“Father I confess there is freer access to the throne of grace than there is to my desk.” Elspeth Campbell Murphy
O God, I cry in the daytime, but you hear not; and in the night season and am not silent… Psalm 22:2
The approach of psychologist and guru Carl Rogers went well for a while if for no other reason than that many people felt, “At last, someone’s listening to me.” That wasn’t Job’s experience during his sore troubles; he felt he was having a conversation with friends who simply weren’t hearing him. He says in 21:2-3, “Listen carefully to my words; let this be the consolation you give me. Bear with me while I speak and after I have spoken mock on.” People in the shadows need people who will listen to them.
Poor Job (and poor friends)—his friends were well into their hewing and hacking job. They were pouring out words, thinking they were doing Job a favor. “This is the truth, the pure word of God,” we can hear them say. “We’re offering you not only good advice but the consolations of the Almighty and you dismiss them.” Eliphaz asks in 15:11, “Are God’s consolations not enough for you, words spoken gently to you?” You only have to read how they were gutting him to see it wasn’t only Job they were deaf to; they were deaf to themselves! Righteous people can get into a nice rhythm; pious words can flow easily and pleasingly. The pleasing rhythm gives them an added sense of truth. Scriptures come effortlessly to the tongue, truth from here, there and yonder join the stream and before we know it we have a torrent of mighty truth bearing down all before it—including the sinner we came to save. “Words gently spoken to you,” we tell them. What a spellbinding sight it is to see a righteous man or woman in full pursuit of a transgressor. No warrior in a Scythian horde or in the army of Genghis Khan was ever so keen to come to grips with an enemy.
Eliphaz self-righteously offers what he calls the consolations of God and Job caustically says he’d settle for a fair hearing before they started to mock—that’d be consolation enough. At this very moment, somewhere a bullied wife, a frustrated husband, an accused child or a distraught parent is saying, “Will you just listen for once?” And the other rounds off the sentence and becomes silent and, God help us, we think that’s “listening”. God forgive me for all the times I’ve sinned in this way and hurt the hearts of those who really needed to be heard.
In fairness, we’re asking for a real gift when we ask people to listen to us and if we’ve given people reason to be angry with us that makes it even more a gift when they hear us. “Listening” is more than saying nothing while another is speaking. To listen is to enter into the part of the world they’re living in and wrestling with. “Listening” is wanting to understand not only what these people are facing but what they’re facing it with. Maybe they don’t want to be excused; maybe they don’t expect that, can’t expect it and have no right to expect it! Maybe they just want to be heard and if they get that they’ll soldier on.
Elspeth Campbell Murphy taught first graders for many years and thought that they taught her more than she taught them. In a lovely little book she wrote in 1979 (CHALKDUST) she recorded the kind of prayers she prayed depending on the circumstances and needs. One of them was a prayer for help in listening to children who were always eager to talk. She confessed it was easier to get to God’s throne than to her desk and asked God for “a heart that understands the importance of a new pair of shoes or a lost pencil.” She felt like a cheat because she rejoiced in the privilege of knowing that the Lord of the universe listened to her and she had a hard time listening to the children. It is a needed and lovely prayer that she concludes with, “and Father, thanks for listening.”
We all have to make our own confession of failure here or there and we’ll all have to be modest even in confession. We’re limited as well as limiting—only God does everything flawlessly. Surely it makes sense for us to want to grow in fairness and give to others (as much as we can) what is given to us so abundantly by God—a hearing!
When we dismiss the voice of someone as not worth hearing we’re saying something about their personhood—it isn’t just their voice we want nothing to do with at that point; we want nothing to do with them! When we give ourselves to them in a genuine listening experience, when they know it, are sure of it, they feel they and not just their words are being taken seriously. “I’m worth listening to!” is their sense of things.
I accept the fact that to truly listen to a person can be a very great gift and I accept that there are times when there are such demands on us that we might not be able to do that. Still, that doesn’t ease the pain in the heart of the person unheard. Let me tell you of a situation where both people were “losers”.
My Ethel had a network of health difficulties that included paraplegia and various re-routings of internal systems and a whole lot more. Back when she was able to travel we were going to visit our kids and grandkids in America, a trip that even at its best wiped her out and generated all kinds of fears en route. The airline assured us that everything was taken care of but after about fifteen event-filled hours we were relieved and ready to carry her on for our last plane ride. We were horrified to discover that her seat was to be in the middle of the middle block of seats and that mine was in a different row. By this time I had seen her transferred badly from the wheelchair and back, almost dropped, jolted and frightened, spoken to abrasively, bumped against aisle seats and almost thrown into two of them—all that and more. This last little issue was too much and I said so to the official at the entrance to the plane. At least if she wasn’t on an aisle we needed two seats together for there were things that needed to be attended to promptly and decisively for the comfort of all around us. He kept interrupting me, telling me there was nothing he could do, the place was overbooked, I should have checked my seat assignments before now, and more. The more he talked and the more he didn’t let me explain the angrier I became. I tried telling him again about the physical situation, about the airline assuring us…but he was shaking his head, looking this way and that and telling me he could do nothing about it. By now it wasn’t that I really expected him to do anything—I…just…wanted…to…be…heard and understood! I wanted him to know what I was feeling and how distressed she was as she sat there looking up at both of us and blaming herself for being such a problem. Even as I write this, so long after the event, I can still feel the emotional surges returning. I was distressed and wanted to be heard!
Let me ask again: God forgive me for all the times I’ve sinned in this way and hurt the hearts of those who really needed to be heard.
This poor man was under all kinds of pressure, the place was jam-packed with people anxious to board, the flight was overbooked, there were people piling up behind us while I blocked the entrance and tried (at least initially) to get him to “do something”; there were time constraints because we were running a bit late, and more! He was pressured into believing he didn’t have time to hear or understand and I was pressured into believing I had to be heard and understood. Had things been calmer, the pressures off he would have done something but I wasn’t able at that point to worry about his troubles; I had troubles of my own.
Those of us with a profound need to be heard must be given a hearing and if we can do that we should do it. If we needy can from somewhere dredge up the patience to spare a thought for the one we’re speaking to that would be a wonderful gift too. This airline official didn’t have it in him at that point to say something to me like, “Mr. McGuiggan, I’m so sorry about all this mess but right now I’m not able to deal with it, maybe…” that would have eased things. He was abrupt, abrasive even, and completely unsympathetic to our situation so I remember him in this unflattering (and perhaps uncharitable) way.
It’s all water under the bridge and in light of the horrors that are experienced in the world perhaps I shouldn’t dare even to mention it but I’m not that mature. I have to say, however, with lovers all over the world, that had I been alone and given a bad seat assignment I could have lived with it but when it so affected my Ethel it went to another dimension. I wanted to be heard not just for me—for her! For her, for pity’s sake!
The experience remains with me as a prod and a reminder that both those who need to be heard and those who need to hear can give to one another a marvelous gift. [I wrote the airline expecting a form letter in return, electronically apologizing for the mix up. What I got was a phone call and…but that’s another story.]
Now, here’s the thing, if we humans long for and often rightly expect other humans to give us a hearing wouldn’t you think that God would give us a hearing?
Throughout the book of Job we hear that plea, spoken and unspoken. “Where is he that I might speak to him?” “Why doesn’t he answer me?” A psalmist (Psalm 22) is plagued with illness that shows itself in utter fatigue, extreme weight loss and dehydration and he’s sure he’s going down into dust. He’s troubled by loss of friends and a deep sense of abandonment by God as through half-closed eyes he sees the mocking smiles of his enemies as they mutter their delight to each other. He sees the gathering of (perhaps) distant family members who are eyeing the things they’ll make a grab for when he dies and he wonders why God is so far away that he doesn’t hear his cries.
How long it took we aren’t able to tell but the psalmist finally had reason to believe that God was hearing him even when it looked least like it (22:24). The last half of the psalm expresses his delight and relief and he vows he will tell everyone he meets to believe that God doesn’t abandon righteous strugglers.
It’s so lonely to be cut off from all those people and things that make life more than “pleasant” and even if we have other means of support, enough to make life better than tolerable, there’s the ache we get when we have been cut off from those we feel make life fully worth living. What a blessed relief, a joy, it is when we get a letter or a phone call, “I’ve been meaning for months to call you and tell you…and I’m sorry it’s taken this long.” To be embraced again in ways like that, to be heard, to have your pleas acknowledged—that’s better than a holiday, better than an excess of money. You are thought worthwhile, worth bothering about and the caller/writer can’t bear another moment to pass without asking for and offering the gift of fellowship. We know better (or should) than to think that when we speak to Him “God just drops everything” and gives us his undivided attention—that faith is too cozy and runs contrary to both Scripture and life. But that he hears our every prayer, spoken and unspoken, seems to be the message of the Bible so that we’ll never truly have to speak to God as Job spoke to his friends.
This piece from my little book on JOB: LIFE ON THE ASH HEAP