We have a hard time with listening, do we not? In the constant beeps, bells, and interruptive gurgles of our technology, we live noisily, fragmented and distracted. As I was writing this in my home office, a very quiet place during the day time, a place where if I am quiet enough I can sometimes hear the angels sing, the phone rang. I answered expecting something important – a friend, a colleague, my family – instead, I had won a cruise! It was my lucky day! Wow! What are the chances of that! I don’t know why I would hang up on such an amazing turn of fortune, but I did.
There are many reasons we fail to listen. Daily life is overburdened for most of us, and in such conditions it is only the fog-horn or the jack-hammer that gets our attention. Quieter voices get drowned, voices that are often the most important. I have missed far too many quiet voices in life.
It is vital therefore that we reaffirm listening as essential to living well. Listeners embrace the de-centered life. We learn that our own voice is not most important. Listening demands that we become silent far more often.
Listeners accept that they are in fact servants, not masters. They are responders, not initiators. In antiquity, the servant’s listening obligation was symbolized by the pierced ear. The messianic servant of Isaiah was a listener [Isaiah 50:4-5]:
The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.
This is the way of Jesus, the way of a servant. Before Jesus spoke he listened. Inspired speech emerges organically from the art of sustained listening. What God wants from us first is not frenetic activity. What he wants is for us to listen, to hear him, to respond to him. Whatever active engagement we are called to emerges only as response. The thing God hates most, said Philip Yancey, is being ignored.
Listeners see differently. There is a way of perceiving that comes through the ear that is not duplicated by the eye. The eye moves upon the surface discerning outward shapes and external characteristics. The ear however, perceives that which comes out of interiority. It “sees” the inner nature of someone, hears the person they are inside and not merely how they look. Hearers discern the unseen.
Listeners are lovers. In discussing her novel, The Temple of My Familiar, Alice Walker explained that a woman in the novel falls in love with a man because she saw in him “a giant ear”. She went on to remark that although people think they are falling in love because of sexual attraction or some other force, “really what we are looking for is someone to able to hear us.” It has been long recognized that listening is the single most important ingredient in creating and sustaining love. When there is little listening, there is little loving.
I realize how much further I need to travel in this way. I often fail to listen well. I rush to speak. I want to make my point when I would be much better served in hearing well before responding. Sure, once in a while I stumble on the appropriate thing to say, but I am ashamed of my batting average in this regard
I have come to profoundly believe that our ability to speak well is grounded in our ability to listen well. The story of Samuel is instructive in this matter. His call was first to listen (read 1 Samuel 3), and only then to speak. It is because he practiced this way, Scripture tells us, that none of Samuel’s words “fell to the ground”. What he said consistently mattered. There is a strong link between real listening and meaningful speech. When we listen to God, our voices become qualitatively different.