In English, the concepts of “listening” and “obedience” are expressed by different words. But in Romanian, “listening” and “obedience” are expressed using the same word. The same is true in Latin where the word oboedire means “to listen or obey”. In an issue of “The Cry”, a quarterly magazine published by the mission organization Word Made Flesh, April Folkertsma, a missionary to Romania, reflecting upon the close connection between listening and obeying says that listening requires active involvement. Hearing, on the other hand, is much more passive. It doesn’t require involvement. I recall an incident during my student days that illustrates the difference between hearing and listening. A friend and I were talking when a mutual acquaintance came up and asked “How are you?” My friend explained he was in the middle of a horrible week. His wife and kids had had the flu for several days, requiring that he stay home, he was therefore swamped with his studies and had just failed a midterm exam. Whereupon our acquaintance said “That’s nice” and walked away. While he had heard the words, he had failed to listen and respond appropriately. To move from merely hearing to listening requires an active response that demonstrates that we have understood what we have heard and that it has changed our lives.
Listening to God requires a choice – either obedience or disobedience. It is never neutral or uninvolved. But in our modern parlance we have divorced listening from obedience. Modern listening has therefore also become passive. It doesn’t require our active involvement. Perhaps this is what is meant when the prophet Isaiah says “You will be ever hearing, but never understanding, you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” (Isa 6:9). Hearing and seeing are both passive. They don’t require a response. The words basically go in one ear and out the other. The alternative, understanding and perceiving, requires action. Like listening, they require a response of obedience. As Isaiah says, it is only by the action associated with obedience that the goal is reached – to turn and be healed (v. 10). St Paul, in writing to the churches, has this in mind. Most of the verbs he uses are imperatives; commands expected to be obeyed. He writes with the expectation that when his letters are read to the churches they will respond with obedience.
But in our modern world obedience has become passé. We don’t like to be told what to do. We don’t want to obey rules. We want to be the masters of our own lives. In our hustle bustle world we also don’t take the time necessary to reflect upon and understand the words which we do hear or see in print. We don’t ruminate upon them, turning them over in our minds, evaluating them. Therefore, we don’t really listen. But obedience demonstrates that we have truly listened. The words we have heard have penetrated into the depths of our soul, requiring a response which we freely make out of love for our Father in Heaven. Obedience demonstrates that we really have listened, for what we have heard changes us. Perhaps this is why the Bible places obedience upon such a high plane. In God’s eyes, obedience is more important than worship. Worship can be perfunctory. Active obedience, based on love shows our responsiveness to the word of God. As opposed to merely hearing, it shows a responsiveness to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Upon reflection, are you a true listener or merely a hearer of the word?