The first thing we learn about God from the Bible is that he has a voice. Yet most of us never hear it. We read the Bible and pray, but our conversations seem one-sided. We appear to be doing all the talking. What are we to make of this?
In The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction (InterVarsity), Adam McHugh wants us to know that our God is also a God who hears. We should not mistake divine silence for disinterest. “Listening begins when we learn that our heavenly Father listens to us,” writes McHugh. “The pattern of human life may be to listen first, but with the Lord, we are always heard before we hear.” God’s apparent silence is not a mark of his absence. It means that we have his full attention.
The same should be true of our dealings with one another. “This book,” McHugh explains, “is predicated on the assumption that most of us are not good listeners.” As an ordained Presbyterian minister, McHugh has often served as a hospice chaplain. Presented with occasions for listening, he would instead seize the chance to speak: “I considered a moment of pain, crisis, or unfiltered emotion an opportunity to impart my insight, to rescue someone from their weakness, to correct distorted thinking, to evaporate the pain.”
McHugh eventually realized that this habit was devaluing the patient’s perspective. What is more, his efforts to fix others with words were really a desperate attempt to keep feelings at arm’s length: “Sometimes I tried to argue them out of the feeling, sometimes I tried to divert it with humor, sometimes I offered up quick reassurance like ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure it will all work out,’ and at other times, I tried to pray the feeling out of them. I was a feelings exorcist.”
Then, McHugh’s supervisor modeled a different kind of listening during a chaplain internship. “She listened to me so intently that I would get uncomfortable talking about myself for so long,” he writes. “I would try to turn the conversation toward her, but she knew to redirect it back to me.” The experience was transformative. McHugh experienced a new kind of peace and a new level of energy for ministry. He learned how to listen. In The Listening Life we learn how to listen to God, Scripture, creation, and others.
You might think that listening is easy. After all, what does it require besides silence? But true listening demands much more. For too many, listening is merely the dead space between remarks, as we wait for the other person to stop talking. Under the guise of silence we’re busy formulating a reply. But real listening is an act of servanthood. McHugh characterizes listening as a practice of presence and an act of humility and surrender. It’s an act of hospitality and a way to imitate Christ.
McHugh is an engaging writer with a gift for metaphor and analogy. Occasionally this gives way to overstatement. “I am concerned,” he writes, “that restricting God’s self-communication to words written on papyrus thousands of years ago opens our faith to becoming as dusty as some of our study Bibles.” He adds, “Giving the Bible an esteemed place cannot mean muzzling God’s personal word that he continues to speak to the church.”
Does this imply a canon beyond the canon? McHugh describes the Scriptures as a “tuning fork,” which attunes our ears to hear God’s voice. Should “sounding like” the Bible be the primary test of what counts as God’s voice? Or should “God’s voice” correspond with what has already been written? Our interactions with God are not like those with flesh and blood. Jesus puts a face on the divine. But in our present experience, it is not a literal face. Unlike the first disciples, we do not hear his voice or feel his touch. We read his words.
When McHugh refers to God’s voice, he is talking about those inner impressions that seem to come from him: the still, small voice that “creeps up on us like a heartbeat in the dark.” This voice is not arbitrary or random. Indeed, McHugh believes that we can discipline ourselves to hear it: “The Holy Spirit, it turns out, is not a hapless talk show host nattering about everything under the sun, hoping that a few people will tune in to the right frequency. Instead, God’s word comes most often to a certain kind of person seeking to lead a certain kind of life.”
Hearing is the first sense we develop and the last to go in death. But listening is not a natural capacity. The Bible is clear on this point. We do not automatically listen to God, others, or even ourselves. McHugh’s book can change the way you approach your daily conversations. It may even change your life. You should listen.
John Koessler is chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. He is the author of a forthcoming book, The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap (InterVarsity Press).
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