Are We Listening or Talking to Ourselves? — St. Peter's Fireside | Vancouver, B.C. 

by Alastair Sterne
December 4, 2016
8 min read

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I’ve been having trouble listening to people lately. This is a challenge especially in crowded environments. Whomever I’m talking to seems to fade into the background noise. So I decided to pursue the worst course of action one can take when it comes to potential health issues: I googled it. This did not comfort me. After some procrastination and a feeble attempt to deny anything might be wrong, I called to schedule a hearing appointment with an audiologist. I booked the next available appointment, which was a month out. Then I waited.

The waiting is difficult

The waiting was difficult. I began to notice my tinnitus more than usual. I started second guessing if I was hearing things correctly. I began to wonder if the genes of my grandmother would make an unwelcome and overstayed cameo in my life. Would I eventually go deaf? Would I need a hearing aid? Would the sound of music begin to dull? Would I begin struggling to hear the lovely voices of Ansley, Maggie, and most of all, Julia? The waiting was difficult.

The day of my appointment finally arrived. I sat down on a small wooden chair in the cramped sound isolation booth. It’s a curious experience: sounds playing at different levels and pitches, speech perception (what word did I just say?), the bone conduction test (not nearly as cool as it sounds), and probably more technical things. In short, it was a series of “Did you hear that?” tests and then pressing a red button.

The last test was the most stressful for me. A pre-recorded voice of a woman read random and almost nonsensical sentences while audio of a restaurant became increasingly louder. I had to repeat back what she was saying. “The ham goes well with cheese.” And then quieter, “The goat should not be picked up.” And quieter still, “The dog wore a monocle.” My own internal monologue picked up as she quieted. “No, that can’t be! A dog and monocle? Is it? Yeah, it is. Just go for it – that’s what she said right?” I found this last test horribly stressful. I began sweating. I started worrying each time her voice faded into the background noise. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “I am failing this test.” After the test was done, I actually needed a minute or so to compose myself.

When the good news is bad news

The ear Doc looked at me and said “I have good news, but you might find it to be bad news. Your hearing is just fine.” He paused, dramatically. I waited. He went on, ”I want to acknowledge your experience, that you’re struggling to hear in some environments, but it’s not because of any hearing loss. Your hearing is just fine. I realize this may be frustrating.” He paused again.

He went on, “As you get into your thirties, it’s not unusual to find conversations difficult to follow in loud environments and for your comprehension to decrease. This comes with aging. In some environments, you may want to ask if the music can be turned down.”

I responded, “Is my diagnosis really that I’m turning into an old man who needs to be crotchety in public?” I’m not sure my sense of humour landed, but I was sincerely relieved, so I clarified, “I am really glad my hearing is okay!”

Noise and Advent

But there’s something in my experience that drew me deeper into Advent. We live in a noisy, busy world. The chatter only seems to amplify as Christmas draws nearer. The background noise becomes the foreground, and over time we don’t even know who we were trying to listen to in the first place.

God does speak. We know this. It’s one of the first theological proclamations of Scripture. God speaks. In the season of Advent, we remember that God has spoken within and throughout human history, and now in a definitive way. The author of Hebrews puts it like this:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1.1-3).

The waiting for God to speak is difficult. We start to worry. Did God really speak through His Son? Will he speak again?

God has spoken to us “by His Son.” But have you ever felt like the voice of Jesus — the voice we’re supposed to recognize — is drowned out by a thousand other sounds, noises, and voices? Even in the quiet, in the silence of night, do you struggle to hear his voice? When you’re still, do you only hear the murmuring of the noise around you, the pings of yet another text message, or the music that helps you drift back to sleep? In our increasingly noisy world, do you start to wonder if God has spoken at all?

We know God will speak again when Jesus returns and declares “Behold! I have made all things new” (Revelation 21.5). But what about this long middle space, where we live with chatter, differing opinions, and voices that draw our attention? What do we do in the waiting?

The waiting for God to speak is difficult. We start to worry. Did God really speak through His Son? Will he speak again? Have I ever actually heard his voice or am I just trying to convince myself that I have?

But what if there’s actually nothing wrong with our hearing? What if we’ve just been listening to the wrong voices and the background noise for too long.

Who are we listening to?

Maybe we need to ask ourselves a new set of question.

Perhaps we don’t hear the still, quiet voice of our Good Shepherd because we’ve been too caught up in the background noise. We keep ourselves busy, we try to be at most social events, we work the extra hours, we order, buy, and consume; we stay caught up with all our shows, all the new music, we run errands and mop floors, we get our dishes done and try to pay our bills. There is so much to do, so little margin, so much busyness. If this is the case, then we’re caught up in the background noise.

We need to start considering how much of the world, and our lives within the world are designed to drown God out.

And perhaps we don’t hear God well because we’re too busy listening to ourselves. We’re endlessly listening to ourselves, our own desires and self-evaluations. What am I going to do today? I’m hungry, what will I eat? Should I call him? Maybe I should go on a diet, tomorrow. Maybe I should pray, later. I want to be better, look better, smile more. I want something, someone, anything — some moment that will create a new and better normal. I want this moment to be the past, and the future to be now. Does God see me? Is God even in this stuff? If this sort of inner monologue is familiar, then we’re caught up listening to ourselves.

We need to start considering how much of the world, and our lives within the world are designed to drown God out.

Are we listening to ourselves or talking to ourselves?

Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones has the diagnosis for us. He says, “you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself.” Do you get that? Do you realize that there’s a difference between listening to yourself and talking to yourself?

There is room for tension, doubt, struggle within Advent. After all, Advent is a reminder that we live in the tension of the already and not yet. Jesus has come, but his kingdom is not yet established in its entirety. We remember that Jesus is our hope, peace, love and joy in this world. But we also do that while experiencing hopelessness, restlessness, chaos and war, hatred, strife, grief and sorrow.

Advent is good news that can be bad news. We’re not going deaf. That’s good news! We’re just growing up. And that’s the bad news. We keep growing up and realize that all the things we thought would just resolve over time … haven’t. We’re still struggling to hear God. But part of our growing up is learning to speak to ourselves rather than just listen to ourselves. Maybe God isn’t as hard to hear as we think.

Jesus has spoken and it has been written down and recorded for us in Scripture. The challenge is to speak his words — God’s words — to ourselves. The challenge is to actually distrust our own perceptions, our own limitations, our tendency to try to explain what cannot be explained. But the good news is that God has spoken, God has promised to speak again and bring about a world with uninterrupted love and joy. And in the long middle space where we wait, God promises to speak to us.

While we wait for God to usher in the new heavens and earth … in that great-long-meantime: Take the words that God has already spoken, and speak them to yourself.

about the author
Alastair is the lead pastor at St. Peter’s Fireside. Once upon a time he was a touring musician of a forgettable indie band, and a Creative Director at a few design agencies. He is the husband of Julia, the father of Ansley and Maggie, and quite skilled with "the photoshop." If you're feeling up for it, you can follow him on Instagram.

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