IM Book Review: The Listening Life

Gethsemani Light

The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction
By Adam S. McHugh
IVP Books (2015)

• • •

Listen carefully, my child…and incline the ear of your heart.

• Opening words of the Rule of Benedict

The question that drives this book is, how would our relationships change, and how would we change, if we approached every situation with the intention of listening first? What if we approached our relationship with God as listeners? What if we viewed our relationship with nature as one of listening? What if we approached our relationships using our ears rather than our mouths? What if we sought to listen to our emotions before we preached to them?

• Adam McHugh

I have come to understand, kicking and screaming, that my work as a hospice chaplain is primarily that of a listener. And, by the way, I think it might also be one of Jesus’ main callings for all of us if we want to live a Jesus-shaped life.

And — and this is important — that listening is very often enough.

The act of simply paying attention to someone and hearing her can do more than a multitude of actions. This goes against the grain for most of us. We are doers and fixers and people who like to try to control the outcome of situations. We want to “help.” Especially as Christians, we think it our job to “speak truth” into situations. We view “just sitting there and listening” as something passive and ineffective, perhaps even unloving. We even fill our relationship with God with a truckload of words as we proclaim our worship, lift up our petitions, and verbalize our witness.

Our friend Adam McHugh, who writes for us occasionally here on Internet Monk, has written a book we need: a primer on listening.

A Listening God
Adam reminds us that our God is the one who “hears our voice,” who heard the cries of his people Israel while enslaved in Egypt. Unlike Pharaoh, who would not listen to their groaning, God took heed. And God acted. One helpful reminder he gives is that in Scripture there is a great overlap between “hearing” and “responding,” whether it is speaking of God responding to us or we to him.

God also takes time to question his people, to invite them to “come and reason with him,” to show genuine interest in what they have to say. In one of the most astonishing texts in the Bible, God listens to Abraham as he intercedes for the righteous in Sodom. The original text even says, “God stood before Abraham,” as though God was taking the place of the servant before the master and listening to him for directions. Jesus is also portrayed time and again as someone who elicits responses from people, asking questions like, “What do you want me to do for you?” and listening with sympathetic attention in order to respond.

Adam McHugh is not suggesting that God is at our beck and call. He deals honestly with those times when it seems like God is not listening, when he doesn’t hear, when he fails to act. As in any relationship, these times of darkness and silence try our love and call us to work through them to listen more deeply and perhaps learn what the absence of God might signify.

Listening to Creation
Tomorrow we will post an excerpt of what, at this point, is my favorite chapter in the book, where Adam encourages us to listen to the world we live in, the creation that “speaks” all around us. As one might expect, he has chapters dealing with listening to God as a spiritual practice and ways of listening to God’s voice in Scripture, but it was so refreshing to read this quote from John Calvin: “Meanwhile let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater.”

I love the encouragement this book gives to take up “the spiritual discipline of the long walk.” He is calling us to find the quiet, immerse ourselves in it, and pay attention. I like that he says, “There is no pressure for our observations to be theological or spiritual; we are simply waking up to the craftsmanship of God’s handiwork around us and listening.”

I also like that he calls us to keep time with the rhythm of the seasons, to take interest in the ways humans have brought trouble and even devastation on the creation so that we might participate in its “groaning” and long for its ultimate redemption, to take the words of the prophets seriously when they anticipate a new creation of peace and wholeness.

Listening to People
The Listening Life is also filled with solid encouragement and ideas about how we might all listen to one another better. I appreciate that Adam McHugh is not content with giving us a list of rules and techniques for doing so.

You can give a person all the tools for listening, you can teach him all the right techniques, you can introduce him to the fancy words — active listening, mirroring, paraphrasing and repeating, open-ended questions — but a person’s listening ability is not determined by the techniques in his arsenal. The law does not have the capacity to give life. It is not my intention, nor my personality, to delineate a whole host of rules for effective listening. I am determined to take the “list” out of listening. We do listening a disservice, I believe, by making it overly mechanical. It doesn’t have to be plodding or boring or like eating your lima beans. It can be utterly exhilarating to listen to someone and to see their eyes light up as they discover something new about themselves and feel their emotions validated. It is one of my greatest joys. (p. 135f)

Instead, he recommends spending time around great listeners, learning to imitate them. He suggests we need to do some honest self-reflection to ask ourselves why we are entering a conversation in the first place. A listening heart is about seeking to give, to learn, to welcome, to serve, he reminds us. It is not about controlling or manipulating, but ceding all of that. It is one outworking of Paul’s admonition, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” It is about paying focused and interested attention on the other. Imagine there is an arrow above you that swings in the direction of the person upon whom the conversation is focused, he writes. Do everything you can to keep that arrow pointing toward the other person. Push it toward their interests, their concerns, their needs as they allow.

As St. Francis prayed, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved as to love.” In order to seek this prayer’s fulfillment, Adam suggests we consider each conversation a “Conversatio Divina” — a sacred interchange, a participation in a communion that goes beyond the human dialogue. Perhaps this is what Bonhoeffer meant when he said that Christians do not relate directly to other people, but always through Jesus Christ.

This is especially true when listening to people in pain. Adam has a wonderful chapter with this specific focus. I hope to write more about that, reflecting on his excellent insights, in days to come.

Listening to Your Life
The final aspect of listening that I will bring up in this review that I found most helpful in The Listening Life is the chapter on listening to one’s own life. Our heads are so full of voices! Some of them are friends, some are enemies, some are serious and others silly, but if we ever take the time to get alone and practice solitude, it becomes immediately obvious that our inner world is a a loud and crowded room.

But it’s not simply filled with conscious chosen thoughts. All kinds of random (and not-so-random) emotions are ebbing and flowing within us. Our bodies also speak to us, and we are wise to pick up on their signals. There are refined scripts that we’ve been writing since childhood that repeat themselves over and over again, which we have failed to examine and critique. There are questions we’ve been avoiding or putting off waiting to be answered.

Our inner world is filled with a continual musical score, as it were. Perhaps we’ve become so used to it we can’t really hear it. If you were to describe the music within you — its rhythms and tempos, its melodies and harmonies, its in-tuneness or out-of-tuneness, its style, its instrumentation — what would it sound like?

• • •

What if we would learn to listen? What if the church of Jesus Christ would learn to listen? Adam encourages us to consider becoming a “society of reverse listening,” where those who are expected to speak instead invite others, who never expect to be heard, to speak to them. Without immediate judgment. Without immediate answers. Just listening. Just welcoming the questions and embracing the neighbor. Would we be willing to humble ourselves like that?

As with his earlier book, Introverts in the Church, Adam McHugh has written about a topic which, in my experience, is not often on our radar.

We live in a busy, noisy world that’s supposedly all about communication, but who’s listening?

Who’s listening?

17 thoughts on “IM Book Review: The Listening Life

  1. To many, the idea of listening to the Lord is devoid of any real meaning. Religious gobbledegook. Wasted words on a wasted concept because God will never speak to us and if we say He did we are irrational, insane and or elitist. That is because of a very simplified presupposition about what it means to hear Him. He will be heard but not with carelessness. He will generally not be wordy about anything. “You will search for me and you will find me when you search for me with all your heart.” My wife and I joke about looking longingly into each other’s eyes like young lovers when we have nothing to say. Hearing the Lord is something like looking. Rather than a chat, some specifics to be heard, I would mostly characterize hearing as a communion; a mutual, adoring attendance. It is not confined to that, not only that, but it is mostly that.


  2. Whoa! Thank you. I didn’t know that there was any intersection between Catholic Radio Indy and iMonk.


  3. “Would to God He would give me some holy Slowness!”

    Oh yes! Me, too! I seem to enter almost every conversation as a contest to be won and so, instead of really listening, I’m planning my next response, searching for contingencies and options, processing outcomes and strategies to “win the conversation” instead of just–listening.


  4. I have been reading Adam’s book for the past month or so, and am appreciating it very much. I took one look at the title and knew that this was something I not only wanted to read, but needed to read.

    A particular passage I appreciate, and which describes something I’m struggling with, is: “I’ve heard people say that as our access to information expands,we are becoming exponentially more knowledgeable as a society but no wiser. . . sampling everything but digesting little.”

    I’ve been powerfully struck by how much “stuff” I know, but how little of it I know well, or have digested. My Lenten discipline is going to be some sort of discipline where I seek to know less, but know what I know more deeply. (I”m still working on the details of this, and any suggestions as to how to do this would be gratefully accepted!)


  5. Listening as Adam describes it is simply an aspect of lived humility, placing others ahead of ourselves. Just because I know this doesn’t mean I do it…



  6. We have a God who listens, yes, but sometimes we want a God who DOES.

    Just read Psalm 44 in a class I facilitate. Listen to these verses. It opens with this…

    1-3 We’ve been hearing about this, God,
    all our lives.
    Our fathers told us the stories
    their fathers told them,
    How single-handedly you weeded out the godless
    from the fields and planted us,
    How you sent those people packing
    but gave us a fresh start.
    We didn’t fight for this land;
    we didn’t work for it—it was a gift!
    You gave it, smiling as you gave it,
    delighting as you gave it. (The Message)

    After then describing how God has seemed to abandon them DESPITE them praying and staying close to God and keeping His covenant, it closes with this…

    23-26 Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day?
    Wake up! Don’t you care what happens to us?
    Why do you bury your face in the pillow?
    Why pretend things are just fine with us?
    And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt,
    held down with a boot on our necks.
    Get up and come to our rescue.
    If you love us so much, Help us! (The Message)

    Gosh, I love this psalm!!


  7. Used to cross country ski many years ago. As I read this, my mind went to a place high on a ridge where we we stopped and listened. Nothing but a murmur of slight breezes whispering through the trees below. It is frightening to be in the quiet, to be so quiet that you hear your own breathing. Yet so beautiful. Is that what God desires of us . . . to hear his great love . . . even beyond the ringing of my tinnitus distraction of my own ear?


  8. How many moments of connection do I ruin by interrupting and attempting to finish others’ thoughts for them? Would to God He would give me some holy Slowness!


  9. I just finished this book last night. The “Reverse Listening” chapter is a very good reminder that sometimes we can “preach” the Gospel without using words. The entire book sparked my faith in God, a God who listens. I highly recommend it.


  10. From the lectionary Gospel reading for today…”Anyone who has ears to hear ought to hear…Take care what you hear.” Interesting that today of all days you also post on the importance of listening. Hmmm….

    Ah yes CM, now it’s becoming clearer – this is all part of the masterplan to take over the universe.


  11. Oh no! Another book to add to my ever growing list of books! I often read McHugh’s blog about introverts in the church and found him very wise. This book sounds very interesting.

    As I move up the hill toward age 60 (or I guess in reality, that means I’ve gone over the hill), I am more and more struck by the notion that we mostly do church all wrong. This books might just be a piece of that puzzle


  12. ” the creation that “speaks” all around us ”

    “7”But now ask the animals, and let them teach you;
    And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.
    8″Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you;
    And let the fish of the sea declare to you.
    9″Who among all these does not know That the hand of the LORD has done this, . . . ”

    (Job 12:7-9)


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