The Happy Listener

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Proverbs 8:34-35

Happy is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD.

Proverbs 8:34-35, RSV

LISTENING

Here in the ancient book of Proverbs is pictured a listener, an eager, constant listener. Wisdom personified is the one who speaks. The listener watches at Wisdom’s gates and waits beside her doors. He seems eager for every opportunity to meet her, to hear her teaching. He’s like a devoted pupil, looking for his revered professor to arrive. He’s like an autograph hunter waiting breathlessly for a famous personage to appear. He’s like a news reporter straining forward to learn what a political leader will say on some controversial issue. There he is, poised with camera, microphone, recording equipment. They all are waiting, watching for a chance to see and hear, to listen and learn.

But the listener pictured here in Proverbs watches and waits daily. He isn’t there only for outstanding events, for special occasions. This is something regular with him, habitual. His seems to be a lifelong attentiveness.

THE KEY TO HAPPINESS

Now this person who listens eagerly and constantly to Wisdom’s voice, who is all ears to hear her speak, is described in the Scriptures as happy.

It strikes me as I think about it that not many people look on listening as a way to happiness. We seem to think, many of us, that fulfillment lies in expressing ourselves. We want other people to listen to us. We like to make an impression, have our contribution recognized, get in our two cents’ worth, as we say. Often in groups we will smile or nod while others are talking but all the while be gearing up for what we are about to say. Our radiant moments, we think, come when we are in the spotlight, when others are giving us their attention, when we can share our wisdom. If we have to listen for very long, we tend to become restless. “What’s going on here?” we protest inwardly. “When do I get a chance to talk?”

How can listening, then, be such a joyful practice? For one thing, it’s an excellent way to learn. Sometimes talking a thing out may help us to clear up an indistinct idea we have in our minds, so self-expression can surely be helpful to us in learning. But we rarely learn anything new when we are doing the talking. Listening, on the other hand, is receptive. Listening holds the promise of enrichment for us. As we observe, note and take in messages from our environment, we grow in understanding. Sir Isaac Newton, a world-changing figure in the scientific community, once said, “If I have made any improvement in the sciences, it is owing more to patient attention than to anything beside.” Note that: “patient attention.”

Listening is a valuable art for every child to learn. It helps him or her to cope with life and avoid many a sorrow. Our grandson Benjamin has been duly instructed by his parents about not crossing a street. One day when they were driving up to our home, his family saw an animal by the roadside which had just been struck by a car. The boy was visibly sobered. Shaking his head sadly, Benjamin observed, “He didn’t listen to his mommy.”

We don’t outgrow the need to listen, any of us. I’m convinced that listeners of any age are the happiest people because they know the joy of close relationships with other people. We all need someone to listen to us, and when we discover such a person, it’s a tremendous relief. We find such persons comfortable to be around. Paul Tournier has written, “It is impossible to overemphasize the vast need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood.” If you can listen sympathetically, understandingly, with undivided attention to other human beings, you will never lack for friends. You will find people willing to open their hearts to you.

I had a poignant conversation not long ago with a man I’ve known for many years. He was lamenting the fact that his children had always felt close to their mother but not to him. He noted that she would always listen to them, but admitted that listening was not one of his strengths. He found it much more natural to instruct his children, point out their faults, make suggestions for their improvement. He would frequently warn them against dangers and share with them his store of experience. He says that he loves these children of his, and I believe he sincerely means that. But he has never learned to listen to them, to bite his lip, as it were, and keep on hearing them. The result is that now, in retirement years, he feels lonely. He wishes that he were closer to his children and that they felt more comfortable being with him.

Think of how much listening means in a marriage. When I was a young man, I had the usual ideas of what I was looking for in a woman, the usual “ideal image.” Some of the qualities I was seeking had very little to do with long-term married happiness. But when I met the girl whom later I married, I knew immediately that she was someone I would enjoy being around regularly. I couldn’t express at the time just why I felt that, but I realize now that it was in large measure because she listened to me. To her I could pour out my aspirations and my struggles, my questions and my self-doubts. She was genuinely interested! I knew that I had found a treasure.

If there have been key factors under God to the joy my wife and I have known together through the years, listening has surely been one of them. We haven’t always listened to each other well; I’ve had numerous failings on that score. But we have worked at it. Sometimes we have kept trying to communicate and listen far into the night, because we knew that hearing one another was so vital. Spouses who listen to each other take giant steps together on the road to happiness.

LISTENING TO GOD

This passage in Proverbs talks about listening of another kind, listening to the voice of wisdom. Wisdom as the Bible understands it begins with the fear of the Lord, trust in, reverence for, obedience to, the living God. Listening to wisdom is very much like listening to God. In what sense are those people happy who do that?

Just before the verses we read are these words: “And now, my son, listen to me. Happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise and do not neglect it.” Those are happy who so listen that they become wise and learn to keep wisdom’s ways. Wisdom in the Scriptures always has this practical character. It’s not chiefly theoretical understanding, although that may be included. It means at root knowing how to cope, how to deal with difficult situations, how to live in God’s way. Those are happy who so listen to God speaking in His Word and so take heed that their lives are shaped by it. They are not careless hearers, those who look at themselves in the mirror and then go away forgetting what they look like. Jesus described them like this: “Happy are those who hear the Word of God and do it.”

We get an idea of what kind of happiness this is from the words that directly follow our passage. After saying, “Happy is the man who listens to me,” Wisdom goes on to say, “He who finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord.” To listen to wisdom and take it in is to find life, new life, abundant life, eternal life.

We don’t grasp the full significance of these words until we see their New Testament fulfillment. There the Wisdom of which we read in Proverbs becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. “In Him,” Paul says, “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge… He is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” All that is claimed for Wisdom is realized supremely in Jesus Christ. Now He takes center stage as the One who speaks. Remember how the message that came to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration was meant for all who name the name of Christ. “This is my beloved Son,” said the Father, “hear Him.” “Listen to Him.”

Jesus as our Brother showed us what it means to listen to God. As we read about His ministry, we sense that He is always waiting for the Father’s voice. Before He speaks, He listens. “I do nothing on my own authority,” He claimed, “but speak thus as the Father taught me.” Again, “I speak what I have seen with my Father.” Whatever He did, He did in obedience to the Father’s command. “As the Father has given me commandment,” He said, “even so I do.” He heard and heeded. He first listened and then lived out a life of obedience.

A great part of His labor with His disciples lay in teaching them to do the same. “Hear the Word of God,” He would say. “Take heed how you hear. He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Their listening to Jesus would be the mark of the disciples’ love for Him. “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Just as listening to other people brings them close to us, so listening to God makes room for Him in our hearts and lives. It strengthens the relationship begun by faith. Those who listen to God are happy because in that listening, He becomes real to them. He becomes their joy and portion.

In the Proverbs, Wisdom says, “He who find me finds life.” Later Jesus, the wisdom of God in a human life, says things very much like that: “I am the life. I am the bread of life. And in the words of John the apostle, “He that has the Son has life.”

HOW TO DO IT

How can we become the happy listeners of whom the Bible speaks? That takes a miracle. It’s natural for us to turn away our ears from hearing and harden our hearts against the voice of God. We are a rebellious, self-centered people, quick to speak and assert ourselves, slow to listen and learn. But the same Christ who calls us to listen also creates in us a new capacity. Remember when He said to the man who was deaf and dumb, “Ephathah, be opened”? The apostles preserved the exact Aramaic word that He spoke. It seemed for them to have a significance beyond this particular incident. It was as though they heard Him saying Ephphatha to all of them. When Jesus calls His servants through the gospel, He unstops their deaf ears. He says to them with the voice of power, “Be opened.” He makes it possible for them to hear as never before the call of wisdom, the word of Almighty God.

If you are a Christian today, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you have received Him into your heart as your Savior and Lord, you have been given a listening ear. Christ has spoken His Ephathah over your life. But like every other capacity, the power to listen needs to be cultivated and developed. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when He said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear”? In other words, “You have the ability; now use it.”

That says to me that we can learn to listen. We can learn to listen to the birds on a spring morning instead of being preoccupied with the buzz of our own thoughts. We can learn to listen to our friends and family members, attentive to the feeling behind the words, eager to empathize so that we can respond to what they are really saying. Yes, and we can learn to listen to God. We can carve out time in our busy schedules to open our Bibles and pray, “Speak, Lord, Your servant is listening.” We can ask that when we go to a church where the Word is preached or taught. God will speak to us. And we can pray it more and more in the midst of life’s ups and downs: “Lord, what are You saying to me? I will hear what God the Lord will speak.”

The Proverbs say that when we miss Wisdom, we injure ourselves. When we hate her, we love death. Nothing is more sad than closing our ears to God’s gracious call. But when we listen and keep on listening to the word He sends us in Christ, when we watch daily at His gates and wait beside His doors, then we will be truly happy listeners. We will find and celebrate the life that is life indeed.

PRAYER: Lord, speak to us. Your servants are listening. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.