Humble Listening: A Courageous Act

Several brave people received their moments of fame in 2016. The film “Sully” was about Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a jet on the Hudson River in 2009 and saved all 155 people on board. I cried at the theatre as I watched Tom Hanks portray Sully’s methodical completion of the feat, and I marveled at his resolve not to leave the sinking plane until all passengers were evacuated.

Then, in recognition of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Tom Rinaldi’s book, “The Red Bandanna,” caught a bit of attention. The book tells of a Wall Street broker, Welles Crowther, who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The book title comes from a red bandanna that had been a gift from his father, a volunteer fireman. Once when the family was heading to church, Mr. Crowther had given young Welles two handkerchiefs to use in his wardrobe: a white handkerchief to put in his church blazer pocket for show and a red bandanna for blow. As an adult, Welles Crowther made the red bandanna a talisman to remind him of the practical side of life. Friends had heard him brag that with it he would change the world. Several 9/11 survivors testified that a man with a red bandanna had stayed in the building, guiding people to escape routes. Welles lost his life that day, but his fearless tenacity saved the lives of others.

Most recently, Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” introduced Adventist hero, Desmond Doss, to a wider audience. Several of my friends have told me that if people in my church are like Doss, then that is the type of church to which they want to belong.

Self-sacrifice is the essence of a hero. Probably no one who reads this will have an opportunity to demonstrate the sacrifice shown by Sully, Crowther, and Doss, but all of us can do one act of courage that involves self-sacrifice. May I suggest one small gesture that could have a big impact for society?

Listening with humility.

Last week as she broadcast her final show, NPR talk show personality Diane Rehm continued her routine of taking phone calls from listeners. One caller asked Rehm how she managed to curate a program with such varied viewpoints. Rehm replied that she chose to practice attentive listening. In order to truly listen, a person has to release her agenda, and refuse to let the mind race ahead in planning what to say next. Attentive listening requires a measure of humility — a sense that the other person speaks with a valuable voice. This is difficult when a speaker challenges the listener’s core beliefs. Yet, a true listener knows that reality and truth are larger than one viewpoint.

Listening can be particularly difficult for believers with a unique truth to distribute. Even though a person chooses economic and physical sacrifice to “witness,” an unchecked certainty can crowd out a person’s humility. One strategy to cultivate a healthy tension between certainty and humility is to consider the limitations of words. If words are not sacred ends of themselves, then one does not have to defend them with holy zeal. Language is a mere approximation of God’s mystery. There are limitations to any theological proposition that has been distilled to words, especially ones that come with a demand for another to acquiesce and acknowledge. Jesus Himself realized the limitations of language to describe God as evidenced by the numerous times when He said His kingdom was “like” or “similar to.” His kingdom was like a garden or a wedding or salt. Moreover, the incarnation must be viewed as an endorsement that truth is bigger than an argument or systematic theology or treatise. God chose to come in the flesh, and this decision revealed something that words could not. Religion worships itself when it fails to allow for the absolute mystery of a great God who says His ways are not our ways. False religion can worship words, instead of God.

“Humility is probably the least sought-after virtue in America. Mostly, it is despised,” writes Eugene Peterson. Yet, to be humble is to understand where we came from and where we must go for our very life. “The Latin words humus, soil/earth, and homo, human being, have a common derivation, from which we also get our word ‘humble.’ This is the Genesis origin of who we are: dust — dust that the Lord God used to make a human being.”1 Humility demands the acknowledgement of the limitations of one’s assertions.

By one count, scripture mentions humility 72 times. Yet, are Jesus followers known for humility? Paul urges us to copy Jesus’ kenosis — self-emptying — self-sacrifice.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death — and the worst kind of death at that — a crucifixion.” Philippians 2:5-8, The Message

Listening is a courageous act that can put a person in a position of vulnerability. A listener could be offended, hurt, and insulted. A listener might hear data that refutes a long-held assumption. A listener will lose the opportunity for a quick debate win.

Listening is a courageous act of self-sacrifice and connection. A listener will be in the midst of different voices. Placing ego at risk, a listener conveys love and respect to the one who speaks — a rarity. A listener might experience unexpected transformation. A listener might encounter God in another.

Clinging to a headstrong conviction that integrity means to speak truth, a person will miss opportunities for learning and for connection. After all,“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” 1 Corinthians 13:12, RSV

Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Anyone can choose to develop the habit of listening with love and humility. This small thing could lead to something big.


1. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places [Eerdmans, 2008], 76

Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Discernment, must precede humility. Study to show thy self proved of God. One must listen to more than Fox News and the White Estate. We need a Walter Cronkite, and Ed Murrow, We Need An Edward Heppenstall, a John R. W. Stott, a M Lloyd-Jones. A Smutts. AF.F. Bruce. That is just for starters. Tom Z


Characterized by empathy and understanding both of which are increasingly alien as one becomes more religiously preoccupied, intolerant and obsessed. Case in point: look at our GC leaders as they negotiate the church issues of maleheadship, WO and sexual orientation.


Balanced, sensitive and very helpful Carmen. Thank you. This does presuppose that individuals or groups who need to “listen” to each other, come together and have both the opportunity and the time to do that. At present, we are writing for each other on platforms that are not connected. One side may read the other, but too often the reading is one-sided and not a dialogue.


Is there a danger in an overly “empathetic” environment that the subject may gain confidence in their sin? Is there a point at which empathy must turn to natural disgust, humility to anger and meekness to confidence expelling sin in a just and righteous cause…?

Elmer, physicians, and many who are good listeners often provide the only truly listener; which in itself is a gift often with nothing more offered. So many go through life experiencing only being talked to (present G.C. Administration) but never being heard.

To be a good listener is a gift that can be learned, if willing.

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What most people probably NEED is the Discovery of the Fruits of The Spirit.
Love – affection for others.
Joy – exuberance about life.
Peace – serenity.
Patience – a willingness to stick with things.
Kindness – a sense of compassion in the heart.
Goodness – a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and others.
Faithfulness – involved in loyal commitments.
Gentleness – no needing to force my way in life.
Self-Control – able to marshal and direct my energies wisely.
— Peter Scazzero, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality”, pg 20. {a great read].
Paul – Galatians 5.

The Fruits of the Spirit ALLOWS us to give up the Fruits of the Flesh – The EGO.

Charles — The DANGEROUS thing about Conversation.
Conversation allows, sometimes forces us to RETHINK, RE-ASSESS our Belief Systems.
DANGEROUS because we might Think A NEW Thought. Journey onto a wonderful new path.
Find God sitting on a bench, waiting for us on the new path. Waiting to journey with us.

Phil. 2:1-4 – We HAVE to give up our EGO. Give up control to find a NEW kind of control.
In Community we have the power, through Conversation, to unlock the other person, to unlock ourselves. Community is given the power by Christ [Matt 16:19 and Matt 18:18] to Bind and Loose. Community [and each one in the community] is Given the POWER to Forgive SINS!

Unfortunately, we in the SDA Community do NOT obey Christ’s words and forgive the sins of each other.
We do not Loosen each other from the bondage of guilt, of fear, of internalized anger we have for ourselves. All we do mostly is point fingers and make it known that God will not love _____ if ____ does not give up sinning [however it is defined by the group].
We do NOT remind each other that no matter where we are in the World, we are God’s son, daughter, God has been, IS, and always will be Our Father. Christ will be Flesh of our Flesh, Bone of our Bone. Always UNITED to him, He united to us, me, you.


“Is there a danger in an overly “empathetic” environment that the subject may gain confidence in their sin?”

Of course there is, Danny…but first there actually needs to be an "overly “empathetic” environment. If one would place this in context within the SDA church then there should be no need for concern for being “overly empathetic” at this point and time, indeed, quite the opposite.

“Is there a point at which empathy must turn to natural disgust, humility to anger and meekness to confidence expelling sin in a just and righteous cause…?”

Again, one (or the SDA church) would first have to arrive at the point of being "overly “empathetic”…which it is has not.

We would do well to spend some time reflecting upon what the article is really saying. I truly appreciate what Mother Theresa said: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”


Thank-you, Carmen. Thank-you not least for putting Philippians 2 in front of us.

One thing to remember is that, at least some of the time, good listening entails responding–summarizing what you’ve heard, suggesting reasons why you agree or why, at certain points, you may disagree. Listening needs to become conversation.

Again, lots of thanks!



Carmen, thank you. The Adventist penchant is to adopt memes of proclamation and exclamation: “Tell the World”; Proclaim the Truth"; “Give the Trumpet a Certain Sound”; “Lift Every Voice.”

My fondest hope is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church be known as “the church that listens,” as Jesus in humility truly listened–from His childhood in the Temple to the walk to Emmaus–even beyond and beneath the denotative words. This radical listening makes way for every fruit of the Spirit, for transformative conversation, and for goodness-gracious growth.


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another as when Jesus prayed “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” It has nothing to do with encouraging others to continue with their maladaptive behaviors. To the contrary, it serves as an additional armamentarium in helping others to better themselves.

If you were a pastor you might want to “bone up” on empathy which can only make you a better minister for a God, otherwise your type of gospel could be skewed.


Adventist education in both church and school came with the “we have the truth and the spirit of prophecy. We must warn the world to save souls else their blood be upon us at judgment.” I left an SDA college, went to a Lutheran university, and served first-day churches through music. But there was an interesting juxtaposition having been taught how to listen in music but be completely incapable of listening to words from other creeds, faiths, and the very colleagues on staff with whom I worked. New ideas were held suspect of that one-percent margin of error thereby negating the other 99 percent. My most rewarding growth has come through closing my mouth and opening my mind. Laying down the superiority gene is the first step in learning to listen. And if we have not become good listeners to those we can see, how ever can we truly listen to the Divine.