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Book Review: “The Listening Life”


“Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim . . . .”1

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations . . . .”2

“Therefore go . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”3

There certainly does seem to be a lot of talking going on in those passages! As they clearly reflect, we have something to proclaim, preach, teach, and share with the world. As Christians in general, and as Adventists in particular, that sense of mission and purpose is rooted deeply in our DNA. It is part of the air we breathe. It is one of the assumptions out of which we live. They are statements that reflect the conviction that we have been greatly blessed and are intended to be generous in blessing others as a result. What higher sense of calling than one which invites us to proclaim, preach, and teach the good news? What may have too often eluded us, however, is that the full realization of our calling arises out of a context and that the context out of which it arises matters.

Context, of course, includes many things. Certainly, there are several of dimensions to the context (historical, cultural, religious, political) which helped to shape our church in the early 19th century, and the proclaiming, preaching, and that teaching has ensued ever since. But as significant as those are (and they are), what is of particular interest to me is a more fundamental scriptural context in which those admonitions to go and share are set. It is to this underlying spiritual context that Adam McHugh seeks to draw our attention in his book, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction.

McHugh begins in the introduction with these poignant words, “LISTENING COMES FIRST.” The remainder of the book sets out to unpack the significance and meaning of that short but profound three-word sentence. The following excerpts from the introduction give glimpses of what is to follow. Beginning with the experience of a newborn baby, he writes:

After her birth, she will spend the next months hearing the words [her parents] speak, whisper and sing to her, until one day she will start echoing those words, one imperfect syllable at a time . . . [the primeval universe] has an ear, because its first action is to listen to the Voice that pierces the darkness. God commands light and the cosmos hears and obeys . . . The centerpiece of Israel’s prayer life, the Shema, begins with the word hear: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV). . . You become a disciple by hearing. Listening is the first act of discipleship . . . The apostle James famously counsels his hearers to be quick to listen, slow to speak (James 1:19) . . . This is the pattern that life commands.”4

This raises an intriguing question. What if the primary ability, quality, or relational pattern that defines who we are called to be lies less in our ability to articulate, and more in our ability to listen, well? McHugh continues by suggesting:

But somewhere along the way we start to violate the natural order of things. Speaking our minds and asserting ourselves take priority over listening. We interrupt someone else because we are convinced we already know what he or she is going to say. . . We consider ourselves experts on topics without anything more to learn. . . We participate by speaking and sharing, and we assert our identities by taking verbal stands. . . We view others as projects rather than people with unique stories to be heard. We consider our great Christian task to be preaching, rather than assuming the listening posture of a servant. We speak in volumes, but we listen in snippets.”5

In the pages that follow, he does a masterful job of offering some glimpses of what it might look like, personally and communally, if we were to take seriously the primacy of listening. He begins by describing the overall contours of a listening life, particularly in contrast to a way of being that uses words to acquire power rather than assuming a stance that seeks to serve by being attentive. He then follows by describing how this is lived out in the picture of God that is revealed to us in scripture and most clearly in the life of Jesus – that of a God who listens. How we live in response to that God by assuming the stance of a listener when engaging in prayer, reading scripture, and being attentive to the created world and those others we share it with occupy the next several chapters. What it means to genuinely listen to those in pain, and how we can listen well to ourselves and perhaps better discern the work that God is doing in us, is where he turns his focus as he moves toward the end of the book. He devotes his final chapter to reflecting on what a community that takes the primacy of listening seriously might be like. In the Epilogue, he reminds us that “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.”6 To consider the significance of that choice is the task he leaves for us.

In general, one of the characteristics of a truly good book is not only its ability to speak on a personal level in ways that make us wonder how this author was able to get inside our heads and articulate so well what we hadn’t quite yet found the words for, but also the way in which it provides a clear vision of how things can be different, both personally and corporately, as it gives practical suggestions as to how we can begin moving in that direction. This is one of those books.

But even more, it is also a book that raises some fundamentally central questions as we are reminded that the context out of which our call to proclaim, preach, and teach arises is a community that finds its primary sense of meaning and identity, not in its ability to speak, but in its ability to hear. What we have to say matters, but it is only really heard well in ways that are genuinely transformative rather than merely informative, when it comes out of a context that takes listening first seriously. What if the first things that came to people’s minds when they thought about us was not how passionately we spoke, but how amazingly well we listened and responded to what we heard? What if we were less concerned about finding ourselves at a loss for words and more about placing ourselves in a posture where others felt they could not be heard? What if who we are when we are with people actually speaks louder than what we say to people? Could this be some of what Jesus was getting at when He said, “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say”7? What if evangelism was less about turning up our mics and more about turning up our hearing aids? What if the amazing message we have to proclaim, preach, and teach always arose out of a context of careful and genuine listening? It is something worth thinking about. Perhaps that is also why Jesus so often said, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”8


1.      Revelation 14:6 (NIV)
2.      Matthew 24:14 (NIV)
3.      Matt 28:19-20 (NIV)
4.      Adam McHugh, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2015 [Kindle Edition] Locations 28-46.
5.      Ibid.
6.      Ibid., Location 2847
7.      Matthew 10:19 (NIV)
8.      Matthew 11:15 (NIV)


Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.


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