A Lesson from My Conscience: Learning to Listen in Church


A number of years ago I attended a branch conference that taught me a lesson I will never forget. The branch president and the first counselor had spoken. Now it was the second counselor’s turn. I glanced at him as he moved, with obvious self-consciousness, to the pulpit.

As he looked down at the congregation I let my eyes follow his. Two or three of the brethren had their eyes closed, apparently in sleep, and several mothers were unsuccessfully shushing their restless children. Only the mission president, who had chosen to sit with the congregation, was looking directly and attentively at the speaker, with an expression of interest and anticipation.

“My brethren and sisters,” confessed the second counselor, blushing, “speaking in Church is very difficult for me.” He paused awkwardly. “I’m doing it today because the president has asked me to say something. I think this is the second talk I have ever given in my life, and since I don’t feel too strong in explaining gospel doctrine, I have copied down a talk from a book we have at home.”

His powerful, calloused hands fumbled in his suit coat pocket. Heavy drops of perspiration suddenly began to bead his brow; the talk was not there. Nor was it in any of the other pockets. My heart sank.

“Bear your testimony,” I thought, hoping he would somehow get my message, but for him it was apparently either the copied talk or nothing. Not finding it in his pockets, he stepped from the pulpit and walked down the aisle toward the coats that were hanging at the rear of the hall.

For one moment I thought he was simply going to put on his coat and leave, but it was his talk he was after. It was there in a pocket of his overcoat. Slowly he retraced his steps up the aisle, carefully unfolding the handwritten pages as he came. Standing once more at the pulpit, he began to read nervously and with obvious embarrassment, sometimes correcting his mistakes, sometimes not.

I was uncomfortable with him, and I was uncomfortable for him. But mostly I was aware of his inadequacy. And yet, the Spirit was about to teach me a great truth.

It began with a kind of interior pricking that seemed to translate itself into a small voice, and for the next few minutes I carried on a dialogue with myself:

“You could certainly do a lot better,” I heard my “other self” say.

I squirmed uncomfortably but conceded that I probably could.

“If you had a chance you could certainly teach this man something,” persisted the voice. “You’re a Ph.D., a seventy, the district mission president …”

This voice was too frank. I looked at the audience. Most, out of politeness and embarrassment, weren’t looking at the speaker. Only the mission president was still looking intently and respectfully at him.

“It’s ironic!” the “other” continued. “The good speaker is sitting here and the poor one is up there at the pulpit.”

The discussion was becoming unbearable. I tried shutting the voice out by desperately trying to follow the talk, but the awkwardness and mistakes made it difficult.

“What are you going to learn from him?” asked the little voice, determined to keep needling me.

“I don’t know,” I answered impatiently, “but chances are I can learn something if I listen.”

“You mean you haven’t been listening?”

“No, I’ve been involved in this silly discussion, for one thing!”

“So you’ve learned nothing from him so far?”

“No.”

“And since he started to speak you haven’t contributed anything to the spirit of this meeting?”

“No …”

“Do you think this speaker needs help?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to help him?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then do it,” said the voice. “Listen, and contribute …”

At that point I stopped the dialogue. Considerably disturbed by this silent discussion with myself, I closed my eyes and prayed earnestly to my Father in Heaven, acknowledging that I was the one who needed help, and pleading with him to let me contribute to the spirit of the meeting. “Help me,” I asked, “to listen as I ought to listen.”

Then I raised my head, looked at the speaker, and bent every effort to do as much as I could to see that my prayer was answered.

In the remaining few minutes of the man’s talk an unusual thing happened. For ten years one problem had bothered me, a question of doctrine. I ought to have known the answer: my experience in the Church and my study of the scriptures should have given it to me. It wasn’t anything to shake my faith or undermine my testimony, but it had eluded me for ten years. I heard my answer that day. I had often sat in conferences within the sound of a prophet’s voice, but perhaps I had never really listened until that day when the answer came to me from the second counselor. He read it falteringly, unsure of himself, but the message burned itself into my soul as if it had been etched there with fire.

I am now convinced that he taught me by the Spirit. But I am equally convinced that I would not have benefited from his talk had I not made an effort to listen by the Spirit. Above and beyond receiving the answer to the question that had bothered me for ten years, I learned that the call to listen is every bit as important as the call to speak or teach. Jesus himself taught in his native Nazareth; but hearing they heard not, and it profited them nothing.

That experience taught me something about my limitations. It taught me that I personally need to make a continual effort to listen spiritually in my meetings and classes. I believe this takes preparation on my part, just as it takes preparation on the part of the speakers and teachers.

I believe there are great things in store if I can develop the ability to listen by the Spirit. And I believe that by listening in that way, I can personally contribute to the spirit of any meeting or class I attend.

My experience in that branch conference confirms my belief that the Savior’s message has not changed. “Who hath ears to hear,” he often said, “let him hear” (Matt. 13:9; see also Mark 4:9). And, warningly, “Take heed therefore how ye hear” (Luke 8:18).

I suspect that if I develop the ability to listen as the Savior counseled, I may begin to participate in more meetings such as this one described in Acts:

“And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.

“And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul.” (Acts 4:31–32.)

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “A Lesson from My Conscience: Learning to Listen in Church” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a family gospel study period:

1. The author notes that he was uncomfortably aware of the conference speaker’s “inadequacy.” What great truth did the Spirit teach the author that day?

2. How did the author’s decision to “listen and contribute” benefit him specifically during the meeting?

3. If “the call to listen is every bit as important as the call to speak or teach,” what should be the role of the congregation at church meetings?

4. Jesus said, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear,” and “Take heed therefore how ye hear.” What do these statements suggest about the way we should listen, particularly in a gospel context?

5. What kinds of things can you do, individually or as a family, to listen more reverently and attentively during church meetings?

[photo] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

John A. Green, professor of French at Brigham Young University and father of nine children, lives in Orem, Utah.