During the late 1990’s, my husband and I used to watch Frasier on NBC. Kelsey Grammer played radio-psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane, who always greeted his callers with his catchphrase, “I’m listening.” I don’t think he always listened very well, but that was his stated intent. The writer of Psalm 85 had the same intention when he declared:
“I will listen to what God the Lord says…” (Ps. 85:8 NIV)
Can we honestly say to the Lord, “I’m listening”? Are we intentional about listening for what He has to say to us?
Jesus listened closely to His Father so that He could complete whatever the Father called Him to do. The gospel writers recorded multiple occasions when Jesus went off by Himself to pray, often on a mountain (Matt. 14:23; Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 5:16; 6:12). On one such occasion, Jesus went to pray, and this time, He brought the twelve disciples with Him. While they were there, Jesus asked who they thought He was, and Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah (Luke 9:18-20). About a week later, Jesus went to a mountain again to pray, but on this occasion, He only took Peter, James, and John with Him.
This particular time of prayer must have occurred either early in the morning or after an especially tiring day because the three disciples could not keep their eyes open. Something like a blinding light must have startled them awake, and when they finally opened their eyes, they couldn’t believe what they saw. Jesus had been transformed into what they described as “glorious splendor…as bright as a flash of lightning” (Luke 9:30, 29 NIV), and He was speaking with Elijah and Moses –two men who hadn’t walked the earth in close to 1,000 years. Peter felt the need to say something, even though he wasn’t sure what, so he started babbling about shelters (vs. 33). The Father shut Peter’s babbling mouth rather quickly with His proclamation:
“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him” (Luke 9:35 NIV).
God essentially told Peter, James, and John: ‘Guys, stop talking. You have no idea what you’re saying. Pay attention to the One who is standing right in front of you. He is my Son, the Chosen One. Peter, you said so yourself just last week! When will you stop talking and start listening? Pay attention to what Jesus says to you!’
Why didn’t these guys do a better job of listening to Jesus? Why don’t we? Do you think God ever wants to interrupt our babbling and say something like, ‘will you just shut up and listen for once?’ What barriers hinder us from listening to God, or to anyone else who is speaking to us?
- One barrier may be simply a lack of desire to hear what they have to say. Rather than actually listening to what the other person is saying, we are thinking, “Are you done yet, because I don’t really care what you have to say.” (I’m pretty sure this happens in homes and schools all the time.) The prophet Jeremiah experienced this when the people of God refused to listen to him. He lamented, “Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (Jer. 6:10 NIV). The prophet Ezekiel had the same problem. God told him, “you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people” (Eze 12:2 NIV). Hopefully, this is not the reason we don’t listen to the Lord.
- Another barrier to listening might be an argument, a misunderstanding, or distance (either literal or figurative) between us and the other person. Maybe the problem between the two of you has caused you to become bitter and unwilling to hear what the other person has to say. The only way to overcome this is through humility, confession of the problem, a willingness to change the behavior, and true forgiveness. If there is a perceived distance between us and the Lord, we are assured: “come near to God and He will come near to you” (James 4:8 NIV).
- Another huge barrier to our ability to listen is the distractions that surround us. This may be ambient noise when we’re trying to listen to someone on the phone, or it may be something that is pulling our focus away from the conversation at hand. When I’m talking to a friend on the phone and other people are around, I try to leave the room, if possible. This is not because I don’t want my family to hear what I’m saying; it’s because I want to be able to listen closely to what my friend is saying, free from distractions. It’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation when there is too much noise assaulting your ear that is not on the phone. Other times, we may prefer to focus on the noise and distractions around us rather than the person we are supposed to be listening to. Maybe we’d rather watch the excitement of the football game on television than the person who is speaking to us. Or maybe our child is demanding our attention away from our conversation. In either case, our listening is divided. We need an undivided heart and undivided attention when listening to God. David prayed, “…give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name” (Ps 86:11b NIV). What is it that divides your attention and pulls your focus away from listening to Jesus?
- Sometimes the barrier to our ability to really listen to another person is the thoughts rolling around inside our minds as we are contemplating what we want to say them, or how we disagree with their opening statement because we shut off our ears after that. We are more intent on our desire for them to listen to us as opposed to listening to them with both ears open and our mouths shut. Jesus’ brother James advised us that we should be “quick to listen [and] slow to speak…” (James 1:19 NIV). Are we too intent on speaking to Jesus and telling Him what we think we need rather than listening intently to what He might have to say to us?
The Lord still speaks to His people. He speaks to us through His Word, but we won’t hear Him if we are not intentional about reading it. He often speaks to us through other believers –close friends, leaders, and mentors — but we won’t hear Him if we don’t listen to the people He has placed in our lives and consider their words. He often speaks to us in the stillness of our hearts –not in a loud audible voice that shouts in our ears, but in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:12 NIV). But again, we won’t hear Him if we don’t intentionally escape the noise and distractions of the world around us and seek to listen for His voice, for His gentle whisper.
Sometimes He does (at least metaphorically) raise His voice in order to get us to listen. Sunday night, I was reading a Henri Nouwen book that highlighted the Father’s instructions to Peter, James, and John at the transfiguration to listen to Jesus. I was still reflecting on these instructions the next morning when the staff devotional at the office highlighted Psalm 85:8, and our need to listen to God. A good principle of Bible study is that repetition in the Scripture is purposeful, and it exists to call our attention to a certain message in the text. In the same way, when one message is repeated in our presence in multiple ways, perhaps that repetition is also purposeful, to call our attention to a certain message we need to hear. In this case, the message was that we need to listen to Jesus. I need to listen for the voice of Jesus.
Jesus said His followers will know the sound of His voice. He said of Himself,
“…the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:2-5 NIV).
How does He speak to you? Are you disciplined in listening for His voice? What stands in the way of listening? Can you honestly say to Jesus, “I’m listening”?