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. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
We expend so much energy and time in our lives trying to protect ourselves. Fear is our instinctual, survival emotion that we don’t often feel, but guides and motivates our actions in ways we often times overlook and miss. As a result, we develop our habits built on a sense of preservation from things in our environment. But sometimes, this fear goes further than just protecting us from immediate threats or from threats we have experienced in our past. This fear in often unseen ways forms our fear of hearing anything that might provoke a feeling of vulnerability in us. Any thought or message that that we can be associated with something threatening, perhaps in the most indirect of fashion, can activate our stress and lead us to try to protect ourselves. This is a phenomenon we see often in social media, where we can feel the compulsion to respond to anything and everything we see that we don’t like; political discussions are often times exercises in the activation of stress due to mere words that we try to argue with.
We fear words sometimes. We fear what they have to say and mean. As a consequence, we become poor listeners. Words are frightening and dangerous, so we have to protect ourselves from them, even though they present no real threat in and of themselves. Certainly, they can hurt us, that is the truth. And sometimes this hurt really is deeply traumatized, as they can be words of deep unfairness, seduction, and accusation. Sometimes, the words can be something we once trusted, but as the pain of wrong information and false promises amount, the trust wanes and these words become simply hollow, evoking a deep sense of pain in our hearts due to broken faith. Words can hurt us in the most painful of ways.
But, if we assume this pain is what will define people’s words, if we assume people’s words if we were to get close and listen will simply be those traumatizing and trust-breaking words, we will be poor listeners, exhausted at our attempts to avoid them and to deal with the emotions they stir within us. The avoidance our fears about words stir up within us can leave us poor at really comprehending and understanding the thoughts and feelings of another, and sometimes this can leave us distant from where love is being offered, and scared of a hostility of harming when a person seeks to express their hurt so that you can have a better relationship. And so, we use the power we amass to shield us from these words; we find all the ways to try to relax and to get away from it, because, lets face it, there are a lot of words that can be traumatizing and breaking of our trust, so we immediately become vigilant for other words of criticism, thinking they are doing the same. If we sense anger in someone, we might rush to think of those instances where people’s anger turned destructive, so we miss seeing another person’s anger as disappointment and pain, simply wishing they would be treated more like a person than the problem we are so often inclined to treat them as.
But here is the thing: love starts in listening. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Israel is called to love God, but this is preceded by hearing the statement about God, which is perhaps a concise expression about the nature of the God of the Exodus that would evoke those memories. Then, after speaking about loving God, it moves into discussing the words that Moses is giving the people, telling people to recite, bind, fix, and write them. These words were to be the focus of their attention, because, in the end, one can not truly love God and be faithful to God without listening to God; otherwise, the “god” we love and are faithful to will be some imagination we construct, unhinged from anything that God speaks.
This is similarly the case with other people. James 1:19-21 says this:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
We are often times in the face of words, quick to find some response to those words, or we arise in strong, deep anger for mere words. And sometimes, there are times to speak, once you know what is being said. And sometimes, there are times to be angry, because while we are to be slow to anger, much as God is slow to anger as in Exodus 34, sometimes the repeated hurtful, unfair, and trust-breaking words and actions merit anger. But, this should be the result of being quick to listen, to hear what has happened so that we can know what is really going on. Love for others entails listening. And it is interesting that the conclusion James draw from this statement about listening and anger pertains to moral character and formation in ridding oneself of the moral blemishes that hit upon oneself, so that one can “welcome… the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” In other words, listening entails sometimes wrestling with what rests within our own hearts, including sometimes the very defenses we build up that prevent us from being quick to listen and receive a word. Thus, James draws a relationship between the way we listen to others and the way we listen to the power, saving word of God; it is almost as if our listening to God and our listening to others are deeply intertwined, much as the love of God naturally leads us to the love of others. Likewise, much as we can construct a god of our own imagination if we don’t listen to God, we can construct people in our own imagination if we are unwilling to listen to those people.
Love and faithfulness start in listening, and the forces of the evil will try to prevent us from hearing God and hearing others in the attitude of love and faithfulness. But it can be exhausting to listen if we have built up walls that prevent us from hearing others. It may produce shrieks of fear even. But perhaps the best thing is to stretch oneself. Perhaps the best things to do is to not react defensively to a word that has not torn your down. Maybe you can’t truly hear what is being said, but perhaps try to avoid the defensiveness that leads to trying to figure out what to say or even anger. Don’t feel the need to be an expert in things you are not an expert in, to explain problems in what you fear to hear; none of us are experts of God, even though we have some knowledge about God, and none of us are experts on the stories and hearts of individual persons, even if we have some psychological knowledge about people in general.
But, in the end, rest will come with learning to listen. Learning to listen is an effective antidote to many of the conflicts we face in life. Likewise, listening is an effective way to truly protect us when something really is threatening so we can effectively address those threats by what we pick up. Listening is an effective way to resist the fight-flight responses of the stress that tells us we need to protect. Listening is an effective way to create bonds between people, which can nuture our hearts and souls. Listening forms marriages, prevents marraiges from becoming separation and can prevent separation from becoming a final divorce; many a people have been shocked at divorce but if only they have been willing to listen so that their hardness to their partner could have been ameliorated. Listening forms our hearts to recieve the word that God has for us. Because, in the end, love and faithfulness start with listening.
So, my question to you is this: are you listening?