This Listening Life

Israel grew up listening to Scripture. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”(Deuteronomy 6:4) Hear. Listen. Allow the words to enter your soul through your ears. Before any of Israel’s great stories of faith and formation were put on paper, they were spoken and heard in the form of narratives, parables, and sayings. Their’s was a listening life. We’ve lost that I think. Those moments where we hear God’s word read over us, where the words ring out in the sky or around the sanctuary or through the miniature speakers aimed at our eardrum. This listening life, a life committed to soaking in Scripture, is what we ought to recover. The spiritual practice of Scripture listening is not just significant because our Christian ancestors did it, it’s significant because Scripture listening forms us in ways that Scripture reading can’t. Listening should not make us diminish the practice of reading Scripture one bit – it’s crucial. It’s absolutely essential for us to understand what the Bible means. I like the way Martin Luther put it, “If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.” Gaining Biblical understanding through reading is foundational, but what I want to draw our attention to is the lost art of listening to Scripture.

The Uniqueness of Reading and Listening

So how do reading and listening shape us in different ways. Let’s take them one at a time. When we read, our default tendency is to study, we want to pull the text apart and piece it back together, we draw conclusions, make decisions, we put the text to work. We’re seeking comprehension. This means we’re searching to grasp with the mind, to sharpen our thinking, to gather, to learn, and above all, to understand. When we read, we want to get something out of it. When we listen, we have to leave all that behind. We lose our ability to be precise, there’s no underlining, cross-referencing, consulting commentaries, starring, or highlighting. Listening is more leisurely. When we listen, our default tendency is to marinate. Instead of reading the words, we steep in them. When we listen we’re gaining apprehension. That means we’re laying hold of something, or better said, something is laying hold of us. We’re seized, captured, engaged and engrossed. It’s similar to what happens to us when we listen to music. We get lost, we’re caught up in it. Scripture listening seeks to put our hearts in a position to simply soak in the Word. In essence, when we listen to Scripture, we’re not trying to get something out of it, we’re trying to get into it. To inhabit it, and ultimately to be inhabited by it.

Listening and Doing

One of the most important qualities of listening to Scripture is that we can listen while we’re doing something else, things like driving a car, lifting weights, folding laundry, or taking a walk. Our heart dwells on the Word while our body processes a routine. We’re hearing God and acting at the same time. There’s a wonderful phrase of Charles Spurgeon’s, he says, “Be walking Bibles.” I like that because it forms a kind of picture in my mind, a picture that represents what I want my life with Christ to be about. I want to live in a state of ongoing communion with God, while I’m getting on with the business of living. When I listen to Scripture, it’s as if I’m in two places at once, I’m with Him and with the world. I’m in it, but not of it. There are few activities that are more restorative than moving through our outside world, while at the same time nourishing our inner one. Listening to Scripture accomplishes that. It deepens and strengthens our experience in the present moment. Spurgeon again points the way forward, “Visit many good books,” he writes, “but live in the Bible.” Listening to Scripture, right in the middle of our ordinary life is a powerful way we can live in it.

To sum things up, Israel grew up in a culture devoted to hearing the Scriptures. They used their ears to hear God’s Word. And we should to. This doesn’t mean we read less, far from it, but what it does mean is that we work to recover and cultivate the listening life, a life that’s committed to listening to Scripture, a life that experiences fresh growth and grace as we keep God’s Word in our ears. May we all become the kinds of people who can say with the young Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”