Adam McHugh’s take on developing a life of listening to God, others, and ourselves.
Listening is, I believe, integral to our relationship with God, each other, and ourselves, and it’s the foundation of spiritual formation.
A few months ago, I read Adam McHugh’s The Listening Life, and so much of this book has stuck with me that I thought I’d write up a quick book review and share it here with you. (And, SPOILER ALERT: Adam is visiting Auburn in a few weeks to preach at our church and lead a lecture on listening to others — more on that event below and on our events page!)
Adam McHugh writes in his epilogue of The Listening Life,
“Listening is the first thing we do in life, and it is the last thing we do in death. We don’t have a choice then, but we do have a choice for all the points in between. The honest truth is that there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in actually doing it. It is the New Year’s resolution of relationship disciplines. It is not glamorous, charismatic or dynamic. People who have been heard well aren’t even aware it half the time. Yet when you commit to go deep into listening, you will find that listening ‘speaks’ in ways far more powerful than talking ever could. The most profound sermon, masterfully delivered, cannot compare to the experience of being truly heard. People don’t line up at the sanctuary door to shake your hand after you’ve listened, but ten thousand true and beautiful words cannot convey love like unhurried listening” (p. 213).
McHugh spends the entirety of his book outlining the how’s and why’s of listening well, beginning first with the concept of listening being tied to obedience. Listening requires intentionality and active participation. He writes that “the beginning of discipleship is listening…Disciples are walking listeners” (pp. 18-19). We are shaped and formed by the voices to which we expose ourselves, so we must be careful in our listening (p. 22).
A God Who Listens
Before we can understand how to listen, though, we must look to the God who listens. In the second chapter of The Listening Life, McHugh points out that “the God who shares power is a listener” (p. 35), and that “listening begins when we learn that our heavenly Father listens to us” (p. 40).
Of particular meaning to me was his short section in this chapter devoted to times when God doesn’t seem to be listening to us. He tackles questions we’ve all wrestled with in our faith: “What about when God is silent?…If God is not acting on my prayer, does that mean he is not listening to me? Worse, does it mean I have some block that is muzzling God’s work in my life? Is our conversation broken because of something in me?” (p. 49). Scripture tells us that the “oppressors, the unjust, the unrepentant, the self-righteous and violent” won’t be heard, and they’ll find God’s ear to be more inclined towards those who are poor in spirit, broken, contrite, humble, and repentant (p. 49).
But then, there are seasons saints through the centuries have called “dark nights of the soul,” in which even the most humble of prayers seems to float out into nothingness. Here, McHugh reminds us that we are “not to mistake the experience of God’s presence for the presence itself. We have consistent biblical pictures of a God who pursues his children to the ends of the earth, whose ears are open to them, who loves them as passionately and protectively as parents love their children. He is Immanuel, God with us, until the end of the age…When God is listening to us, even if we do not experience the results we hope for, he is actively disposed toward us” (p. 50).
Listening to God
The following three chapters are devoted to learning to listen to this God who is with us, even when we can’t sense him, because he is a God who is always actively, personally, incarnationally speaking to us. Learning to hear God’s voice is a lifelong journey, and it requires that we make room and space to listen to him. In this digital world which we inhabit, truly listening to God can be painstaking, because we are constantly attempting to fill the silences of our lives. “A loud, overcrowded, hyperactive life is the antithesis of the listening life. The hyperactive life is so often trying to prove its worth, make its mark and justify its existence. The listening life waits, quietly and humbly, for God to make his mark on us” (p.77).
We can better develop a quiet, humble listening posture toward God through listening to scripture, where he has chosen to reveal himself to us. But listening to scripture requires submission—something that isn’t always valued in a highly independent western culture. McHugh writes, “If we submit the deepest parts of ourselves to our listening, we have reason to believe that God will reveal deep parts of himself to us” (p. 96). His chapter on listening to scripture alone is worth the price of the book!
While we may be committed to reading and studying Scripture and prayer, we still may find it difficult to hear God’s voice. One of the most helpful questions McHugh offers in The Listening Life is found earlier in this chapter. Rather than asking, “Why can’t I hear God’s voice?”, we may actually need to ask this: “Why won’t I?” (p. 58). What may be getting in the way of my willingness to let God define himself, rather than go on believing in my self-created version of who he is (p. 68)?
Listening to Others, Ourselves, and Our Neighbors
As we learn to let God define himself, we can also become better listeners of others. Chapters 6 and 7 contain excellent wisdom for how to become a better listener to the people in our lives, as well as how to acknowledge our bad listening habits. If you desire to listen well to those you love and interact with, you may find these chapters especially helpful.
Truly listening to another requires that we “listen to” rather than “listen for”; if I’m listening for, then I’m trying to think of how I’ll respond rather than giving space to the other person to speak freely. “Incarnational listening,” though, is “getting into their world and story and getting my [my] feet dirty by the soil of their lives” (p. 149).
This is especially important when listening to someone in pain. When we sit across from someone who is hurting, our gift of silence can go a long way—though it may feel uncomfortable to stay quiet rather than offer some platitude or cliche response. If we hear them talk about their own doubts, our own doubts are stirred, McHugh writes, and that creates anxiety. Silence, though, makes room for mystery and allows God’s presence to do its work: “It is the Light that enables us to be there with them in their darkness. This kind of listening embraces mystery and ambiguity and, perhaps hardest of all, waiting” (p. 173).
In Chapter 8, McHugh encourages us to listen to our own lives, as well — a practice that develops discernment and wisdom. Quoting Irenaeus, who famously said that “the glory of God is man fully alive,” he asserts that “we are not fully alive until we love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, an we cannot love Go with all of ourselves until we are well acquainted with our minds, hearts, souls and bodies” (p. 176).
In his final chapter, McHugh then invites us to consider how we as God’s people might do what he calls “reverse listening”: “Instead of being the People With Answers, we can discover the questions people are actually asking. This is an age where the church has to earn the right to be heard, and I know of no better way to do that than to listen first.” He asks us to consider being a church that listens first as we communicate the love of Christ. A quote from missiologist Michael Frost has been replaying in my head for months: “‘Listen to your neighborhood. They are telling you how to heal them’” (p. 212).
Read this book!
Because we are loved and pursued by a God who listens, we can trust him to teach us how to hear his voice, and how to better listen to our spouses, kids, friends, and neighbors. If you’re looking for a wonderful foundational book to spiritual formation, Adam McHugh’s The Listening Life is an excellent place to start, and I highly recommend picking it up!
UPCOMING EVENT Sunday, August 25th
For those of you in the Sacramento area, Adam McHugh will be joining us at Sierra Grace Fellowship Sunday, August 25th as a guest preacher during both Sunday services.
He’ll also be teaching that evening at Sierra Grace’s Fellowship Hall at 7pm on how we can better listen to others. This event is sponsored by Sierra Grace’s Stephen Ministry.
We’d love for you to join us! Check out our events page, Facebook and Instagram accounts for more updates and information about how you can participate.