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.

An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity

Recently I told a friend that I would give my whole bank account for clarity. He said, “No you wouldn’t.” I said, “Yes I would.” He said, “No you wouldn’t.” I said, “Yes… I would.” He said, “You really want clarity, huh? Okay, I will pray for that for you.”

The next morning—less than 12 hours later—I woke up and continued listening to Aimee Joseph’s Demystifying Decision-Making. She said, “We far too easily demand clarity from our Creator when, instead of clarity, he would rather cultivate faith in us.”

I suppose God answered my prayer for clarity quicker than expected—only instead of giving me clarity of direction, he gave me clarity of priority. In this moment, I believe God was graciously reminding me that trust in God is infinitely more valuable than clarity on what to do. If God chose to increase my faith rather than give me clarity in this situation, that would be a treasure of far greater worth. (Let’s hope God doesn’t come for my bank account now that he’s cleared this up for me!)

Consider three ways that trust in God is more valuable than clarity on what to do.

1. Clarity might help us now; trust will help us for a lifetime.

In one sense, the difference between clarity and trust is similar to the difference between a painkiller and true healing. We often long for the narcotic of clarity because we long for a quick fix. Clarity takes us out of the uncomfortable—out of a place of dependence—and makes us feel back in control. But is that really what we need most?

If God gave us clarity, that may (or may not) help us with a particular decision, but it would never help us again. But if he gave us trust, that would help us for a lifetime (Psalm 125:1-2).

Those who trust the Lord don’t thrive because they always have clarity, but because they deem the one who holds the future worthy of their soul’s deepest rest. The security we long for doesn’t come from knowing the future, but from knowing and trusting God.

Don’t misunderstand: clarity in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, clarity is often the satisfying fruit of faith in action. But don’t miss the goodness of the seasons of life that feel unclear. Don’t rush past them. Don’t live in the future and miss the preciousness of what God is trying to teach you right now. Remember, if you can learn to trust God in this season, it will bear sweet fruit for the rest of your life (and for all eternity).

2. Clarity allows us to move on; trust allows God to move in.

One of the hardest parts of unclear seasons is the feeling of stuckness—like we can’t move forward in any areas of life until we get this area figured out. But let two things be clear.

First, if you do nothing in this season except deepen your trust in God, this will be one of the most productive seasons of your life (James 1:2-4). The product of clarity is a decision; the product of trust is a relationship. Which is more productive in the long run? I appreciate Ann Voskamp’s observation: “Too often we want clarity and God wants us to come closer.” Is it possible that God is allowing this season of waiting in your life to deepen your communion with him?

Second, God may be slowing you down in some areas of life, but he doesn’t want you to stop moving. Don’t sit on the sideline while you wait for clarity in this area. Ironically, God usually gives us clarity not while we are sitting on our hands and fixating on a decision, but while we are being the hands of Christ and focusing on his mission.

3. Clarity gives us something to run to; trust gives us someone to run to.

One of the most precious gems in Joseph’s book is a story she tells of her son after he made a poor decision. Whether you’re feeling uncertain about the past or the future, be encouraged by this today!

My nine-year-old son stood with his bicycle at the top of the steep hill in front of our house. His gaggle of neighborhood friends stood at the base of the hill where my husband and I were doing some gardening. Suddenly my son cried out from the top of the hill, “Hey guys, watch this!” My husband and I immediately looked up in alarm, as those are dangerous words coming from a young boy. Much to our surprise, our son’s next move was not to ride down the hill on the bike but to send the bike down the hill without a rider. Our eyes moved back and forth between the bike, which was picking up speed, and the new-to-us car toward which it was headed. Sure enough, the bike slammed into the side of the car as we watched in shock and horror. My son, recognizing what he had done and not even understanding himself why he had done it, began running down the hill. I fully expected him to run to his room in embarrassment, but he did something we did not expect. He ran directly into my husband’s arms, paying my husband one of the greatest compliments of his life. In a moment when fear of shame and consequences might have made him run from his father, he chose to run to his arms. He knew his father well enough to know that there would surely be consequences, but he also knew that his father loved him far more than he was disappointed with him. (Emphasis mine)

Here we see the all-surpassing value of trust. Trust not only helps us make decisions without being paralyzed by fear, but it also gives us someone to run to even when we make poor decisions. 

Interestingly, idolizing clarity can sometimes lead us to make wrong decisions. The presence of clarity is not always a stamp of God’s approval, nor does it guarantee good outcomes. But when we trust in God, we can be confident that no matter what the outcome is, we have a loving and sovereign Father who is always with us and ready to embrace us in his loving arms (Luke 15:20).

Rest in the arms of the Father

Our future is unknown, but God’s character and promises are not. Let’s rest knowing that our God is supremely trustworthy and that he will redeem all of our decisions for his glory and our good (Romans 8:28).

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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 “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” 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.

How To Pray With A Hurting Loved One

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

Praying with a hurting loved one is one of the most powerful ways to encourage her (Eph. 4:29; 1 Thes. 5:11), to sympathize with her (Rom. 12:15), to carry her burdens (Gal. 6:2), and to bring her into the presence and benefits of Christ (Ps. 145:18; Heb. 4:14-16).

As Charles Spurgeon remarked, “No man can do me a truer kindness in this world than to pray for me.”

Yet, there are a few common mistakes we can make when praying with others that can hinder the impactfulness of these moments. Below are four and how we can avoid them.

Mistake #1: Praying “fix it” prayers

Imagine your friend Sally just learned some bad news. She is really hurting. After she explains what’s going on, you offer to pray for her. What should you pray for? Consider the difference between the following prayers (and ask yourself which example sounds more like your typical prayers):

Prayer #1: Lord, help Sally to seek you. Help her to be consistent in her Bible reading and not to forsake spiritual disciplines. Help her to exercise regularly, meet with believers often, and maybe even talk to a counselor. Help her to keep Jesus at the center of her life and to focus on you instead of her circumstances. Amen.

Prayer #2: Lord, my heart hurts for Sally right now. Give us the strength to trust you even when we cannot see what you are doing. You have promised to be near to the brokenhearted, so make your nearness felt. You have promised to be a refuge in times of trouble, so let Sally feel your protection. O God, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Prayer #1 is simply a “to-do” list for Sally. We might call this a “fix it” prayer. Notice that in this prayer, the primary person you’re asking to do things is actually not Jesus. It’s Sally!

Meanwhile, prayer #2 enters into lament with Sally. We might call this a “prayer of intercession.” The primary person you’re asking to do things is God himself.

There is certainly a time to give advice, but prayer isn’t the place for it. Prayer is not a free pass to share your opinions with the other person while pretending to talk to God (this is manipulative and the other person will feel it). Rather, prayer is an opportunity to join arm-in-arm with your loved one, to call on God to act, and to bring your loved one’s emotions and needs to God when she might not have the strength to do so herself.

Mistake #2: Skipping listening

Another common mistake is to jump to prayer too quickly, without taking time to listen and ask questions first. If we skip this step, our prayers will lack compassion and might even be misguided. One of the best ways to cultivate compassion and understanding is by asking searching questions before offering to pray. How are you feeling about this situation? What are you struggling with the most? How is this impacting your faith? How exactly can I pray for you?

In intercessory prayer, your job is to represent the person you’re praying for. You must be able to accurately enter into her emotions and needs and to communicate these things to God on her behalf. Your intercessory prayers should leave the other person feeling like, “She gets me.” This won’t happen unless you first take time to listen.

Mistake #3: Neglecting God’s promises

There’s perhaps nothing we need to hear more when we’re hurting than God’s Word. God’s Word gives grace to the broken (Acts 20:32), guidance to the lost (Ps. 119:105), hope to the hopeless (Ps. 119:114), peace to the fearful (John 16:33), satisfaction to the hungry (Ps. 81:10). When you pray, don’t depend on your words alone—pray the word of Life itself (John 6:68; Acts 5:20; Phil. 2:16).

My personal favorite passage to pray over hurting friends is Psalm 143:6-12. If you don’t know how to pray for a hurting loved one, open up your Bible and pray these verses for her. This prayer asks God to provide his presence, love, direction, deliverance, teaching, Spirit, protection, and salvation. Many other Psalms serve as ready-made prayers for hurting souls.

Mistake #4: Forgetting follow-up

When a loved one shares something vulnerable with you, she is entrusting you with one of her most precious treasures—her heart. Following up not only communicates that you value her; it also reaffirms to her that you are a safe person to entrust herself to.

A useful habit is to set a “follow-up with [insert name]” reminder on your phone for 2-3 days down the road (the best time to do this is immediately after the initial conversation ends). Don’t rely on your memory alone. A visual reminder helps protect us from being blindsided by the busyness of life and by the temporary lapses in memory that all of us are susceptible to.

Reflect Christ

Praying with a loved one is a powerful means of grace and a precious gift of God. Let’s steward this gift well by using it to reflect the person of Christ—who enters into our emotions with us (John 11:32-36; Heb. 4:14-16), who listens well (Ps. 66:19-20), who speaks words of life (John 6:68), and who never leaves us alone in our suffering (Ps. 34:18; Heb. 13:5).

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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.

Watch or listen to “Hope For Suffering Saints” here.

Read “Repentance That Leads to Death” here.

Featured image photo credit: MILKOS VIA GETTY IMAGES

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