dozen people. In almost every case, I found that they had something to tell me, something I needed to know before I could say anything of value to them. A few examples:
- The retired professor whose heart is broken by the moral morass she encounters each day.
- The recent college graduate whose father died suddenly, without telling her and her mother that he had been uncomfortable for several days.
- The pastor’s wife whose recurring low moods really reflect chronic depression caused by excessive demands on herself, fatigue, and a husband who just won’t listen.
- The Christian student who feels pressure to share the gospel but who doesn’t really know God’s forgiveness herself.
- The husband whose wife’s ambitious mother demands that her daughter pursue graduate studies in a city hundreds of miles away.
- The man sitting next to me on the train whose father had died early that very morning.
- The bright new PhD who wrote a dissertation in one field but wants to pursue research in another field but needs my advice. Actually, the question goes deeper than that.
- The wife and mother who is trying to decide whether to try to re-build the marriage which she ended legally by divorce two years ago.
- The young woman whose father will not let her marry the man she loves, because he is not “outstanding” enough.
- The mother whose daughter’s elementary school teacher berates her every day.
- The young believer who has heavy responsibilities in the church but who isn’t being fed by the teaching and feels burnt out.
- The Christian whose wife has fallen away from her previous profession of faith because she can’t “see” God in her life. He admits it’s partly because he hasn’t been a great husband to her.
- The church leader whose congregation has been “hijacked” by an ambitious female pastor from overseas.
Learning to listen
In each situation, it took time for these hard realities to be expressed, especially since most of these people had never met me before. It’s hard for me to stop talking long enough to give others a chance to speak, so I had to discipline myself to ask questions and wait for them to open up slowly and at their pace.
Given my tendency to give advice too soon, I had to restrain myself from offering suggestions. In most cases, they just wanted someone to take the time to listen. Everyone is so busy that seldom does anyone slow down enough to allow another to share from the heart.
If they do dare to express doubt, or confusion, or sorrow, or guilt, all too often they are met with a quick dismissal, or hasty and moralistic instruction, or even rejection. Patient, accepting, affirming ears are rare anywhere, but especially so in today’s frenetic Chinese society.
Preparing to listen
As a foreigner, I face additional obstacles to creating an atmosphere conducive to honest communication. It has taken many years to learn enough Mandarin to be able to comprehend the words spoken to me in trust. And decades of reading, observing, and exposure to Chinese society and culture give me some sense of the context of what I hear.
At the same time, however, foreigners often have access to hearts that are afraid to open up to friends, family, and even church members.
For that reason, I strongly recommend that non-Chinese do all we can to study the history, culture, current conditions, and language of China, so that we might be better listeners.
China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society, which I co-authored with Dr. Peter Yu, would be a good place to start.
As I wrote in Reaching Chinese Worldwide, “For those of us wanting to reach Chinese, listening must come first.”
May God help us all to be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak,” (James 1:19), that we may better express the love of God, who invites us to “pour out [our] heart before Him” (Psalm 62:8).
Think about the people in your field of ministry. They may be overseas, or they may be in your own backyard.
What music can you listen to in order to learn about their psyche and passions?
What about their history?
Are there good books you can read that will help you become an informed listener with some sense of context for what you hear?
– LeaderSource SGA