A friend of mine sent me the following devotional. He had found it powerful, as do I.
A brilliantly conceived metaphor in Psalm 40:6…literally it reads: “You take no delight in sacrifices or offerings; ears You have dug for me, I finally understand.”
It is puzzling that no translator renders the sentence into English in just that way. All prefer to paraphrase at this point, presenting the meaning adequately but losing the metaphor: “You have given me an open ear”. But to lose the metaphor in this instance is not to be countenance; the Hebrew verb is “dug”.
Imagine a human head with no ears. A blockhead. Eyes, nose, and mouth, but no ears. Where ears are usually found there is only a smooth, impenetrable surface, granitic bone. God speaks. No response. The metaphor occurs in the context of bustling religious activity deaf to the voice of God: “sacrifice and offering You do not desire…burnt offering and sin offering (40:6). How did these people know about these offerings and how to make them? They had read the prescriptions in Exodus and Leviticus and followed instructions. They had become religious..But what good is a speaking God without listening human ears? So God gets a pick and shovel and digs through the cranial granite, opening a passage that will give access to the interiors depths, into the mind and heart. Or–maybe we are not to imagine a smooth expanse of skull but something like wells that have been stopped up with refuse: culture noise, throw-away gossip, garbage chatter. Our ears are so clogged that we cannot hear God speak. – Eugene Peterson
The devotional quote concluded with the following prayer: “And so Lord, where do I put my hope? You alone have the word of Truth. You alone are trustworthy. Re-dig my ears. Unstop my hearing. Speak. When the Scriptures are open, let me read it aloud so that my newly opened ears will hear Your voice. Rescue me from my rebellion–the wrong I do and speak and the good I have left undone. I am silent before You. Though my mind should clamor and protest, though my schedule crowd my thoughts, I will still and quiet my soul and mind–speak once again, O Lord. Amen.”
It has oft been noted that God gave us two ears and only one mouth, as a reminder we ought to do twice as much listening as we do speaking. Yet I wonder why it is that we struggle so much to be attentive to God’s voice – it is more than the “culture noise, throw-away gossip, garbage chatter” that surrounds and invades our mind and heart. And it is more than the voices of our anxiety, anger, temptation, grief and brokenness that noise out the still small voice of the Lord. Our deafness to God’s Word of grace and truth stems from more than the hectic pace of life in which we live and which lives in us. And most importantly, our lack of hearing has nothing to do with the oft-times quietness of God’s whispered beckoning. All creation was called into being simply by the power of God’s Word, “Let there be….” And His word is no less powerful today than at the beginning of time and this world.
No, our deafness to that healing, judging, forgiving, cleansing, calling, saving and sending Word has to do most of all, I fear, to the fact that we so resolutely refuse to listen. We are more like the child with hands held tight over his ears saying, “I can’t hear you!” than we are people straining intently to catch the strains of heaven’s song and holy message for our lives, and obey. Isaiah the prophet had been told that he was to spend his life preaching to a people who would be “‘ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Most of the time we treat the scriptures, for instance, and by extension, God, like some sort of Vegas slot machine. We pop in our five cents worth of devotional time and expect a million dollar pay-off of religious good-feeling every time. The reality is that the capacity to yield deep attentiveness to God’s Word is developed and honed only by a labour of love, disciplined practice and intentional dedication, not unlike the effort demanded of an Olympic athlete or a great musician. Because there is so much distracting noise in our world and in our soul, we need to learn the discipline and art of being still before the Lord, of waiting patiently on God, and listening with intelligent mind and soul for the Spirit. (How often, by the way, do we pray, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” as if God, like a well-trained pet, is going to bark out the words we want to hear on command? Most of us would not want to admit to such callousness, but sadly we usually expect God to speak on our time schedule, rather than being prepared to wait on God’s good timing.)
Positioning is a term sometimes used to describe our human work of making ourselves as attentive and available to God as possible. Again, it is not that we can force the Holy Spirit to jump through our religious posturing and speak on command. But we can learn how to make ourselves as alert as possible and prepared to hear God’s voice.
Such positioning for alertness begins with the discipline of giving time to God. I love the phrase, “wasting time with God” which has been used by some writers as they talk about the purpose of worship. By it, they mean “hanging out” with God, or finding delight in just being in his presence, without agenda, as we would with a good friend in whose company we find ourselves refreshed and renewed, even when we aren’t doing anything in particular. In fact, time is not being “wasted” – it is being dedicated in the holiest and most precious way. Most of us are so time conscious, guardedly meting out little moments here and there. What if we were prepared to sacrifice whole big chunks of time in “wasteful prodigality” just being in the Lord’s presence? Isn’t that the holiest offering we can give? When the Psalmist talked about being still and knowing God, I believe he was referring to that kind of leisurely, devoted offering of our hearts before the Lord in which we make room in our souls for God’s Word to settle.
Positioning for alertness to God’s voice also means we let God do most of the speaking, and we do most of the listening. So often we present God with our laundry list of wants, and even our most caring intercessions for others, but give no time in prayer to waiting for God to speak to us. And when we do speak to the Lord, even more important than our intercessions are our confessions, in which we acknowledge how deaf we are, how resistant we are to his truth, how blind we are to our sins, how stubbornly we try to save ourselves, how unbelieving are our hearts that God would want to speak to us and love us. Part of our “cleaning out the refuse in our ears” involves the ruthless sort of spiritual inventory that admits that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to listening attentively to the Lord, and please, O God, won’t you do something to help us?
Positioning also involves two separate disciplines in how we use scripture. The one is learning to read big chunks of scripture at a time, letting the stories of Israel, the words of the prophets, the prayers of the Psalmist, the teachings of Jesus, or the reflections of Paul impact us in a whole. Spending time reading those big chunks of scripture is like giving our hearts a broad canvass on which God’s character and purpose get sketched for our understanding.
The seemingly opposite discipline is learning to meditate on a single passage or sentence or phrase, and letting the Spirit speak that word of truth more deeply into our lives. Lectio divina is the old Latin phrase to describe the process of slowly reading a small section of scripture over and over again, and narrowing down our focus onto a particular part to which the Spirit summons our attention, through which he would minister to our hearts. Taken together, the discipline of immersing ourselves in scripture trains us to give the agenda over to God himself, allowing God space in our lives for his Word to take root and grow.
And throughout, it is to pray again and again, “O Lord, give me ears; let me hear.” Our faithful God will answer indeed.