Listening is hard. Listening well is even harder. I spend a good chunk of my days discipling and shepherding people, and while I love this part of my work, it can sometimes feel like the hardest thing in the world to be present with the person who’s sharing his or her heart with me. And yet, in an upside-down way, listening becomes a little easier when I realize that I actually need to be listening to three people instead of one.
The Person in Front of You
This is the obvious one. And yet, more is involved than just listening to the words that are spoken. We need to be listening for emotion and meaning, looking at body language and paying attention to tone of voice.
Considering the context is crucial, as well. What is the lens through which she sees present circumstances? How does he interpret who God is in light of his struggles? What have you heard her share in the past that connects and helps make sense of what she’s sharing with you now? What does he assume as he’s interpreting meaning from people or things? What is she not saying, and what can you learn from that?
We’re whole, complex people, just as complex as those we’re discipling. Maybe the person you’re discipling reminds you of your beloved kindergarten teacher, or of your mother-in-law, with whom you just had a hard conversation. Maybe what they’re sharing reminds you too much of your own marriage, or of the fact that you’re not in a marriage and would really love to be, even if it’s as hard as they’re making it sound.
On the other hand, you may be thinking about how the person you are engaged with views you. You ask a question and then immediately wonder if it was a dumb one, or worse, an offensive one. You wonder what help you could possibly be to someone struggling with an anger issue when just this morning you blew up at your kid. Then you wonder what time it was you were supposed to pick that kid up today? It’s noisy inside your own head!
The key here seems to be awareness. The triggers, distractions, affinities, insecurities, and reminders of past experiences will be there whether you stop and take note of them or not. Actively listening to what’s at play in your own heart and mind will allow you to separate distractions from important information about the person in front of you. The way a person impacts you can be a clue as to how they impact other people. It could also be a false lead, but you won’t know without practicing some self-awareness. Listening to yourself impacts your discipling and will drive you to depend more deeply on Jesus as you listen.
The Holy Spirit
As I see the complexities of the deep heart struggles of the people I work with, and my own heart’s reactions that can catch me by surprise, I’m so thankful that there’s a third person—just as real and present—in the discipling relationship. The third person is the Holy Spirit. I know this is can feel like an abstract hope to lean into, and it can sound a bit like a Sunday School platitude, but I’ve come to cling to this hope with a death grip out of my own desperation.
There are times when I feel utterly alone while discipling. Mostly, they are the times where I feel at a loss as to what to say, how to comfort, how to believe the gospel on behalf of someone else, or how to offer hope without sounding trite. But as I remember that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is alive in me and in the person I’m working with—listening, speaking, praying and advocating for us—it reminds me that there’s a third voice I can listen to.
In a way, those times when I feel out of sorts and in over my head in discipling are the times where I’m actually most aware of the reality of it all—the reality of the fact that I’m just along for the ride and the Spirit is alive and well, bringing change and transformation in my heart and the hearts of others. The Holy Spirit is the change agent in this relationship, and I, in my weakness and brokenness, am still invited to come alongside Him in His work.
I’m learning to let the overwhelming moments in discipling, when the complexities of others’ hearts and my heart feel like too much, become pathways of dependence on the One who’s there listening and speaking right beside me.
Do you want to grow in mentoring or discipling others? Consider Serge’s Discipler Training. It brings together best practices developed through Serge’s more than 25 years of helping people learn to live out the gospel.
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