1. Able To Listen

The Character of Godís Workman

Watchman Nee
Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
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Lk. 14:26 π Heb. 2:18 π Heb. 4:15

To one who does the work of the Lord, his personal life matters much with respect to his work. What he is in his character, habit and conduct is essential to his being used of God. This is something to which we need to pay close attention. It speaks of the formation of our nature and the cultivation of our habit. It is more than merely having an experience before God, it involves the forming of character. The Lord has to create a new character in us. In many areas of life we need to be exercised before the Lord until there be developed in us new habits. These things have more to do with our outward man for it is there that we are re-created so as to be fit for the Masterís use.

Naturally, all this will necessitate the grace and the mercy of God. Nothing is completed on any day. Yet with sufficient light and adequate word from the Lord, all that is of ourselves and which is unfit will be withered and discontinued under the light, while at the same time a new character will be given us in resurrection, through Godís mercy. The few qualities which we shall mention hereafter have been drawn from the experiences and understanding of a number of brothers and sisters who have faithfully served God for many years. If any of these fundamental qualities is missing in a worker, the work of God shall surely suffer.


The first quality to be mentioned is the ability to listen. One who does the work of the Lord must possess in his personal life the habit of being a good listener. This is not just listening obediently but listening with understanding as well. It is a great need in the personal life of a worker. No one can do good work if he is always talking and never listening. A person whose mouth goes on continually like firecrackers that crack one after another is useless in Godís hand. No workman of God can be always talking. For how can he discern the problem of the person he is conversing with if he is speaking all the time. He is absolutely useless in helping people. When a person comes to you wishing to talk, you must learn how to listen before God. As he speaks, you need to be able to decipher three different kinds of words: 1) the words spoken, 2) those unspoken, and 3) those hidden within his spirit.

First, we must be able to hear and understand the words spoken. When someone comes to you, you yourself must be a quiet person whose heart is unperturbed and whose spirit is tranquil. You are like a piece of white blank paper having no prejudice, no subjectiveness and no inclination. Within you there is neither decision nor judgment. You place yourself in Godís presence in a state of perfect stillness. As soon as that person opens his mouth and begins to talk, you learn to listen to his words. In quietly listening you are able to know and understand what he is saying.

It is not an easy thing to listen. How much do you really understand when a brother is talking about a certain problem? Sometimes a dozen people, listening to a brother speaking of just one thing, may hear a dozen different things. What you hear is one thing, and what another person hears is another. And hence, there may be dozens of different conclusions drawn. How terrible it is if a truth is to be interpreted in dozens of ways. Therefore, learning to listen is a very necessary and basic discipline. Learning to understand the words spoken by people is a fundamental lesson a worker of God must learn.

When someone comes to you with a heavy burden and pours out his trouble, he expects to receive some help from you. But if you listen wrongly, what will happen? Or if you have not heard his story in the slightest but try to answer him with the thought that has been in your mind for the last two days, what kind of mess will you be creating? Suppose, for example, that a person has had an idea running through his mind during the last two days. He shares the same thought with the healthy as well as the sick, with the joyful as well as the mournful. He cannot simply sit down and listen quietly to what someone in need tells him. Do you think he can help anyone? Obviously not. So when someone is speaking to you, you as a workman of the Lord must listen carefully and try to discover what that person is really saying.

It is a far more difficult task for a workman of God to deal with peopleís spiritual problems than for a physician to examine his patients for physical problems. This is because a physician is assisted by the tests performed in the laboratory, whereas a worker for God tests everything within himself. A brother or a sister comes to you and talks for half an hour. During this half hour he places all his problems before you. You know nothing about his daily life nor his family situation nor his condition before the Lord. Half an hour is quite a long time; how are you going to help him if you are not a good listener?

All Godís workers must develop the ability to sit down, listen and discover the real issue in what they have heard. We who are Godís workmen must train ourselves to such a degree that as soon as people begin talking we can begin to know almost immediately where the cause lies. We soon come to have a clear picture in our mind of the situation. And thus shall we know whether we ourselves are competent to handle the case. Sometimes a brotherís situation is beyond our ability to help. In that case he should be frankly told. As soon as we hear his words, we know exactly where he stands and where we stand.

Secondly, we must be able to hear and understand the words unspoken. We need to hear before God the words which people have failed to utter. We should discern how much has been said and how much that should have been told but which was not said. To hear the words of the latter is much harder than to hear the words of the former. For whereas in the first case the words are uttered, now we must perceive what are his unuttered words. When people talk, they frequently say only half and leave the other half unsaid. In that event, it is now up to the worker to discern. But should you be undisciplined, you will not be able to hear what has been left unspoken. On the contrary, you will now add in your own ideas which the speaker does not at all have. This betrays something wrong with your own mind. For you bring in by force what he neither conceives in his mind nor utters in his words. You completely misunderstand him.

In order to judge what a person has uttered and what he has not uttered, you must be open before God. Oftentimes people will articulate what is not pertinent but omit what is pertinent and therefore important. It depends upon your personal dealings with God as to whether you shall be able to discern if the essential words have been spoken or not. So when a brother comes to speak to you, you need to know clearly what he has not uttered as well as what he has uttered. And you must also understand what lies behind his unuttered words. Only then will you have confidence before God as to the way of helping him - be it admonition or reproof or whatever. In case you are unclear yourself, you cannot listen - you simply pour out what is in your own mind. But after you have said your last word, you still remain ignorant of his problem; and thus, you have not rendered any help. The fact of the matter is that a poor listener is of very little use to Godís work. Unfortunately many seem to be plagued with this disease of an inability to hear either the spoken or the unspoken words. If so, then how can anyone expect them to distribute spiritual food in due season?

Thirdly, we must be able to hear and understand words hidden in manís spirit. Do not only listen to words uttered and unuttered, but also listen to what we would call words in the spirit. As a man opens his mouth and speaks, his innermost spirit is also speaking. As long as he is willing to talk with you, you have the opportunity of touching his spirit; when, however, his mouth is closed, his spirit is shut up within him; and as a consequence, it is not easy to know the words deep inside him. But the moment he opens his mouth, his spirit can begin to come forth. No matter how much he tires to control himself, his spirit will be manifest. Yet whether or not you are able to detect his hidden words in the spirit is dependent largely upon your own spiritual exercise before God. If you have learned, you may know not only the words spoken and unspoken but also the words in the spirit. As he talks you can perceive which few words come from his inner man. And thus you can begin to understand the issue in his spirit as well as the issue in his mind. You are now in a position to deal rightly with that brother. Otherwise, how can you cure his ailment if, after listening for half an hour, you fail to grasp the real issue?

This ability to listen is truly an urgent need for us workers. How sad that not many brothers and sisters are good listeners. You may converse with them for an hour and yet they still do not understand you. Indeed, the ability to listen is far from adequate. If a person cannot understand what man says to him, how can he possibly understand what God is speaking to him? If he cannot hear clearly the words spoken by people who sit close by, how can he hear God who speaks within him from heaven? If he cannot understand manís audible words, how can he understand Godís words spoken to his spirit?

What can you say to a brother if you cannot diagnose his spiritual illness and ferret out his problem? Let us not dismiss this as a small matter. For unless we have dealings in this area, we will not become those who can help people, even though we may study the Bible well, preach well and do many other works well. We must not be preachers only, who stand on a platform and speak to people; we must also be those who can deal effectively with them. How can we possibly render assistance to people if we cannot even hear what is being said? May we see the seriousness of this matter.

How much time have you spent before God in learning to listen to what people say? Or have you spent any time on this at all? We should spend time in learning to hear the words spoken, the words unspoken, and also the words in peopleís spirit. Please understand that a personís mouth and his spirit may not be in one accord. Many people speak one way, and yet their spirits are in a different condition. Nevertheless, a manís mouth is not able to hide his spirit forever. Sooner or later his spirit will come forth. And when it does come forth, you will then know exactly where he stands. But without such knowledge, it is rather difficult to help people.

Once upon a time there was an old physician who knew only two drugs: one was castor oil, the other was quinine pills. Regardless who came to him, he either prescribed castor oil or quinine. He used only these two drugs as a panacea for all sicknesses. Similarly, many brothers deal with people in but one or two ways. No matter what the condition of the needy one may be, they always speak the same words of prescription! Such brothers cannot help people. All who are called and used by God must have this one ability: that as soon as a person begins to speak, they know at once or shortly thereafter what that one is saying. Without such an ability, we cannot heal peopleís spiritual ailments.


How may we hear and understand? First, we must not be subjective. Let us be aware that the chief reason for not hearing and understanding other peopleís words is because of subjectiveness. A subjective person is unable to know what others are saying. In the event you have a preconceived idea or a subjective opinion about a certain thing or person, you will not be able to hear what is said to you. For you are filled with your own thought on the matter or person in question. So firmly is your opinion lodged in you that anotherís idea cannot have room for consideration.

Returning to our story earlier, regardless the kind of sickness, the doctor of our story has predetermined in his own mind always to prescribe castor oil. So that when confronted by needy people, he only dispenses this prescription. The same is true in the spiritual realm. How can a similarly inclined person possibly hear other people and thus help them? When brothers and sisters come to him, he is in no position to understand and render assistance in their spiritual problems. He has already decided beforehand to say certain words to them; and aside from these words, he has nothing else to say. He may have great confidence in himself, but he has no knowledge of peopleís difficulties. How, then, can such a person do the work of God?

We must therefore ask the Lord to teach us not to be subjective. Let us say to the Lord, ďLord, cause me to have neither prejudice nor pre-diagnosis when I come into contact with people. Lord, it is not for me to decide what sickness he should have, but cause me to find out what sickness he actually does have.Ē Let us learn before God not to be subjective; let us not be set in our own idea or view. Let us listen carefully. Let us try to touch the hidden cause and discern the real problem.

Second, we must not be absent-minded. Many brothers and sisters are undisciplined in their thought life. Their mind is constantly revolving about with never-ending thoughts. They think of this and think of that; their mind is always full of different ideas. And thus, there is no way for other peopleís thought, as expressed by their words, to penetrate into their mind. Their brain is never at rest. They are so occupied with their own ideas that they are not able to accept and consider anotherís thought. In view of this, our mind must be disciplined if we wish to listen to what people say. For when a mind revolves like a wheel, nothing else can get in. When a workman of the Lord listens to another brother or sister, his own mind needs to be stilled. Not only must his will not be subjective; his mind must be still as well. We must learn to think what another thinks and to hear what another says, even to hear the thought within the words. Otherwise, we are of very little usefulness.

Third, we must be sensible to othersí feelings. Here is another basic requirement to being a good listener, which is, that as we listen, we need to touch that personís feeling. In order to reach an understanding, we must enter into the otherís feeling as we listen to his words. Suppose a person is in deep sorrow and distress, but your own spirit is carefree and jolly. In that case, though you may hear a great deal, nevertheless, nothing registers. This is because your feeling is not in harmony with his feeling. And as a consequence, you cannot comprehend what has happened to him. So that one whose emotion has not been disciplined cannot enter into anotherís emotion. Unless a person has been dealt with before God, he cannot sing hallelujah at peopleís joy nor shed tears at their sorrow; and accordingly, he is unable to hear what they say.

How can we enter into the feelings of other people? We must keep our emotion sufficiently neutral. The one who comes before you has his own feeling, and unless your own feeling is neutral you have no ability to feel what he feels. You will be so busily occupied with what you yourself feel that you will be totally unable to know and to enter into how he feels. For the sake of the Lord, we become servants to all the brethren. We give them not only our time and our energy but also our feeling and emotion. This is truly a very weighty matter. In addition to helping people in their affairs, we also enter into their feelings by keeping our own feelings and emotions free. And since our own feelings are free and thus at their disposal, we may easily enter into the feelings of others. This is the meaning of how our Lord Jesus Christ, having been tempted and tested and tried in all things, is able to sympathize with us fully. (see Heb. 4:15 ; cf 2:18; top )

What has thus far been said above goes to explain the reason why our emotions must be dealt with. Our affection, having been dealt with, will no longer be self-engrossed; we must not only reserve time and energy for people, we must also reserve our feeling for them. This means we keep neutral our own emotions - be they love or joy or sorrow - whenever we listen to people, so that we may more easily enter into anotherís emotions. Otherwise, one single feeling of ours may so possess us and fill us that we have no spare room into which to accept anotherís feeling and thus be able to answer his need.

For one who learns to serve the Lord, the demand of God upon him is very high. He has no time to be joyful for himself, or to be sad for himself. For if he remains joyful or sorrowful, loving or hating in or for himself, he is already so engrossed and filled with his own self that he has no emotional strength left by which to supply the needs of brothers and sisters. Let us therefore understand that Godís workman must always hold his emotions in neutrality within himself; otherwise, he will be like a house so full of things that there is no room for anything else.

Many brothers and sisters are unable to do the work of God because they have already exhausted their love. They cannot undertake anything else. We ought to know that our soulical power is as limited in its capacity as is our physical power and strength. Our affection does have a limit. If we expend more of it in this or that area, we have less or even none remaining for another area.

Is it strange or incorrect to say that he who loves people too much cannot work for the Lord? Yet Jesus said this: ďIf any man comes unto Me, and hates not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and even his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.Ē ( Lk. 14:26; top ) Why is this so? Because in loving these people, we have used up all our love. We should instead love the Lord our God - and do so with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind. We must take all our love and pour it upon God. It is a good thing if one day we put ourselves to the test and discover how limited we are in our affectional life as well as in other areas of life. We need to know that our capacity is limited. We are like a boat so filled to the full that no more load can be added. As a matter of fact, we do indeed have our limit. In order to enter into the feeling of others, therefore, we need to keep in ready reserve our own feelings, our own affection and our own thought - for God and for others. Then and only then may we as servants of God enter into the feelings of many brothers and sisters.

When our two hands are occupied with some work, we are unable to take up any more. When our heart is already heavily laden, we cannot take in othersí burdens. He who is emotionally self-indulgent the least embraces the emotional needs of others the most. Someone may love himself too much. If so, such a person will always be in lack in regard to the matter of loving the brethren. For a manís love is only so great; unless he lays down other loves, he really has no love for the brethren. Yet brotherly love, we know, is one of the cardinal requirements in the work of God.

For this reason, the fundamental condition of divine work is to know the cross. He who does not know the cross is useless in the Lordís work. Without the experiential knowledge of Calvary, one is, without exception, a subjective person. If one does not know the cross, his own thoughts will flow ceaselessly like a river. If one does not know the cross, he can only live in his own feeling. Consequently, it is imperative that we know the cross. There is for us no easy way or shortcut. We must have this basic dealing before God, without which we have no spiritual usefulness. Learn to look for the Lordís merciful dealing with us so that we are delivered from being subjective, from absent-minded woolgathering, and from being insensitive to othersí feeling. A workman needs to open himself up to receive peopleís problems. And by so doing he shall be able to know the words spoken or unspoken, and even their very spirit.


Now as we who would do the Lordís work thus begin to listen, our listening power will be greatly improved. Our understanding will increase to such a degree that the moment a person opens his mouth we know what he is saying. Let us remember that except we are like a piece of white, blank paper within, no additional word can be written on it. To hear and understand what people are saying, we need to be in a state of tranquility, without our own thought, preconceived idea or personal feeling, so that we may quietly listen. What is essential to a worker is not how much knowledge he has but rather what kind of person he is. Because we have nothing, instrument-wise, but our own self, God will use us as a person to measure other people. But if we are not right, we cannot be used by God. Today we are not using a physical instrument to examine people. It would be much simpler if there were such a physical instrument by which to examine or measure other people spiritually. A thermometer, for example, can easily measure body temperature. But in the Lordís work, that thermometer is we ourselves. You and I as a person must test out other peopleís state and condition. Consequently, what kind of person we are as Godís instrument is of extreme importance. If we are a wrong or bad instrument, nothing can be accomplished, since there is no way for God to use us in dealing with other people. To be a good listener, therefore, is exceedingly essential as a first step towards being an effective workman for the Lord.

For example, someone comes to talk with you to share his difficulty. If you have not been disciplined before God, you would be much inclined to give him some teaching. This is really a very common fault of ours, is it not? Whenever people try to tell us something, do we not often immediately open our mouth to teach them before we feel their spiritual pulse and diagnose their spiritual ailment? Many of us are too impatient to hear them to the end. We make suggestions before we know their problems. We quickly teach and correct after hearing but a few words. How, then, can people possibly receive real help from us?

Yet does this mean that we must sit there and let people talk for three or five hours? That would not be right either. For some people would speak for hours and expect you to listen to them at such length. We cannot allow people to talk on indefinitely. Generally speaking, we should give them sufficient time to voice their problem; and hence, we must listen to them for an appropriate time. If we are fairly clear within ourselves, having learned to listen and understand for ten or twenty years, we would hesitate to interrupt people. In order to touch at the root point of a particular situation, a certain amount of time in listening is required. Remember that our work is quite complex, inasmuch as we are dealing with living beings who have real problems and serious spiritual perplexities before God. We must never say or interject anything before we have touched the root cause in a given situation. How can we give our judgment when we are not even clear about the situation? In view of the fact that we are dealing with living persons, real problems and spiritual perplexities, we ourselves need to be unprejudiced and quiet before God. The number one reason why many are not able to help others is their inability to listen. Let us therefore ask God to give us grace that while people are speaking to us, we may be able to sit there, listen quietly and understand what is being said. Except we listen carefully, we will never comprehend. Understanding is the key to successful service. It is not easy to speak, but it is even harder to listen. Many preachers are accustomed to speaking, and hence they in particular find it rather difficult to sit down and listen. But this is the first lesson we must all learn.

Failure to be transparent within, to listen, understand and touch the feeling behind the words we hear will cause extreme difficulty for us in our service to the Lord. Let us try to see if we can hear what people say, let us try to see if we can understand them. Outward calm alone is not enough; we need to have that fundamental dealing before God, which is a dealing with our subjectiveness, our thoughts and feelings. Many dealings can be spared, but this fundamental dealing is a must. Without it we may be listening outwardly yet be dark within; and therefore, we do not understand. We are to be Godís instrument, and if a true instrument, we can know whether a person is hot or cold, normal or abnormal, because we have become that true spiritual thermometer. But if we are not sensitive, we will diagnose wrongly.

There is a mistaken idea abroad among Christians. They often think that as long as a worker can speak, all is well. On the contrary, all is not well. In order to do the work of God it is not only a matter of speaking, it is also a matter of the spirit. We need to discern the manifold problems among brothers and sisters and know how to lead them. Can we help them if we are insensitive and dark within, so that we are unable to perceive their actual condition?

When you preach the gospel to a sinner, how do you know whether or not he is saved? Is it through what he says? No, you know in your spirit. How do you know he belongs to the Lord? Is it because he says, ďI believe in Jesus, so I am savedĒ? Do you baptize whoever recites that formula? Not at all; instead, you know inwardly. For you are the spiritual thermometer, that instrument of spiritual discernment. And just as you measure an unbeliever with that thermometer and that instrument, so you measure a child of God with the same instrument. How do you know that the spiritual condition of a child of God is normal? You know and discern by the light in you yourself as the thermometer of God. For this reason, we need to be dealt with by God to the degree that we become a true and effective spiritual thermometer - a true and effective spiritual instrument in Godís hands. But if there is a flaw within, we will be prone to err, and the result will be dreadful. What is therefore needed within us is spiritual light.

How sad that many brothers and sisters cannot sit down and listen because they are dark within. Let us realize that we must learn to be quiet and to understand what people say. We must open ourselves to take in otherís burdens. And then, by the inner registration we will know wherein lies the problem and how to help.

Translatorís Preface π 2. Must Love All Mankind

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