On Listening: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Advice to Christians

Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 6:14am
On Listening: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Advice to Christians

The beloved German theologian offers these words of encouragement (and admonishment) on the sacred duty of listening.

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Trent Gilliss (@TrentGilliss),  Executive Editor / Chief Content Officer for On Being
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Retired fisherman in Sesimbra, Portugal are deep in conversation.

Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões License: Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who died in a Nazi prison. This passage from his book on Christian community, titled Life Together, came up during the course of our conversation on the everyday art of listening with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay.

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Trent Gilliss is the driving editorial and creative force behind On Being. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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9Reflections

we generally listen in proportion to how much we love the other person. following Christ is a wonderful and powerful experience because it gives us the chance to really love others. And if we don't, well, it's not Christianity. Calling it that doesn't make it so. I haven't always lived or thought this way - Christianity was a duty...but it's not. It's a true joy.

Amen! When you accept Christ, loving others comes naturally. That doesn't mean you accept their poor behavior for "all have sinned & fallen short of the Glory of God". Sometimes it may be a little difficult to love some people because of their appearance, manners or lifestyle, etc.. But you must accept people as they are & love the person not their actions or their sin.

God IS the essence of Unconditional Love, as such it is necessary for me to accept each person as a child of God as they are. Too many I've been acquainted with are always fond of telling others "God Loves You, but it's your sin he hates." I do not possess the purity to determine what another's sin is. I will spend a lifetime trying to remove the Plank from my own eyes, which will leave me no time to see the speck in theirs.

Beautiful. Thank you.

This is for people of all ages. but senior citizens really need to be listened to.

And, as well, senior citizens need to listen to others.

I have only to consider my own need to be heard, especially by those I love, to realize the blessing of a true listener. Listening is easier, more peaceful and more fulfilling than trying to "educate" the other person in a conversation. Listening also opens the door wide for love--both giving and receiving.

Brings to mind John Fox's precious poem:

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you've had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind's eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

My alarm every morning is our local NPR station (WUSF-Tampa). On the Sunday morning this was broadcast the alarm went off right before this Bonhoeffer quote. I had known Bonhoeffer from past study and also Eric Metaxas' excellent book so hearing this quote at the start of my day was both encouraging and motivational. I later listened to the entire podcast and was equally moved by its entirety. Thank you for sharing!

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