I’m in the presence of an oxygen-breathing, image-bearing, eternal soul, yet I struggle to focus on what he or she is saying. I wish it were as easy as putting away my phone or turning down the music, but it’s not that simple. Those things certainly help, but they don’t address my root problem.

Both my outer and inner environment vie for my attention, and it’s a monumental battle to resist their intrusion as I try to listen. Truly listen. With uninterrupted attention.

Please tell me I’m not the only one.

The easiest way out is to make excuses. To say things like, “I can’t help myself.” “It’s just the way I am.” “I’ve always been like this.”

This path of least resistance puts a Band-Aid on my conscience, but it doesn’t lead to change. Something in my gut tells me it shouldn’t be this way. It says that there’s more at stake in this battle. If I give in to these kinds of excuses, I’m compromising the command to love God and my neighbor.

So I dig a little deeper. What does this struggle look like, what’s its source, and how do I combat it?

The answers to these questions matter because, underneath the surface of this issue, another question lurks. How can I expect to hear God’s voice among all the other voices clamoring for my attention if I can’t even see and hear the person sitting across the table from me?

Three Real-Life Scenarios

While I suppose my distracted thoughts could be judgmental or covetous, I’m not primarily addressing blatantly sinful thoughts. More commonly, my intrusive thoughts have to do with uncompleted tasks, unresolved situations, writing concepts, or concerns for people who aren’t present.

Number one: I’m taking a walk with my sister, and she tells me about a difficult situation in her life. As she talks, I start wondering what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home. That email I need to write starts pressing into my thoughts. Before I know it, I’ve missed the last three minutes of my sister’s conversation, and I can either pretend I’ve heard it and keep listening, or I can humbly confess my distraction and ask her to repeat herself.

Number two: I’m sitting in small group with friends from church. As a friend shares a prayer request, a question or helpful thought comes to mind. But my friend continues talking. I have a choice. If I cling to that question or helpful thought, mentally holding onto it, so I don’t forget it, I’ll likely only hear 50% (or less) of the rest of what my friend shares. Or, I can set aside my input and keep listening, trusting that God will bring to mind what that friend needs to hear.

Number three: I’m riding in the passenger seat as my husband drives. I ask questions, truly wanting to hear his thoughts. But again, my wandering mind drifts to what I see outside the window—a passing store reminds me of a purchase I need to make, or a street sign triggers a memory of a friend I want to reach out to. These aren’t “bad thoughts,” but they distract me from what my husband is saying, and he and his words matter to me.

These three scenarios show how my struggle plays out relationally. I deeply value my sister, friend, and husband. I want to tune in to their concerns with compassion and care because I want to come alongside of them in a meaningful way. I want to listen discerningly to what they communicate. I also want to listen prayerfully, hopeful that the Holy Spirit will remind me of biblical wisdom that speaks to their situations so I can encourage and help them.

Yet I mentally drift in and out of conversations, and this reality limits the effectiveness of my care. Why is this a struggle, and why is it one worth fighting?

Learning to Listen to God instead of Self

This certainly isn’t meant to be an exhaustive explanation, but hopefully, it’s a helpful starting place. My natural bent and your natural bent, while we live on this earth in human skin, is always going to be to think about ourselves first. Our selves, our thoughts, our desires, our concerns, our needs, our sports teams, and our to-do lists always naturally come first. Unless we’re aware of this tendency and seek to combat it, our minds and hearts drift to “self.”

One of the many wonders of the gospel is that Jesus put obedience to his Father and sacrificial love for others first. Where we naturally default to “self” first, he showed us a better way. He perfectly fulfilled the Law, loving God and his neighbor.[1]

Innumerable voices call to us and draw our attention. They’re not all bad of themselves. But which voice will we listen to? Jesus learned to listen to his Father’s voice and always obey him.

Through Jesus, “…we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:16). In word and deed, Jesus tells us about God’s great love for us—God’s deep, abiding, soul-satisfying love. Like the psalmist, God’s love ought to be first in our day and first in our hearts:

“Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Ps 143:8).

When we hear God’s voice and know his great love for us, then “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

What does this have to do with listening? When we listen to God, we learn of his great love. As we grow in our awareness of his love, it overflows in love for others. Because we’ve been loved sacrificially, we love others sacrificially. This kind of love motivates and helps us to set aside our own agendas and plans. It helps us to listen so we can bring God’s love to others in meaningful, personal ways.

A Battle Worth Fighting

Loving others with God’s love is worth fighting the battle of our own distracted brains and wandering hearts. It’s worth counting others more significant than ourselves and looking to their interests.[2] It’s worth taking every thought captive.[3]

Tools can be helpful. For example, in scenario two mentioned earlier, a notebook and pen are invaluable tools at a small group meeting. Quickly jotting down a question or thought assures it won’t be forgotten and allows me to listen actively to the rest of the conversation.

We use tools that are helpful, and we limit distractions as much as possible. We turn off or turn down the volume on the phone, TV, or music when they distract from a person who needs our attention.

Even when these actions are taken, though, we’re prone to wander. So we preach truth to our hearts about the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbor, and we prayerfully ask God to help us fight these battles. When we wander, and the Holy Spirit reminds us, we turn back. We confess and repent to our friend if needed, and we re-engage in order to serve.

When we listen this way, we say, “By God’s grace, I love you more than I love myself. I love you enough to turn from my own concerns to listen to yours. I love you enough to make everything else wait and give you my attention.”

No one does this perfectly, but like any other area of discipline, it’s worth prayerful consideration and pursuit. It will be easier for some people than others, but everyone can grow by degrees. And, there are time limits. My sister will go home, and I’ll need to make dinner for my family and write that email. But while I’m with her, I’ll love my sister by listening to her.

If we grow in this discipline of tuning out distractions, it will have broad ramifications. Yes, we will listen more attentively to those we can see with our visible eyes and hear audibly with our ears. We will also be better trained to “be still and know” our invisible God.[4] By limiting other voices, we’re better positioned to hear the voices that really matter. Loving by listening matters for all of our relationships.

[1] Matt 22:37-38

[2] Phil 2:3-4

[3] 2 Cor 10:5

[4] Ps 46:10

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