Four(teen) Ways to Improve Your Listening

“Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…” —James 1:19, NIV

Nothing unburdens a hurting soul, delights a cheerful soul, or gives clarity to a muddled soul like a friend who listens with interest. As David Augsburger observed, “Being heard is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” (I would also suggest that being heard is so close to being known that most people cannot tell the difference.)

We all long to be known and loved, and listening is custom-fit to accomplish both of these ends. When done correctly, listening can bring healing, refreshment, encouragement, transformation. In fact, I would argue that there is not a single conversational habit you could adopt that will have a greater impact on the people in your life than listening well. (The practice of giving specific encouragement is also near the top of the list.)

The problem is that many parents, counselors, teachers, and friends believe the best way to have an impact is to talk—to offer advice, share knowledge, or impress with words of wisdom. Most of the time, that’s not the case. As the adage goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” You earn the right to speak into one’s life through listening well. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “We should listen with the ears of God so that we may speak the word of God.”

Do you want to have an impact on those around you? Learn to listen well. Listening is a gift you can always give and a skill you can always improve. To that end, consider four(teen) ways to improve your listening.

1. Choose to listen.

I’d argue that 70% of the reason why people don’t listen well is that they don’t choose to, whereas 30% is because they don’t know how. In other words, the first step to listening well is a matter of intentionality. It’s a matter of conscious choice.

In every conversation, you have two options (with a wide spectrum in between): tune out or listen well. Often this is simply the choice between putting yourself first and putting the other person first. As Stephen Covey put it, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Most people are more interested in what they have to say than what you have to say.

The reason being heard feels so much like being loved is because true listening is loving. It is caring rather than consuming, understanding rather than using, giving rather than taking. Not many habits reflect the gospel more powerfully than this.

2. Don’t assume you already know what the other person has to say.

Perhaps nothing kills active listening more than the assumption that “I already know this.” Worse, when we assume the other person has nothing interesting, new, or novel to offer, it can subtly fuel spiteful feelings toward him. To quote Bonhoeffer again, “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person” (emphasis mine).

At best, the assumption that the other person has nothing new or interesting to offer is unhelpful. At worst, it will deteriorate a relationship. Meanwhile, if you approach interactions with the expectation that you will learn something new, you will not only listen better, discover more, and participate with greater enjoyment, but you will also honor the other person and reflect the love of Christ (our ultimate motivation to listen well). As my friend Caleb Collins put it, “Treat others like they have something valuable to say and you will likely both give and get something valuable in return.”

3. Become an expert at asking questions.

Asking questions and listening are a match made in heaven (literally). Jesus asked over 300 questions in the gospels alone—even though he “already knew what others had to say” infinitely more than we do! (See Psalm 139:4; John 2:24-25.) If question-asking and listening were merely about information gathering, Jesus wouldn’t have done it. Yet he majored in it. Why? Because question-asking is a uniquely powerful form of ministry.

Asking questions communicates that you value the other person (and what she has to say) in a way that talking simply cannot—regardless of how profound your words are. This is a priceless gift in a world full of people starving to be noticed and valued. If you ask good questions, people will encounter the attentive, loving, interested presence of Christ through you in a rare and transformative way.

If you struggle to know what questions to ask, remember that you always have FORKS in your toolbelt. (See this article for an explanation of this acronym and further tips on asking great questions.)

To counselors and friends of hurting loved ones

Asking questions is especially important when helping a hurting loved one. Asking questions shows the other person that you see her as a person to foster not a problem to fix. (It also helps you give much better counsel if and when you do speak.) Always aim to ask at least 3 questions before offering your input.

If you’re a counselor, I’d recommend something like a 10-to-1 ratio between asking questions and giving advice. Effective counseling is much more about understanding the other person (and helping him understand himself) than giving advice. People are more likely to change when you help them come to a conclusion than when you tell them what they should think. Advice (often) band-aids a wound; listening and asking questions work toward healing the wound.

4. Show interest.

If you want to make someone feel heard, listen. If you want to make someone feel loved, listen with interest. Consider ten ways to grow in this area:

  1. Look her in the eye. Maintaining eye contact communicates to the other person, “You are the most important thing to me right now.” Wandering eyes will always make the other person feel unheard (or not fully heard at best).
  1. Face her. As someone is talking, ask yourself, “Does my body language communicate that I am all-in on this conversation or that I’m more interested in something else?”
  1. Put down your phone. Not many things communicate disinterest (and disrespect) more than looking at your phone when someone is talking to you. Meanwhile, putting your phone away assures the other person that she has your undivided attention.
  1. Ask clarifying questions. Clarifying questions communicate your desire to understand and your interest in the conversation. Two of the best questions to ask are, “What did you mean by [insert one specific word or phrase they said]?” and “Are you saying that [insert what you think they’re saying in your own words]?” 
  1. Smile. Smiling shows that you enjoy the other person’s presence. You don’t need to smile for the entire interaction. But if you spend two hours with someone and you never smile, what does this communicate to the other person about your interest in them?
  1. Nod when she’s talking. Facial expressions and non-verbal affirmations show her that you understand and you’re actively listening.
  1. Write down important details. It can be easy to forget important parts of a dialogue (e.g., the names of her kids, the anniversary of her mom’s death, her prayer requests). Immediately after a conversation ends, make note of these things. Remembering sensitive details will go a long way in making someone feel heard and loved.
  1. Set aside time for undistracted listening. It is understandably difficult to listen well as you’re rushing out the door, about to take an important phone call, or falling asleep after a long day. Make listening easier by setting aside time when you can be engaged without distraction. If you’re unable to give someone your full attention, ask her, “Can we talk about this [insert a specific day and time]?” This communicates that you care about this person’s thoughts enough to make sure you can give them your full attention.
  1. Pray. Before you meet with someone (or before you get home from work to see your spouse), pray, “Help me to listen well.” This glorifies God, honors the other person, and puts your mind in the right place. And you better believe God is delighted to answer this prayer!
  1. Follow up. Every time you follow up with someone about something she said, you communicate that “I heard you, I care about you, and I want to hear more about you.” Often the sweet spot to follow up is within 24-72 hours.

Love by listening

You will have an opportunity to love someone today by listening well. Take advantage of this opportunity and lean into it as a gift from God. Not many things will convey the affection of Christ more powerfully than your intentional and interested attention.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila ReportMonergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “Five Habits That Kill Contentment” here.

Read “Four Burdens Jesus Never Asked You to Carry” here.

Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.

Four Burdens Jesus Never Asked You to Carry

I once read a fictional story of a man who received an assignment from Jesus while traveling up a mountain. The story went something like this:

“How are you this morning?” Jesus asked.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Fred replied. “Is there anything I can do for you today?”

“Yes, there is,” Jesus said. “I have a wagon with three stones in it, and I need someone to pull it up the hill for me. Are you willing?”

“Of course; I’d love to do something for you! Those stones don’t look very heavy, and the wagon is in great shape. Where would you like me to take it?”

Jesus gave the man specific instructions, sketching a map in the dust at the side of the road. Cross the forest to get to the village; cross the village to get to the path; stay on the path until you reach the top.

So Fred set off cheerfully. The wagon pulled a bit behind him, but the burden was an easy one. He began to whistle as he walked quickly through the forest. The sun peeked through the trees and warmed his back. What a joy to be able to help the Lord, Fred thought, enjoying the beautiful day.

As Fred entered the village, he saw a man selling colored stones, slightly bigger than the ones Jesus gave him, and much more glamorous in his humble opinion. I’ll bet Jesus would want a few of these, too, he thought to himself. He found that only two of their size would fit in the wagon alongside the rocks Jesus gave him, so he purchased a couple and went on his way, proud of his own ambition to do even more than what Jesus had asked of him.

As he neared the end of the village—with the path in sight—he saw a signpost that read, “Freshly tumbled stones, two miles east! Rounder, smoother, and more polished than any you’ve ever seen!” It was off the path Jesus directed him to take, to be sure, but he could easily fit two more stones in his knapsack, maybe more—and Jesus would be so proud of him for carrying more than he asked! He could already picture the impressed look on Jesus’s face: “My, my, you’re even stronger than I realized!” Jesus would say.

As Fred went along, he collected more and more rocks—some from nearby towns, others from fellow travelers, still others from paths Jesus never asked him to go. He even purchased a new wagon—heavier, yes, but it gave him more space to fit his new rocks, and the tires looked to be more durable than the ones on Jesus’s wagon. Jesus doesn’t know how steep these hills can be, Fred thought.

With every mile Fred traveled, his load grew fuller and fuller, heavier and heavier. The wagon felt huge and awkward as it lumbered and swayed over the ruts in the road. No longer was Fred singing praises. Instead, resentment began to build inside, especially during the steeper parts of the journey. How could Jesus expect me to carry such a heavy load? he thought to himself.

Frustrated, he began to entertain thoughts of giving up and letting the wagon roll backward. About that time Jesus came to Fred’s side and asked him what was wrong.

“You gave me a job that is too hard for me,” Fred sobbed.

Jesus walked over to the wagon. “What is this that you’re carrying?” he asked with a tone of purer compassion than Fred had ever heard. One by one, Jesus unloaded the wagon, placing stones of various sizes and colors on his own back, until only the three stones he had given Fred were left in the wagon.

“I know you were trying to help,” Jesus said gently. “But when you are weighed down with all these cares, you will not have the strength to do what I have asked of you.”

Burdens Jesus never asked us to carry

As silly as this story may seem, there is a Fred in all of us. Every Christian has taken up burdens Jesus never asked her to carry—often with noble motives—and has had to learn to lay them back down. In fact, the Christian life could be described as a continual laying down of unnecessary burdens at Christ’s feet, daily seeking fresh mercy and relief in his soul-sustaining presence (Psalm 55:22; Matthew 11:28-30; 1 Peter 5:7).

Scripture highlights many heavy burdens that we will be tempted to carry in this life—burdens that Jesus wants to carry for us. Consider four:

(1) The burden of our sins.

Key verses:

“My iniquities have gone over my head; they are too heavy for me to carry.” (Psalm 38:4)

“Jesus personally carried our sins in his body on the cross. … By his wounds you are healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

The burden of our sins—the guilt, shame, and regret, the feelings of inadequacy, bondage, hopelessness, and humiliation—often feels less like a few heavy rocks on our back and more like a mountain of boulders that we’ve been buried beneath. As the psalmist relatably illustrates, “My sins pile up so high I can’t see my way out” (Psalm 40:12). Not only are we unable to carry the burden of our sins, we can’t even lift a finger as we lie face down in the dirt beneath them. Sin is beyond heavy; it is crushing. 

This reality is what makes the name of Jesus so oxygenating for the soul of the believer. His name is the sound of deliverance; his burden-bearing arrival means our lungs can breathe again. As Dane Ortlund put it, “Not only can Jesus alone pull us out of the hole of sin; he alone desires to climb in and bear our burdens [for us].”

Jesus doesn’t pull us out of the avalanche of our sins and then leave us there to be buried again. Jesus was buried for us so that we—sheltered by his resurrection power and insurmountable love—never have to live beneath that oppressive weight again (Romans 6:4; 8:38-39; Galatians 2:20). Far from demanding masochism and salvaged guilt as penitence for our sin, Jesus welcomes us to live in ongoing repentance, daily breathing in the un-burdening freedom of his victory and God’s forgiveness (Colossians 2:13-15; 1 John 1:9; Heidelberg Catechism Q&A #1).

(2) The burden of saving, changing, or healing others.

Key verse:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)

Beyond attempts to atone for our own sins (i.e., the burden of saving ourselves), another common temptation is to take on the pressure of changing those around us (i.e., the burden of saving others). This, too, is a crushing weight. If we believe it is our job to save those around us, then we will constantly feel like we are failing both God and others every time people don’t change in the ways (or timing) we had hoped.

Yet time and time again in his Word, God welcomes us to offload the heavy burden of saving onto Christ, and to simply partake in the ministry of sowing. Over and over again throughout Scripture, Jesus says to us, “You be the sower, and let me be the Savior” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6). He invites us to simply scatter the seed of the gospel and then to rest, trusting him to do the work (cf. Mark 4:26-29).

But what about carrying one another’s burdens?

Of course, part of the ministry of sowing is helping others carry their burdens. I once saw a cartoon of a woman lying in her sick bed, clearly overwhelmed. The sink overflowed with dirty dishes. A huge basket of clothes to be ironed sat nearby. Two dirty children were fighting in one corner; in the other corner a cat sat licking spilled milk. A cheery woman stood in the doorway, smiling and waving as she left for her weekly pedicure. She called out, “Well, Florence, if there is anything I can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask!”

Ignoring the needs of others is not what it means to be a sower—we are still called to carry one another’s burdens. But carrying someone’s burdens is not the same thing as taking them. Just three verses after the Holy Spirit tells us to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), he then tells us that we all must carry our own burdens (Galatians 6:5). In other words, Christians are called to support one another, but not to take responsibility for one another. The primary emphasis of the sowing imagery is not that the sower doesn’t put in effort, but that he doesn’t burden himself with the impossible task of causing growth in others. This he entrusts to God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6).

If you are faithful to simply sow the seed of the gospel, you can be confident that God sees your efforts, he is pleased by them, and he will bear fruit through you—sometimes in ways you see immediately, often in ways you see over a long period of time, and perhaps usually in ways you won’t see fully until eternity. So continue to sow faithfully, expectantly, and restfully—trusting that God will bring blessing through it.

(3) The burden of perfectionism.

Key verse:

“Jesus answered, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.'” (Luke 10:41-‬42)

Our culture is obsessed with the pursuit of being “good enough.” Am I a good enough mother? Am I a good enough singer? Am I a good enough student? Am I a good enough friend? Am I a good enough pastor? Am I a good enough Christian?

This constant pressure drives many to take up the heavy backpack of perfectionism—endlessly clawing for acceptance and constantly worrying if we have done enough to earn and maintain the approval of God and others. Carrying this burden is not only exhausting, but it’s also futile—we are always climbing, yet never arriving.

Ironically, even if we could arrive at the status of “good enough,” we would actually be settling for something far less than what God intended for us. God doesn’t intend to make us good enough; he intends to make us good. At the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10), Jesus won’t say to his Bride (the Church), “You are decent. Acceptable. Good enough.” Rather, he will say to us, “You are perfect. Without blemish. Stainless. Glorious. Beautiful” (cf. Ephesians 5:27; Colossians 3:12; also see Isaiah 43:4).

This glorious destiny will not come from us perfecting ourselves, but rather from throwing ourselves onto Christ to cleanse and beautify us (Ephesians 5:25-26). The fact that our salvation is received—not achieved—is at the very heart of the good news we proclaim (Isaiah 55:1-3).

For more on the topic of perfectionism and how to find freedom from the repressive burden of doing enough or being enough, check out Joanna Weaver’s fabulous book, “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.” Another fine resource is Alistair Begg’s sermon on the dangers of a performance-driven Christian life.

(4) The burden of knowing the future. 

Key verse:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23; also see Isaiah 46:10; Luke 12:22-34)

Time and time again throughout Scripture, Jesus welcomes us to live for him today and to trust him to provide for us tomorrow. He frees us from asking, “What will happen tomorrow?” and calls us to simply ask, “What does faithfulness look like today? How can I love God and others today?”

Whether we are…

Jesus wants to help carry our burdens and give rest to our souls in ways nothing (and no one) else can (Matthew 11:28-30).

Your burden is what qualifies you to come!

Are you weighed down by burdens today? You don’t need to do more or be better in order to come to Jesus—he wants to meet you where you are. In the words of Dane Ortlund, “You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come.”

So, as we sing, “Lay down your burdens; lay down your shame. All who are broken, lift up your face. Oh wanderer come home; you’re not too far. Lay down your hurt; lay down your heart, and come as you are.”

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.

Read “Christian, You Are Fully Known and Fully Loved” here.

Listen to “Come As You Are” (Crowder) here.

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply in the box below.

How to Give (and Receive) Repentance

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

Imagine you are on Family Feud, and Steve Harvey gives the following prompt:

“We asked 100 sinners, ‘Name one reason why you do not repent of your sin to one another.’ The top seven answers are on the board.” 

What do you think the most common responses would be? I’d offer these seven. 

We don’t repent because. . .  

  1. We’re completely blind to our sin, or we don’t think our sin is bad enough to warrant repentance.
  1. We don’t think the other person deserves our repentance. Maybe we think they sinned first, or they sinned more, or their sin caused our sin, so we refuse to repent until they do.
  1. We don’t think repenting will help anything. Sometimes we fear our repentance will fuel their pride, appear to ignore their fault, or lead to further conflict. So we stay silent.
  1. We are too proud. Repentance means admitting we were wrong—and that we need mercy—which requires Christlike humility. Sometimes we don’t want to stoop that low.
  1. We are too ashamed of our sin or too afraid of the consequences. Repentance also means giving up (the feeling of) control over our own reputation, and putting ourselves at the mercy of others. This takes vulnerability—something many people run from.
  1. We don’t want to change. Biblical repentance requires turning—changing our behavior—which can feel a bit like heart surgery. Many resist confessing their sin because they love it too much to give it up.
  1. We don’t know how to repent. Many people never had repentance clearly modeled in the home or taught in the church, leaving them unequipped to put it into action.

So why should we confess our sins to one another?

James 5:16 gives us a helpful starting point: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

This verse gives us at least two motivations to confess our sins to one another:

  1. Because God commands us to.
  2. Because God commands us to for our healing.

Repentance is not a punishment God makes us pay after we sin; it’s medicine God uses to heal us from our sin’s ravaging effects. God uses our repentance to enliven us (Acts 11:18), refresh us (Acts 3:19–20), restore us (Luke 15:11–24), cleanse us (1 John 1:9), and enrich our fellowship with him and with one another (1 John 1:6–7). Repentance is not a curse to fear, but a gift to cherish.

How do I repent of my sin to someone?

Repentance can be hard, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Below is a simple “1-2-3 model” of repentance: one statement, two omissions, three questions.

One statement:

“I am sorry that I [insert sin].”

We can call this naming the sin. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to one another” Both the words “your” and “sins” are key here.

First, confess your sins. Repentance is not saying:

  • I’m sorry you were hurt.
  • I’m sorry you were offended.
  • I’m sorry you interpreted that the way you did.

Rather, repentance is saying,

  • I’m sorry I spoke harshly with you.
  • I’m sorry I was dishonest with you.
  • I’m sorry I was selfish in demanding my way.

Second, confess your sins. This means taking the offense out of the abstract (“I’m sorry I hurt you”) and getting specific about how you sinned against the other person. Specificity honors the other person, legitimizes her pain, helps both parties come to an agreement, and gives you something specific to work on in the future.

Two omissions:

  1. Finger-pointing: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but you. . .”
  1. Self justification: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but I wouldn’t have had to if. . .”

Finger-pointing and self-justification are two of the biggest roadblocks to healing and reconciliation. I once heard a pastor say, “In conflict, always own 100 percent of your 2 percent.” In other words, even if you were only two percent of the problem, own it. Not only does this honor God (our ultimate motivation), but often when we take full ownership of our sin, the other person will reciprocate and confess her sin, too.

Three questions:

  1. “Will you forgive me?”

Trying to forgive someone who hasn’t asked for your forgiveness is like trying to climb a mountain with a bag of rocks strapped to your back. It’s possible, but much harder, more painful, more tiring, and less enjoyable. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t remove the mountain the other person must climb to forgive you, but it can immediately remove a significant amount of weight off her back, which can be immensely freeing. This might be the one question your loved one has been longing to hear from you for days, months, or years.

  1. “Was there any other way that I hurt you in this situation?”

One of the most important aspects of confession is coming to an agreement about the sin committed, the pain caused, and the plan of action going forward. (The Greek word for confess in James 5:16 literally means “to agree.”) Without coming to an agreement, bitterness and distance will continue to thrive.

  1. “How can I love you better in the future?”

Beneath this question is the humble acknowledgement that, “Maybe I don’t know what you need. You tell me how I can love you better.” This question conveys love, facilitates needful communication, and provides a healthy foundation for healing and reconciliation. 

How do I receive repentance?

Because repentance is so rare, it can be difficult to know how to respond when someone actually does confess their sin to us. Consider three simple tips. (In cases of abuse, seek help from others to determine the best way forward.)

  1. Thank them for repenting and grant them forgiveness.
  1. Confess any way that you sinned in this matter. (It is possible that you have not sinned, in which case you shouldn’t make something up.)
  1. Communicate exactly how you were hurt and how you would feel loved in the future, so that they can work on changing.

We have a responsibility to communicate our needs to those closest to us. It’s not loving to sweep their sins under the rug or to tolerate their annoying habits without saying anything. This will only enable their behavior and feed bitterness in our hearts.

Cherish Repentance

Repentance is a gift of God that leads to life and healing (Acts 11:18; James 5:16). Let’s cherish it, cultivate it, and live in gratitude and dependence on God as we seek to model it in our lives.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity” here.

Read “How to Starve Bitterness” here.

Read “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” here.

Which Memories Should I Dwell On?

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

I am 29 years old. Several years ago I first spoke the words, “That happened a decade ago,” and it was the strangest sensation. Now I’m starting to reminisce on things that happened fifteen, even twenty years ago, and it’s flat out kooky.

Another development I’ve noticed in recent years is the influx of nostalgia. In high school and college I had fond memories, but not many were nostalgic. Now ten seconds of Secondhand Serenade reduces me to a puddle of reminiscent goo.

Memories have power, and what we dwell on will invariably shape our emotions, attitudes, and beliefs (Isaiah 26:3; Philippians 4:8). Because of their unique power, we must be intentional with how we use them. Thankfully, God’s Word gives us much direction on how we can channel our memories for good.

Voluntary or involuntary?

Memories are complex. Some memories flood our minds involuntarily and even against our will, such as those triggered by abuse or trauma. In these cases, much healing and help can come through the guidance of a therapist or another medical professional.

However, many of the memories we fixate on are voluntary, within our ability to control. In fact, God commands us to be intentional with our memories and even selective with what we choose to dwell on (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:12; 8:2; Isaiah 46:9; John 14:26; Acts 20:35; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26; Ephesians 2:11-13). Just as we are to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), so too are we to take our memories captive.

How can we ensure that the memories we fixate on bring glory to God and life to ourselves and others? Consider five questions to help you determine whether dwelling on a particular memory is helpful.

1. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my gratitude?

Gratitude is the crown jewel of recollection, turning good memories into ongoing blessings (Proverbs 10:7). C.S. Lewis put it best in Out of the Silent Planet:

A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hmán, as if pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.

God created memories to consummate the joy of praiseworthy moments and to lead us into grateful praise (Philippians 4:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). This gives us a quick test to determine whether dwelling on a particular memory is profitable: Does replaying this moment in your mind lead to gratitude for what you once had or discontentment for what you now have?

Interestingly, the tenth commandment (“Do not covet”) applies here. We tend to think of coveting as inordinately longing for something someone else has. But a more subtle form of coveting is inordinately longing for what we once had (or wish we once had). Both forms must be repented of—and both are best combatted with gratitude.

2. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my hope?

Remembrance is the linchpin of hope. Much of our disorientation in life is a product of forgetfulness—forgetfulness of who we are, who God is, what Christ did, how God views us, where we came from, or where we are going. Conversely, it is when our memories are most saturated with these realities that our hearts are most full.

Arguably the best way to combat inordinate longings for the past is to remember that our best moments in life are mere appetizers of what is to come. We don’t need to cling to an appetizer when the main course—of similar pleasure but greater fullness—is coming.

Often we think our longings are pointing backward when in reality they’re pointing forward. The ultimate fulfillment of our longings won’t come by going back to the past; they will come through God’s provisions in the future (Psalm 16:11). Rest in this hope!

3. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my commitment to truth?

George Ball observed, “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” Often our memories play tricks on us, tempting us to believe that the past was better than it actually was. Solomon warns us of this danger in Ecclesiastes 7:10, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”

The ultimate danger of feeding nostalgia is not the immediate pain of longing for the past, but the damaging effect that it can have on our beliefs. Dwelling on skewed memories (whether exaggerated positively or negatively) can twist our view of God, others, and ourselves. We must catechize ourselves with God’s Word, not with our nostalgia. Memories will fail; God’s Word won’t (Matthew 24:35).

4. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my love for others?

Memory is gasoline without favoritism; it will fuel the fires of both bitterness and love, wherever we choose to pour it. Every time we dwell on someone’s past sin—replaying the memory of their offense again and again in our minds—we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts and it grows. This may feel good for a moment, but it always ends up harming us in the long run. It has been said that entertaining bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, and this is certainly the case with dwelling on bitter memories.

Meanwhile, intentionally recalling the good in others (and God’s mercy and love toward us) is one of the best ways to stir up love and compassion in our hearts (Luke 6:35-36). Just as God loves us by not keeping our sin on the forefront of his mind, so we are called to love others by filling our minds with praiseworthy things (Philippians 4:8).

5. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my love for the Triune God?

Remembering is at the heart of our communion with God and our liturgy as the Church. Preaching, singing, and reading Scripture help us remember the words and promises of God (Psalm 119:11; Proverbs 7:1-3). Taking communion helps us remember the person and work of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:24-26). Observing baptism helps us remember how we were brought from death to life by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:4; 8:11).

Ultimately, God gave us memory to aid our love for him, our appreciation for what he has done, and our anticipation of what is to come. Let’s be faithful to use our memories for these purposes—for God’s glory and our good.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila Report, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “Overcoming Fear of the Future” here.

Read “Special Needs and the Goodness of Dependence” here.

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply in the box below.

Christian, You Are Fully Known And Fully Loved

There is perhaps nothing more desirable than to be fully known—completely seen and understood—and yet still loved. As Ed Welch put it, “To be truly known with nothing to hide … is life at its best.” 

Yet, while the prospect of being known brings excitement, it also instills fear. As Tim Keller put it, “To be known and not loved is our greatest fear.”

This paradox of emotions is what prompts us to be transparent up to a point but to stop short of full disclosure. We seek to share enough of ourselves to make us feel like we are loved and accepted for who we really are, but not enough to risk being rejected. Some walk this tight rope for decades. Yet, deep down, most of us sense that we were created for more.

To find clarity amid this paradox, we must understand where our desire comes from, where our fear comes from, and how the gospel speaks unrivaled hope into this clash of emotions.

Exploring Our Desire

While Scripture doesn’t tell us much about humanity before the fall, the Holy Spirit does give us two words to help us understand our sinless condition: naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:25). In other words, before sin, humans lived in the blissful freedom of being perfectly known and accepted by God and one another, without any fear or shame. Fully known, fully loved.

This glorious state is not only our origin; it’s also our destiny. One day we will know and be known fully, in a world of perfect love (John 17:3; 1 Cor. 13:12-13).

The first step in finding clarity amid our conflicting emotions is to recognize that our desire to be fully known is not sinful, but rather a healthy longing to relate to God and others in the way God intended. God himself desires to be known, and we were created in his image! Our longing is a God-given expression of our humanity.

Exploring Our Fear

After sin entered the world, our state of “naked and unashamed” was immediately replaced with a state of “hiding and afraid.” In the words of Adam, “I was afraid because I was naked. So, I hid” (Gen. 3:10). In the blink of an eye, the thought of being known morphed from a comfort to a threat. Tragically, this became the new normal.

At the heart of our fear of being known is a fear of rejection. And the most painful form of rejection is not being rejected for something we did, but for who we are. Notice that Adam does not say, “I was afraid because I ate the fruit.” He says, “I was afraid because I was naked.”

Adam’s sin plunged him into a deep sense of personal inadequacy and unworthiness. His sin created a separation between him and God and between him and Eve (Isaiah 59:2). He tried to repair this brokenness by covering up his shame, but it didn’t work. Even with his self-made covering, he still felt afraid (Gen. 3:8).

We’ve all felt this. Even in the moments that we think we’ve successfully hidden our flaws, we still don’t feel secure. In fact, hiding often amplifies our insecurity and anxiety (Proverbs 10:9). If hiding cannot give us the freedom we long for, what can?

The Gospel: “I know you and I still love you”

Perhaps there is no more comforting word in all of Scripture than the word “still” in Romans 5:6-8:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Notice the recipients of God’s love: weak, ungodly, sinners. Next, notice the timing of God’s love: God loves us while we are still weak, ungodly, sinners.

This passage corrects at least two common misconceptions about God’s love. First, it makes it clear that Christ’s death didn’t “persuade” the Father to love sinners. That is not the gospel. God does not love you because Jesus died for you; Jesus died for you because God loves you! Second, this passage reaffirms that God is not waiting until you “do better” to start loving you. His love doesn’t fluctuate with your always-changing performance. According to Romans 5:6-8, God loves you perfectly, even at your worst.

The beauty of the gospel is not that we are strong and sinless, but that God loves us and rescues us while we are still weak and sinful (which, in turn, motivates and empowers us to pursue new obedience). As A.W. Tozer put it:

Jesus Christ came not to condemn you but to save you—knowing your name, knowing all about you, knowing your weight right now, knowing your age, knowing what you do, knowing where you live, knowing what you ate for supper and what you will eat for breakfast, where you will sleep tonight, how much your clothing cost, who your parents were. He knows you individually as though there were not another person in the entire world. He died for you as certainly as if you had been the only lost one. He knows the worst about you and is the One who loves you the most.

God’s message for you is this: I know everything about you. I know you are weak. I know you are ungodly. I know you are sinful. But I still love you. No, not after you clean yourself up. Not after you are glorified. Now.

True freedom

True freedom comes not when we have successfully hidden; it comes when we realize that we have been found out, but are still accepted, through God’s gracious love and forgiveness. Through faith in Christ—and by living in continual, true repentance—despite our weaknesses and sins, we can once again enjoy the freedom of being fully known and fully loved.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila Report, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Listen to “Fully Known, Fully Loved” here.

Read “Special Needs and the Goodness of Dependence” here.

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply in the box below.