Knowing that God hears me is one of my most comforting thoughts. He hears me when I cry out to Him in whatever situation I am in, especially in my distress. As the Psalmist said:
In my distress I called upon the Lord,
And cried out to my God;
He heard my voice from His temple,
And my cry came before Him, even to His ears (Ps 18:6).
Isn’t there something consoling about simply being heard?
So many people are lonely, feel isolated, and worse, feel like they need to keep their deepest pains and fears a secret from others lest they be judged and rejected and become even more lonely and isolated.
When you have a friend or a loved one in deep distress, one of the most gracious and freeing things you can do is simply listen.
I’ve written before about the importance of listening—especially in the context of a discipleship based on grace—but let me revisit the issue.
In Peace in the Last Third of Life: A Handbook of Hope for Boomers, Paul Zahl writes especially to retirees and seniors, about the struggles they face, the sources of unease in their stage of life, and how they can find the peace that seems to elude so many people as they grow older.
As a pastor, Zahl has visited many deathbeds and noted that “dying people, like living people, hold many secrets and many hurts and many regrets” (p. 47). He tells the story of meeting with one such man who “felt a grave burden of regret,” had carried it for decades without ever revealing it to anyone, and who desperately needed “the mercy of God’s grace” (p. 47). He had lived with a deep pain that had to come out, but he kept it hidden until his last moments.
Was that necessary?
Was it necessary to go his whole life with a secret, unsettled problem? Couldn’t he have found peace earlier in life?
To do that, Zahl says, you must “begin digging to find the root of your main problem in life so it can be unearthed and brought out into the light of God’s Grace” (p. 48).
That is a painful thing to do. It is especially tough to do in a legalistic church or society where it is risky to unearth your pain because people are judged and “cancelled” for past transgressions. Our culture reinforces the idea that we should keep our pains buried as deeply as possible. But so long as we try to evade our unsolved problems, Zahl says they will continue to fester and cause “chronic unsettledness” (p. 52). Do people living in their “last third of life” want that for themselves? Or do they want peace?
So what can grace people do to address these hidden pains and regrets? How can we minister in love to one another?
Zahl says we can listen:
When someone who cares about you listens to you—doesn’t interrupt you, interrogate you, interpret you, nor visualize you through the mirror of their own experience, but just simply and really listens to you—a lot comes out. The surprising thing is that if and when you are really listened to—it seldom happens—most of you comes out. And if someone listens to you acutely and well for a long time, almost all of you comes out (pp. 55-56).
When those hidden pains, regrets, shame, and fear come out into the light, you can bring them into the light of God’s grace. I think Zahl means you can see them in light of God’s gracious promises of forgiveness and restoration, based on Jesus’s death on the cross. When you do that, things can finally change:
That, dear Boomer, is when your archeology stops being your teleology. That is when your past stops determining your future. That is when you are suddenly free (p. 56).
When Zahl says “your archeology stops being your teleology,” he means your past stops dictating your future, and your pain stops defining your purpose.
So grace people should try being good listeners:
Good listening, empowered by the listener’s empathy of feeling, has the unique potential for getting your pain out, for getting you to “stick it out,” in such a way that the bind it has on you loosens. In addition, when the primal pain starts to come out, not only does its present hold on you relax, but often it begins to appear, in the light of day, to be not quite the terminating fiery goblin you thought it was. Its hold gets loosened, by means of exposure to the light. Its power—both in itself and in the power you have been giving to it in your mind—diminishes (pp. 58-59).
Simply listening can be an example of grace in action to the person in pain:
The emphatic listener is grace in action. He or she is “one-way love.” The person being listened to is the recipient of grace (p. 61).
I love my friends and family, and I want to help “fix” their problems, but I often feel frustrated by my inability to do anything that will make a real impact. But Zahl reminds us that helping people doesn’t always have to start with your hands; it could start with open ears.