The word “listen” appears in Scripture over fifteen hundred times, and the most frequently voiced complaint in the Bible is that the people don’t listen. It may well be the most frequent complaint of present-day mothers, also, and, as a mother of four, I was in love with Adam McHugh’s The Listening Life before I was half-way through the first chapter. “Listen to me!” I have beseeched my brood. “Are you hearing my words?”
However, as I continued to read, I was carried into Adam’s argument that discipleship is a journey of ongoing listening, and suddenly, the book’s message was for me and the “entrenched selfishness” of my own heart. There’s a good reason for the fact that, in the Latin, the words “listen” and “obedience” have the same root. It turns out that all my prayers for wisdom in parenting and living life could be understood, like Solomon’s words in Hebrew, as a request for, a “listening heart” or a “heart with skill to listen.” Adam McHugh helps his readers to see that the skill of listening well begins with the heart, silent and open first to God for His word, then ready to hear others before speaking.
Jesus set the example by listening widely (to the sick, the outcast, the despised), deeply (with probing questions and a heart for underlying need), and hospitably – fully present to the speaker. The believer’s listening to the voice of God is best done “with the feet” as we embody our listening through acts of obedience. In this way, listening to God becomes a spiritual discipline as we read — and are read by — the Scriptures; as we listen to creation’s sermons about abundance and the mercy of God, about “the fading nature of human life and beauty in contrast to the constancy and permanence of God.”
Listening to others is best done “listening to,” rather than “listening for” in the manner of a cross-examining attorney trying to catch an inconsistency or to collect data. The Listening Life parades all our self-promoting, self-centered habits of NOT listening and then describes (with convicting examples) the mindset of keeping the conversational arrow pointed unselfishly toward the other person. To be honest, I would like to just memorize the chapters on listening to others and listening to those in pain, so that I would always have an assortment of thoughtful and probing questions and comments on the tip of my tongue to remind myself that my conversations are not supposed to be about me. Then I recall that listening is a matter of the heart, and I see the truth: it’s my heart that needs changing, and no memorized list from a book – no matter how helpful – is going to bring that about.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer framed the matter beautifully:
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening.”
The Listening Life imagines a world in which the usual pattern of listening is reversed, where leaders listen to followers, where the rich listen to the poor, and the insiders listen to outsiders – not as part of a program or with a prescribed agenda, but one person at a time with listening as an end in itself.
True listening is a path out of the spiritual fatigue and distractedness that we bring to every interaction. As we listen to God, as we pay attention to the messages our own hearts are trying to communicate to us, and as we turn our focus outward to hear the hearts of others, we are giving a gift that comes directly from God — and in the process, we receive a gift as well.
This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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