For many years, hearing aids have been a regular reminder to me of how fragile our ears can be. I don’t have hearing aids myself, but countless people I know use them.
Likewise, in a variety of settings, I have long heard (and listened to) people confuse the acts of “hearing” and “listening.” For me, hearing refers to the capacity to hear a sound, while listening refers to the capacity to identify a meaning behind the sound.
For me, hearing is primarily a literal function of the ear. Listening is primarily a metaphorical function of the heart.
Hearing is mostly a passive act and happens on a single level, the physical level. Listening is mostly an active act and happens through layers of questions.
So, while you might hear a siren, listening to it would mean paying attention and asking yourself, “Was it a police, ambulance or fire siren? What direction did it come from? What event prompted the siren? Is anyone injured?”
Put another way, hearing responds only to the language of sounds. Listening responds to the sounds of language.
A person yells at you, “I love you!” If he is right next to you, you might be tempted to dismiss the words, because the volume doesn’t quickly fit the message. If he is 75 yards away, the louder tone is more appropriate.
Listening also has to deal with multiple “languages” – sound, body, emotion, relationships, a sound’s tone or rhythm, a consistent message of sound and meaning, the context of the sound. For me, listening is much more complex, and rewarding, than the relatively simple act of hearing.
Last Sunday, our congregation’s pre-prayer song was Ken Medema’s delightful bluesy-jazzy “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying.” Singing the song is a wonderful spirit-reminder for me.
The Bible is filled with examples of God hearing the cries and pleas of individuals. At times, God’s ear seems to be deaf to those cries. At other times, careful listening to the children of Israel or the early Christians seems more than a full-time job for God.
I know my distinction between hearing and listening is not universally accepted; it need not be for my point to be valid.
For example, Deuteronomy 6:4-5 offers perhaps the most famous “hear” in Jewish-Christian scriptures. Moses challenges his followers to respond to the great commandment of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
It is clear to me that “hear” in this context means, “Listen up, Israel. Move beyond my words to what they mean for the survival and the welfare of our people.”
When Jesus repeated the words in Mark 12:29-31, he not only heard the literal request of the scribe who asked him what the greatest commandment was. Jesus added to his request with this crucial addition: “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Love and listening must go together. Love is willing the best for another person. It’s the prime ingredient for healing listening.
Listening is an art that is not easy to accomplish, but worth the pursuit. Compassionate, focused acts of listening can heal misunderstandings between people. Unspoken needs of the most vulnerable people can begin to heal when that vulnerability is listened to with grace and respect.
God listens to the languages of our hearts, however healthy or unhealthy they may be, and then loves us, so we can use that same listening art to offer a healing moment to each other.
The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.