From the Editor—Friday Reflections

Heart of Hearing

Do You Think You're a Good Listener?

November 16, 2018

This article sets forth the ideal of someone who is a "good listener."

First, it describes what most people think of when they measure their performance as listeners: basic attention, making responses, and showing by body language that you are hearing what is being said.

But this is not enough, at least it is not for what people really consider a "good listener." If you look closely at the behavior it says makes a good listener, you may agree with me that the article describes more than simply listening; it is more in the direction of conversational, but that's too loose of a term. It's more dialogic, by which I mean purposeful verbal engagement between two persons. Russell Kirk used the phrase, "a conscience speaking to a conscience."

So, the best listeners are not just listening, not merely registering the sound waves entering their ears and recording their meaning in their brains. They are persons are engaged with another person in a dialogue.

Scripture speaks often of a lack of proper hearing. God's Word is heard, but it is not understood or misinterpreted or forgotten, as in the command of God not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. "Did God say?" the serpent queries Eve.

Israel fails to remember, or willfully subverts the message (calling good evil). In broad strokes the history of God's Word to his people is a "failure to communicate." That phrase became popular in the 1960s, from the film Cool Hand Luke, where the warden insists that prisoner Luke needs to listen more carefully. God always speaks correctly but man doesn't understand what is said. His thoughts are not our thoughts, so there is a communication gap. He sends his prophets, but they are speaking to brick walls.

Hebrews 1:1 teaches that God moved from speaking through unheeded prophets to speaking directly through his Son, God himself incarnate. Did that help? Yes, but not easily and only up to a point. This Son speaks God's word unlike anyone else because he is God's Word in the flesh. He addressed man's hearing loss, saying early and often, "He who has ears, let him ear." Luke records Jesus putting a point on it: "Let these words sink intoyour ears." (9:44) Jesus expands on our hearing problem, after the Parable of the Sower, and saying, "he who has ears to hear, let him hear":

"Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, 'you will keep on hearing, but will not understand; and you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; "for the heart of this people has become dull, and with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I should heal them.' But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear." (Matt. 13:13-16) 

We live in an age of technologically advanced distraction. Couples sit in restaurants, eyes glued to their iPhones: they dare not miss a text, but fail to grasp the living heart and soul sitting across from them.

Jesus lays the blame on hearing loss on an inattentive heart: "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me'." (Mark 7:6-7)

Perhaps we count ourselves good listeners to God's Word. Our lips say the equivalent of "Uh-huh" when God speaks: by rote we say "Amen" at the end of prayers in the liturgy or "Praise be to you, Lord Jesus Christ" after the Gospel reading or "Lord, have mercy" after each petition in a litany. Are our lips moving but our hearts standing still?

Our worship with our lips can be an encounter, a dialogue with the Lord who invites us, who seeks our attention, so that we may become not only hearers but also doers of the Word. He seeks to encourage us: Be of good cheer. But we must listen with our hearts, and speak to him, knowing that we have his full attention.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James

—James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.