I HEAR YOU
Of the simplest things to make the world a healthier place, the gift of listening – patient, undistracted – must rank near the top. And it starts with God.
Among the many characteristics of our generation, one failing stands out increasingly: we do not listen as well as we should. I doubt the human race has ever been good at this. How many times have we passed on a piece of information, only to find it horribly distorted once it has gone through the hands of several people? In our darker moments, we assume it is because someone does not wish us well. But all too often it’s because someone has not listened carefully to what they have been told and forward their own version based on what they believe to be true. Occasionally people pass on a version they would like to be true, based on their existing predisposition. We don’t like someone, so we make the story out to be worse than it is. If the hearer feels the same way, they will do the same thing in turn. This is how malicious gossip snowballs.
The problem is, we put in little effort at listening to others. Words go in, but we don’t interpret them or use background indicators like tone of voice, body posture, hand gestures or facial expressions to give these words texture and meaning. Sometimes we don’t even listen properly to the words, so we get basic facts wrong. Our own voice and opinion counts for much more, in reality. This has become exaggerated with the advent of social media, where the temptation is to make it all about us. Rather than advancing the cause of human understanding, social media platforms often have people talking over one another, trying to make their voice count for more and we are usually more interested in how many likes our recent post got than using another person’s distressed post as a cue to make contact with them in real life. The thread of a person’s social media account is often fragmented, discordant and bewildering. We have to read everything to keep up, but what we read lacks coherence, does not fit together and mixes up the prosaic and the poetic, the trivial and the important, the poignant and the puerile in a stew we can’t swallow. The overall impression is that it does little to advance true conversation, which somehow makes us less social than we aspire to be.
The likelihood is that the digital revolution is also making us more distracted too. It’s calculated that 74 trillion emails are sent each year. This translates to 2.4 million emails per second. Twenty-three billion text messages are sent every day. Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp handle 60 billion messages a day. Every day, there are over 3.5 billion internet searches. Only twenty-five years ago, no-one outside the academic and military world was using these platforms. Can we even begin to imagine how this has re-wired our brains and how we experience the world? We are surrounded by endless noise; even when we aren’t, our minds are making it up like a bad pop song we can’t get out of our head. We suffer information overload and image bombardment.
Cyberpsychologists think our brains are re-wiring and that our thinking is more shallow and distracted. Twenty-five years ago we lived without mobile phones. Today they have become almost an evolutionary extension of our bodies. Smartphone zombies lurk on every street; people who are so absorbed with their screen that they don’t see us until a stride away from collision. We are afraid we might miss something online, so we stay connected, to let others set our own internal agenda in a haphazard, non-linear way. Our minds become crowded and unable to sort out the clutter in a meaningful way. Before smart phones, we walked and thought in public in a different way. Not all of it was productive – not all of life needs to be – but we were more in control of our thinking. CS Lewis said the ability to distinguish the trivial from the important was a mark of wisdom. Is it possible we have become less wise inside three decades?
The digital ether also offers us a platform for getting our views across without having to listen to others or increasingly, having to listen to anyone who thinks differently to us. Eli Pariser coined the phrase ‘the filter bubble’ several years ago, to denote the internet’s echo chamber where we only connect with those who are like us and who think like us.
When God spoke to his people in ancient times, it was prefigured with the words: ‘Hear, O Israel’. When an important public announcement is made, it is often preceded by a few notes of music or a specific warning, e.g. the following is an important safety announcement. We cannot presume on people being ready to listen from scratch; there must be preparation. Jesus himself was prefigured by an entire ministry in John the Baptist, to get people in the mood to listen. ‘Hear, O Israel’. Jesus himself would say: ‘let him who has ears, listen’.
Despite the challenges outlined, listening is not as hard as we may fear, but it may take something of a re-boot. It clearly takes time: Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days listening to God. It’s not as if there wasn’t valid work to do at ground level, because in his absence the people went haywire, building a golden calf to worship. But listening to God took priority. Its effects would last for all time. Listening takes experience: sometimes we cannot differentiate God’s voice from others. When Samuel served in the temple at Shiloh, he mistook God for his boss, Eli. God has to be patient with us at times, waiting for us to discern his word as we take another faltering step on the way. Listening takes silence: the natural world was unleashed in all its force before the nerve-shredded Elijah heard God in the sheer silence which followed. A silence which, I suspect, we would find as disorientating as the earthquake, wind and fire in today’s noise-filled world. Time; experience; silence. None of these comes cheaply or quickly. But we have some control over them when we give ourselves enough space.
If the physical environment may deprive us of space to listen, the spiritual environment may not be conducive either. When Samuel began his ministry, scripture said ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days’. Sometimes the spiritual terrain is more of a desert than a fertile plain. Finding the watering hole may take effort and there may not be much water when we get to the source. But that water will not be wasted. As Isaiah 55 says, God’s word comes down like rain but never returns to him empty. God gets through to us, rather like water itself cannot easily be kept out, but seeps into us when we walk through the rain.
Listening itself is a particular habit. It is not the same as emptying our minds until there is nothing there and waiting for God to fill it. Our minds should be engaged. Waiting for God is an active, expectant thing. We should not think of it as passive, like the resigned shuffling in a queue which brings us a little nearer to the one we want to talk to. There is still conversation and there is a multi-sensory approach to listening. Like any good listener who takes their cues not just from what is said, but in how it is said and the context in which it is conveyed, we need to listen to God and listen to the world around us, because he will be whispering to us both ways.
In Revelation 3, Jesus tells the Church in Laodicea that he stands at the door, knocking. Today we would probably not hear Jesus because of the headset we wear to listen to music. How many times have you walked into a room with someone consumed by this noise that then jumps in fright at the presence of another person? We do not want to be startled by God’s arrival, but to be waiting patiently, able to hear those opening words and to make a response that is modulated, not like the voice of someone listening to music who has no idea how loud and discordant they sound when they open their mouths.
I don’t know how listening to God would work out for you; it’s not a prescriptive thing. God reaches out in different ways. Maybe you’ll hear him; maybe he’ll take his time and do it his way. Of one thing we can be sure: when we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. And it’s the people seated nearest to us that we hear the best.
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