The Art of Listening
As a camp counselor in college, the trust walk was a staple of our repertoire. You demonstrate the nature of trust by blindfolding a camper and having one of their friends lead them around only by the sound of their voice. Of course, a 12-year-old loves this opportunity to wreak havoc on their fellow camper. Common thrills were leading someone up and down steps, crossing a log, or leading them through poison ivy. One camper led his friend Billy into a building. Billy wasn’t sure which one it was, but the echo sounded like the dining hall. He was blissfully ignorant until the shrieking of sixth grade girls alerted him to the fact he was in the female side of the bathhouse. Blindfolded, the trust walk requires that you listen. And listen carefully.
There are so many words in our world. We talk, text, and post. We’re always trying to get a word in. If we do listen, we hear a million different voices. What does it really mean to listen? And how do we listen to God?
Psalm 81 is an example of speaking and listening to God. “Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me” (Ps. 81:8). “Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” (Ps. 81:13). Pay attention to the parallel between listening to God and walking in his ways – “listen to me,” “walk in my ways.” This gets to the heart of what it means to listen to God. Listening means not only do you hear with your ears, but you also respond with action. Listening is hearing and doing.
For the longest time we wondered if our kids had a hearing problem, so we had them tested. They passed. Their ears work just fine. My wife says, “They don’t have a hearing problem, they have a listening problem.”
Biblical scholar Gerhard Kittel notes that biblical religion is one of listening. It is a religion of the Word. He says, “Biblical faith is a religion of obedience to the Word.” It’s interesting to note that God is never really seen in the Bible. His presence is always cloaked, or veiled, or maybe Moses sees his backside. In fact, it is understood in Scripture that if someone would look at God, he or she would die. By contrast, the pagan gods are visible. They are carved, and fashioned, and made into idols. God is only heard, never seen.
Even in Jesus, we see that God is a bit hidden. Sure, in Jesus we see God, but he is cloaked in humanity and veiled in flesh. And even after seeing him, most did not recognize him as God. The gospel writers don’t give us a detailed description of Jesus’ appearance. They are not concerned with what he looked like. They focus on his words and his action.
Throughout Scripture, we see that listening means hearing and doing.
“If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes” (Ex. 15:26).
“And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them . . .” (Duet. 4:1).
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matt. 13:9). In speaking parables, Jesus doesn’t only seek that people would hear, but respond. It’s the art of listening, hearing and doing. Having open ears and a heart that responds.
There is a component of the trust walk where you gather the group in a circle. You place the blindfolded person in the middle. Then the counselor joins the circle and calls the individual to come to their voice. But what makes it a challenge is that everyone in the circle is talking. Some of the kids yell obnoxiously. Some are more crafty, and try to mimic the counselor’s voice. “Billy, Billy, come here.” The task is to listen, to hear one voice, and to follow it.
Your life has so many voices – some obnoxious and some crafty. Are you listening to God - hearing and doing? I mean hearing his word and obeying it. Are you submitting to his word or following another’s voice? There is so much noise that we often fail to listen to God. You’ve been distracted by other voices for far too long. You have flirted with voices that sound sweet. You’ve been terrorized by voices of fear. You’ve been misled by voices that promise greener grass. Now is the time to listen. There are some voices you need to discard and ignore. The voice of lust, of fear, of success-at-all-costs. The voice of self-pity, the voice of bitterness, the voice of selfish pleasure. God says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” (Ps. 81:13). Are you listening?
One of the great tests of the trust walk was to lead someone down the dock. 60 feet of leading a blindfolded person over water, only by a voice. As a responsible young adult, I had to suppress my sixth grade tendencies to lead Billy off the edge. It would be so fun to say, “Turn a little to the left,” and watch him tumble. But that would ruin the whole illustration because it’s called “the trust walk.” Listening is ultimately about trust. Are you listening to God? Do you trust him? Will you walk with no sight? Will you move only by his word?
The context for Psalm 81 is a trust walk. It was a Psalm to be sung at the feast of tabernacles. This festival was a remembrance of when God led his people through a wandering in the wilderness. In those difficult days in the wilderness, the people had to ask, “Should we listen to him? Should we trust him?” So God gives them a reason to listen. In verse 7 of Psalm 81 he says, “In distress you called, and I delivered you” (Ps. 81:7). When his people called, GOD LISTENED. When they cried out, HE HEARD THEM. And when he heard them, HE DID SOMETHING. HE DELIVERED. HE HELPED. HE RESCUED. HE PROVIDED. This God is worth listening to. He’s worth your trust. We’d walk the plank for him because he listens. He acts. He does what he says.
When every other voice has lied to you, his voice speaks truth. John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth.”
When every other voice has let you down, God's voice is sure. Hebrews says, “. . . but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” By his Son, God proves he listens by hearing of our need, and acting upon our need.
I leave you with a prayer. Pray this prayer every day for a week and see what happens. The boy Samuel heard a voice in the night and he responded, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (I Sam. 3:9).
Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.
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