The Transcendent Power of Listening

Confessions of an Average Person

Sam Bush / 6.2.21

In a recent interview with the Economist, Viggo Mortenson talked about his aging father who suffers from dementia and whose mind has regressed to his childhood state. For days, the elderly man talked to caretakers about having forgotten to close the gate to the pig pen. Apparently, when he was a boy during a time when food was scarce, he left the gate open, and the pigs got out and ransacked the family garden. He never admitted to his heedless mistake as a boy, but, clearly, his guilt had buried itself deep within his subconscious. Every secret, after all, is eventually brought to light.

Confession is not exactly a popular concept today. In the spirit of #noregrets we are more likely to justify our misdeeds; in the age of cancel culture we are more likely to conceal them. The alternative, to admit them and seek forgiveness, is simply too great a risk. The word confession itself may be familiar, but only insofar as a cultural genre: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Confessions of a Windowcleaner. Here, the word doesn’t carry a sense of contrition but of braggadocio. It’s not an expression of remorse as much as it is an invitation for vicarious transgression, beckoning you to look behind the curtain of a life you always wanted to live. This understanding of sin (what Francis Spufford describes as “yummy transgressions,” a world of chocolate, lingerie, and forbidden fruit) leads to a tell-all that rings hollow because it doesn’t actually seek pardon or absolution.

But what about real people who are carrying impossible burdens? What about people who are paralyzed by the past and hopeless about the future?

This is where actual confession is a goldmine for one’s well-being. I’m not talking about a confession booth or penance. I’m simply talking about someone listening to you. Preferably, in a safe space and with an abundance of patience, respect, and undivided attention. To listen to another person is one of the rarest and most profound forms of love. Henri Nouwen said that it’s the highest form of hospitality. This is because listening is serving someone on their own terms — to love them and allow them to express their needs while trusting that God Himself will provide a solution to their problems. For Nouwen, the goal of listening is not “to change people but to offer them space where change can take place.”

Paul Zahl’s Peace in the Last Third of Life hones in on the ministry of listening. The Appendix (entitled “Dedicated Listening from Mary Zahl”) offers a helpful direction for meeting regularly with someone you trust. The session consists of two, ten-minute, uninterrupted periods of being listened to and then listening to the other person. Questions for clarification (i.e. “Wait, when did this happen to you?”) are not allowed, nor is advice giving, or interruptions whatsoever. The listener’s only contribution is undivided attention and a listening ear. This passive but attentive listening allows the Holy Spirit room to do the heavy lifting of delving into the speaker’s inner life. What happens next?

Being heard in the presence of non-judgmental love creates a kind of spontaneous combustion by which the pain of the past is drained of its paralyzing hold on you, and your mind clears, sometimes instantly, and you become able to see what steps you need to take next. The past is converted into an acceptance that is almost energizing. The chains that held you back from a hopeful, positive attitude to life fall off. This happens again and again.

For several months, I have been engaging in this listening exercise with a close friend. I’ll save the details of my particular disclosures for my book, Confessions of an Average Person, but what I can tell you is that being allowed to confess freely without playing conversational ping-pong with the listener allowed me to directly engage with God in a way I had never experienced. So often, I will divulge something with the hope of the listener chiming in with a similar experience. “I struggle with that too!” they’ll say, to my relief. To be clear, realizing that my sins are not unique is often reassuring. And yet, what I gain from someone’s solidarity I lose in the divine power of confession.

When one is listened to — and not only listened to, but heard — the listener becomes a divine placeholder. As Anne Long says, God’s availability is “fleshed out in the listener.” It is in this one-way interaction that one receives not just the feeling of forgiveness but Christ incarnate. In that sense, the listener’s empathy goes a long way, but it does not go the full distance. While empathy breeds compassion, it still falls short of forgiveness. While empathy seeks to explain wrongdoing, forgiveness washes it away. While empathy allows you to understand someone else, forgiveness sets them free.

The listener may very well be experiencing similar trials and tribulations, but sharing their own experience in the hopes of providing solidarity and empathy will often serve as a distraction from one’s own need to confess to God. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,” writes the psalmist. Until recently, I found this verse to be problematic. You alone? What about the actual people involved? What about the ones left to clean up the mess on the floor? And yet, confessing one’s sins directly to another person (who is really acting as a stand-in for God) has allowed me to fully engage with the weight of my sin and the God who is the only judge. No one else’s sins are there to distract me from my own. No one is there to let me off the hook. No one but God, that is.

Unconfessed sins have the capacity to eat you alive, but the Bible offers us a solution: that, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). You see, when you air your grievances, when you shine a spotlight into the darker corners of your inner life, the silence that follows can be strangely comforting. It is the sound of non-judgmentalism. It is the sound of a God who is completely unsurprised by what you have done or left undone. Try as we might, we cannot self-forgive. Our job, as humans, is to repent and believe (i.e., to confess and receive forgiveness). Even though the only thing we bring to God’s table is our sin, it is more than enough for God to work with.

Hopefully you have someone in your life who listens to you, a person whose eyes don’t bounce around the room looking for a more interesting person to talk to. A person who interacts with you as if you are the only person that matters at that moment. Hopefully they would be willing to meet with you on a regular basis and listen to whatever is going on in your life (and then pray for you and let God do the talking). This person will most likely be a reminder to you that God is always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve.

featured image via Sergio Ingravalle