On page 37 of his book The Listening Life, Adam McHugh makes this observation, “The Scriptures may be God’s Word spoken to us, but the Bible would be a really short book if God wasn’t also a listener… The Hebrew slaves we meet in Exodus would have been left to languish, making bricks to the glory of Pharaoh. Fortunately for them, and for us, the Bible narrates not only God’s speech but also his acts of listening.”
I had never really considered his point before, and struck me like an open palm across the face. We are absolutely correct to think of the Bible as God’s word – because it is. Holy Scripture is God’s speech transcribed throughout the centuries (that is not to imply a dictation theory of inspiration for you theology nerds out there) to/for his people. However, the story of the Bible, the redemptive-historical drama of Scripture, wouldn’t have made it beyond Genesis if God didn’t also listen to his people.
The oppressed Israelites, who we meet in the opening chapter of Exodus, would have never been delivered from bondage in Egypt had not, “the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex. 2:23-24). If God only spoke and never listened, the exodus would have never happened.
Consider also how many prayers are included in the Bible. What should amaze us is not merely the fact that the Bible records many times when God listened to his people, but that a large part of the Bible is actually God’s people speaking to God – and consequently, God listening. The whole book of Psalms along with numerous other passages throughout the Old and New Testaments are instances where God is listening (and yet, strangely, talking at the same time – but that’s beside the point).
The point is: if we imagine the Bible as a record of God speaking to his people, then there is a significant portion of that record where God also listens to them. And as such, there is a sense in which we may understand the Bible as more like a divine conversation than merely a heavenly monologue.
You see, the Bible wouldn’t only be a short book had God not listened to Israel and the story ended in Egypt. The Bible would also be considerably shorter if it did not include the prayers, songs, laments and praises of God’s people (to which, God also listened). These two observations have impacted my walk with the Lord in a few ways.
First, what an amazing idea that the God who speaks with truth and power, the one who spoke creation into being, the stars into place, and like no other man (John 7:46), also stoops down and lends his ear to his fickle people. To ones whom God created, yet went astray; to ones whom God called, yet stiffened their necks; to ones for whom he died, yet spat in his face; to ones in whom his Spirit dwells, yet grieve him daily – to ones such as these God listens.
Second, the Bible, in its very composition, demonstrates that the most natural thing to do when we hear God speak in his word is to speak back to him, that is, to pray. As we flip through the pages of the Bible we read not only what God has said, but also what God’s people throughout the centuries have said to God. As Don Whitney has written, “There’s a psalm for every sigh of the soul.” In Scripture, God gave us not only his promises to hold on to, but words to give expression to our often disoriented hearts.
Third, I wish I could say that these thoughts have inspired and fueled a radical transformation of my prayer life, but I’m afraid my prayer life is small potatoes compared to many others. I confess that a vibrant, disciplined, and healthy prayer life is something I really struggle to maintain (or perhaps, even achieve). Nevertheless, God still listens. He loves to hear the ardent cacophony (look it up if you have to…I did) of a his saints – and I’m not talking about some ecstatic speech, but the discordant melody of a life lived to God full of laments and praises, celebration and weeping, confession and rejoicing, petition and thanksgiving.
Finally, I’ve thought long concerning how I listen to others. How God listens to me ought to shape how I listen to those around me. If even one such as God Almighty bothers to bend his knee and open his ear to sinners like me, then who am I to turn a deaf ear and a cold shoulder to my neighbor? Do I listen carefully, seeking to understand a person and put myself in his or her shoes? Do I listen patiently, allowing someone to give full vent to his or her pains and questions? Am I quick to listen and slow to speak? I have much yet to learn about listening well, but I pray God continues to give me ears like his.