Then an argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the thoughts of their hearts, had a little child stand beside Him.” Luke 9:47

But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, ‘Why do you harbor evil in your hearts?’” Matthew 9:4

Jesus was the supreme apologist for His Kingdom. According to Luke’s account, Jesus knew the thoughts of the disciples, and taught them by using an object lesson. From the verses we read in Matthew, Jesus knew what the scribes were thinking and proved His authority by providing evidence of His divinity.

Jesus was surrounded by people who didn’t understand His teachings for numerous reasons; some, like the apostles, were distracted by their own greatness, and others (like the scribes) seemed to be interested only in trapping people in their words.

It’s true that Jesus had an advantage that we don’t have—the ability to search and see what was in the hearts of people (see also John 2:24). While we don’t have a telescope that can peer into a person’s motivations, biases, or true feelings, we do have a tool in our toolbox that allows us to at least get a glimpse.

To listen is to use this tool. Listening is paying attention, listening is allowing someone to fully speak their mind, listening is focusing on what’s unsaid, listening involves getting to know context, listening involves the asking of good, relevant, and deep questions.

Listening is Evangelism

One of the greatest sermons in the Bible is found in Acts 2. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, makes the case for the Lordship of the risen Savior. The crowd’s response? “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)

“What shall we do?” These people just killed the Messiah, the one who was prophesied about, the one whom they themselves were waiting on—they just didn’t know it. This Messiah they killed wasn’t simply a Davidic leader, He was actually Yahweh. It’s impossible to overstate how deeply and completely they messed up.

Peter was listening. They didn’t know how to respond to this indictment. The question, “what shall we do” was a helpless response. Peter’s answer, however, was the answer they needed, even if their question was one of desperation. “Change your ways, and commit to Jesus.”

Their question might have only been a desperate one. It might have been one fueled by their Jewish theology. “How do we atone for our sins?” might have been another way to ask it. But Peter wasn’t listening to answer the initial question that was coming from their mouths, but he was listening to answer the underlying question that is embedded in all hearts: “how do we return to God?”

It’s important that we listen like Peter did. When someone posits a challenge to our faith, what is it that they are truly asking? Is there even a question on the table, or is the question simply an outpouring of rebellion? Maybe this questioner never heard good answers from their church, their pastor, or their study group, and they’re actually hoping that someone proves them wrong. Sometimes, that’s not the case, of course. But it’s important to listen on a deeper level, to have a better understanding of what the real questions are.

Three Levels of Listening

For those engaged in apologetics, it’s important know how to truly listen. Gary Collins, a Christian clinical psychologist, has studied listening from both scientific and discipleship perspectives.

Collins, in his book Christian Coaching, outlines three different levels of listening. The first is informal listening, which he describes as “listening for facts or information.” You might observe informal listening when a flight attendant demonstrates how to buckle a seatbelt, or how to secure a oxygen mask. This is a utilitarian form of listening, and it often doesn’t involve any kind of personal commitment to the information that’s being shared. It’s passive, it can be one-way, and it’s mainly about accomplishing tasks. We want to do more as apologists.

The next level Collins describes is active listening. This where we begin to pay attention and become invested in what the speaker is saying. There’s some “buy-in,” there’s two-way engagement, there’s concentration and attention given by the listener.

The final level is intuitive listening. Collins says that at this level, the goal is to listen for: “inconsistencies that the [speaker] may not notice in the conversation, attitudes and emotions that come out with the words, topics that resurface at different times, values and beliefs that can be discerned from what is being expressed, dreams for the future, frustrations, and self-sabotaging behavior that prevents progress.”

What Gets in the Way of Listening

Collins outlines five obstacles that can get in the way of intuitive listening. The first is thinking about the next question we’re going to ask. Are we in apologetics for polemics, or for evangelism? Are we engaging simply to rebut arguments, or are we attempting to get at the heart from which the argument proceeds from? Debates often devolve to this level. Discussions turn from how to deal with apologetic experiences to “you used improper grammar” or “you didn’t cite this source” or “no intelligent person really thinks that.” Don’t lose in the conversation in the “back-and-forth” dialogue.

Secondly, we can get too intently focused on “problems, pathology, and past experiences.” We can’t atone for someone’s bad church experience, and we also don’t know if someone’s position comes from their own misunderstanding or from a place of victimhood. It’s also not our job to become fixated on those things. While it’s true that other problems might be in play, we should leave these issues for trained practitioners—we’re trying to evangelize.

The third obstacle comes in the form of external distractions. What’s going on in our personal lives may affect us as we try to listen to objections. Sometimes, multitasking gets the way, and we’re not saving conversations that need to be protected for a designated time and place. We aren’t always granted the luxury of an hour of dedicated time over coffee, but we can at least be mindful of external pressures that may affect our ability to listen.

Biased listening may be blocking our path, too. When we assume stereotypes, or judge people because they don’t have the resources that we do, or posit characteristics of people before we even understand the “why,” we’re being biased. As often as Christians complain about the news, skeptics, or even Facebook not giving an equal platform to the religious, we should careful that we aren’t guilty of hypocrisy by doing the same.

Finally, interruptions might be causing static in our listening ability. By interruption, we mean our “out of queue” interjections into the conversation. This may take a different form in the context of internet discussions, but in real life, but we may sometimes interrupt dialogue because we want to fill in the (perceived) gaps in conversation, because we want to correct a nuance on some theological term, and for some other reason. It’s important to let the other person get their side on the table, even if it’s messy.

Listening is hard

Don’t forget that listening is difficult, and it takes practice to improve our skills. A story that might characterize listening is found in Matthew 8:28-34. Jesus encountered two men who were demon-possessed. They were violent, and no one would travel through the area they lived in because they were afraid of what these men might do. To us, they may not have seemed to be good candidates to hear the word of Christ. But they did—Jesus cast the demons out of them. Jesus’ power overcame the internal struggle of these people, and they accepted him. However, it’s interesting to see who did reject Jesus in this story. The Lord caused these two terrifying men to stop their violence, but it was the townspeople who wanted Jesus to leave. They were afraid, even though their problem was taken care of.

It would have been interesting to have heard the conversation. A danger had been removed, but for some reason, the response was one of rejection. The townspeople didn’t understand, and they weren’t seeking to understand the healing that had taken place. They just wanted the thing that disrupted their lives to leave, even though their lives would have been better had they accepted it. In other words, they rejected Jesus on the grounds of nothing more logical than basic fight or flight mentality.

Sometimes, we do things the right way, and we lead people towards fullness and away from the demons. But sometimes, other people—the normal ones, the ones who just want to go about their day, the ones who don’t want to be bothered—are the ones who say no. But we should always keep listening. Perhaps, some of those people who asked Jesus to leave were among those who were saying to Peter, “what shall we do?” We must be waiting—listening—to provide the healing words of Christ.


  1. This is a good post! (Watch out for the typos!)

    Thank you for writing about listening though. It’s so important. Sometimes, I have learned that different situations may call for different forms of listening that you listed, but to have a civil discourse, listening must be a basic part of our conversing with others, especially those with opposing worldviews.

  2. Stunning post Will, thank you. I struggle to combine active and intuitive listening. I seem to be able to only focus on one thing at a time. But it does get better with practice I guess. Your post reminds me of Egan’s Skilled Helper book (maybe you know about this book?) He says that we can get to the heart of an issue when we ask open ended questions (as part of the listening process). I really hope to learn to use all these aspects together in conversation. It does require a lot of energy and emotional investment!

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