Listening As Exchange: The Trouble with God Discerning Our Will

large meeting house

If you ever get the chance to sit in on a silent Quaker meeting, take the opportunity. It’s not the kind of experience you’ll get just anywhere. Yes, it’s intense. Yes, it’s likely to be extremely difficult to “center down” and focus for an hour, but it’d still be a great exercise in listening.  When I see conversations geared to listening, I automatically think of the Quaker tradition.  What better group of people to turn to for advice about how to listen?  When Quakers meet for worship they reserve a time during the service for complete silence; this silence is a commitment as a community to allowing God space in our worship. But it is rarely ever a “silent worship.” Rather, in worship Quakers listen for the Holy Spirit to move them to action. That is, if the Spirt of God moves you to share/preach/sing, then listening to God involves acting on what was heard.  In this way, the practice of silence for Quakers only begins with listening, but true silence always leads to an action.

While at first glance this idea of a silent worship service may seem a bit overly simplistic, or even worse “boring,” but I challenge you to suggest to your church service planner to have 10 minutes of silence this week and see how it goes. And by silence, I mean absolute and complete silence, no soft piano playing in the background or guitar lazily strumming its strings, no worship leader talking about how we’re currently being silent before the Lord; no, I mean pure unadulterated quiet. Now I think this is still radical. It was radical 400 years ago, and it may be, in world where distraction is a necessary drug, even more radical today. Doesn’t just the idea of being quiet for so long kind of freak us out?!

Listening is no easy thing to do.  In fact, I might suggest that in our world today, it’s the impossible. That is to say, listening is the kind of act (or event) that calls us to something beyond itself.  It’s something we never fully accomplish. To truly connect with and understand the voice of an(other) and be moved to respond. “Jesus recognized the difficulty in listening when he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear, listen'” (Mark 4:9)! And this may be an impossible task, at least as far as we can never really sustain that kind of listening. We may have our moments where we truly hear, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say we are then true “hearers” of the (other’s) word all the time.

Think about the  not-so-new cultural phenomena of blogging, which, when deconstructed, is simply a bunch of people all talking at once. A bunch of people all hoping someone else will listen. The way people listen in the blogosphere is by talking back through comments, but have you spent much time reading the comments of the more popular blogs? It really boils down to a bunch of people shouting about this and that. I’m not here to bash blogging–I’m one of those shouters myself–but I am trying to make a basic point.  In our society we don’t have time to do the hard work involved in listening. Listening actually takes serious practice.

And there’s another aspect of listening that often goes unnoticed. Listening tends to be caught in a cycle of exchange (and often economic exchange at that). Going back to the blogging bit for a moment, think about it like this: I have a blog and I’d like others to “listen” to what I have to say (i.e. read my site), so I need to go and “listen” to other bloggers.  But listening isn’t quite enough, I need to actually let them know I’m listening so they can return the favor when it’s my turn to talk/blog. You ever have a conversation with someone who says “uh-huh” every 5 seconds? “Uh-huh” in this cycle of exchange means, “Yes, I’m listening, please return the favor when it’s my turn.” And so you can see why we might think of listeing as the impossible.

But let’s push this even further than we really should: Isn’t all of Protestantism built around this “listening-as-exchange?” The sermon is the central focus of every protestant church (so far as I know). Yet, in this instance, I’d suggest our listening to sermons is more of an empty gesture, an act we participate in to keep up appearances. We listen to the sermon not so much to be changed or transformed (if that were the case then why don’t we join less homogeneous faith communities, and attend communities that say something radically ‘other’ than what we’re comfortable with?), but rather to invest in an exchange that takes place. We will never have any say in the community (that is we will never be heard by others) if we do not attend to the sermons.  Here, then, we see how being able to reference the Sunday messages is a kind of currency (or exchange) within the community.

So now let’s take this to the breaking point: isn’t our listening to God, discerning God’s will, often just locked into this kind of exchange? We listen to God so that some day when we really need it God will listen to us.  I think a better way to look at this problem of exchange is to ask the more honest question, “Is God having difficulties discerning my will?” We talk all the time about how difficult (or sometimes simple) it is to discern God’s will for our lives, but the more radical reading of the situation is to ask whether God is discerning our wills correctly. Is God really hearing us? Is God acting properly in this cycle of exchange?

It seems to me strange reversal is how we often approach God and our faith.  We play by the rules and know all the right things to say, but we keep things safe by keeping up the appearance of listening when in fact we’re really just investing in currency.  This may be why Quakers silence is still a very radical practice, when we listen in the silence, there is always the chance that the cycle will be broken, that some radically alterity will speak in a way that moves us to act – where really hearing means actually doing.

Would that God’s will (whatever it is) provokes us not just to listen (as exchange) but really listen (as action)!

This is an article I recently wrote which was published this past week in Fuller’s student paper called the Semi, you should be  able to find the paper in .pdf form here.