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Are you listening?

Switch off the soundtrack in your head and listen to others

Are you listening?

(Krieg Barrie)

When was the last time you tried to talk to a recalcitrant child? I don’t have kids in the house anymore, but sometimes I volunteer for the privilege of grandmothering a family in my church. Two years ago, on a camping trip, I had to correct the boy of the family, an 11-year-old who was going through a “difficult” stage.

The child sat like a rock, resentment boiling from his eyes. He refused to look at me. I spoke very seriously, trying to make eye contact, as if my words would somehow penetrate his pupils and go directly into his brain. What he heard was something like, “Blah-blah blah, look at me! Blah-blah—Are you listening?”

That’s one way children “not-listen.” The way grown-ups do it is more varied and subtle, but we may be even less adept than children. Here are some ways that adults turn in and tune out:

• Distracted not-listening: The eyes may wander, or if they are on you, the speaker, their focus is indistinct. The person has enough social savvy to nod or say “Right” or “Uh-huh” at appropriate moments, but it’s apparent his thoughts are not tracking with yours.

• Hostile not-listening: The eyes are on you—with a vengeance. That gaze is so intense it could be punching holes. As you talk, you begin picking your way carefully, trying to avoid those words or phrases that you sense will set the person off. The conversation becomes a minefield of accusations and retractions.

• Assumptive, or complacent, not-listening: The eyes may be half-closed, the expression thoughtful. The non-listener may even nod encouragingly. But he already knows (or thinks he knows) what you’re saying, and even more, what you’re going to say. He knows where you’re coming from, and where you’ll end up. Why are you even having this conversation?

I’m often a distracted not-listener, and not necessarily because of my deep thoughts. It’s more a habit, a switch-to-default, the default being the continual soundtrack playing in my head. Memories, to-do lists, song lyrics, repeated tunes, restless internet browsing and clicking, all stitch together in the continual feed, and I often don’t even realize I’m not listening. I suspect we all have our soundtracks, tuned to different levels of distraction, hostility, or complacency. In all these, the person we’re really listening to is ourselves.  

I suspect we all have our soundtracks, tuned to different levels of distraction, hostility, or complacency.

“God gave you one mouth and two ears,” the saying goes. But hardly a day passes without someone publicly complaining, “Why don’t people listen to each other anymore?” We’ve lost the knack, or lost the will.   

What’s important in everyday life is essential in Scripture—just compare the references to hearing in any concordance with those to speaking.

“Take care then how you hear,” Jesus said, “for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). This statement occurs between the parable of the sower—which is all about how we hear—and the incident where Jesus appears to brush off his blood relatives: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”  

But remember, it’s not a one-way street. How amazing is it that God hears us? His ears are open to the cry of the righteous (Psalm 34:15). By the agency of the Holy Spirit, He listens so intently He can translate our deepest longings out of inarticulate moans (Romans 8:26). Even more, Christ, who took care to hear His Father throughout His life on earth, is now heard by the Father as He intercedes for us (Hebrew 7:25). Heaven is a place of listening—how much more should it be here on earth?

“Take care how you hear.” Are distractions picking away at you like birds, anger turning your heart to stone, a complacent soundtrack overriding your attention? Real listening calls for soft soil and deep receptive furrows. What treasures of wisdom and knowledge, what insights and understanding, might be poured into our ears if we switched off the soundtrack and took care to hear it?