The lost life of listening
How one simple practice fights our day's most frightening error - pride
I have a theory.
I think that every society (like every individual) has its own besetting sin—a vice that defines its spiritual struggle. A quick scan of the traditional “deadly” sins makes it a bit hard to choose though when it comes to us in today’s West. Is our modern struggle defined by our relationship with consumption (gluttony)? Perhaps it is greed—the constant grasping for more that seems to define industry and commerce today. Or no—it is lust, I’m sure of it, in this day of sexualized everything. But wait, what is the ubiquitous rise of the selfie but a harbinger of the very spirit of vainglory? The list continues: each with a pang of self-recognition: wrath, despair, sloth.
Then though, the thought comes: the defining vice of our society in this age can only be what the Latin fathers termed Superbia. Pride. The root of all the rest of the list.
Though many of us think of pride as only a nose-in-the-air attitude, it can take many forms. In fact, pride is most destructive when it is most quiet. A haughty, boastful person will quickly be seen for what they are (and either rebuked or elected), but the pride that hides, that is patient—ah! It is a parasitic sin that will shape its host over the course of a lifetime into a smiling caricature of the person they could be in Jesus. All exalted on the outside; debased within.
This, of course, is how hypocrites are made—through the slow erosion of pride shaping the contours of a soul to be unnaturally bent in upon itself until it begins to feel that that bending is natural and it is all the rest of the world (God included) who are misshapen. And does this not sound familiar?
Our world seems to be quickly changing. Once-unquestioned institutions of faith, politics, and societal norms are in turmoil. Over this disturbed landscape, the noise level is growing. Our societies seem to be shouting louder and louder, and less and less seems to be truly shared, truly communicated. And it is nothing other than pride, woven into our hearts at every level of conversation and society, that is impelling us forward toward dissolution, despair, and inner decay.
For myself, my pride usually takes the form of a slow drip of self-obsession: a constant pull to view the whole world as only a backdrop for my story; and all the people I see as characters in some rambling film starring me. Perhaps this is your problem too—either thinking too highly of yourself or too lowly, but thinking of yourself too constantly.
On paper, I can see at once the silliness and pettiness of that idea. You probably can as well. But in my life? In the day to day? It is much more difficult.
But there is good and frightening news. God, loving his children too much to let us remain in our foolishness, uses our lives to counteract the root of Superbia. There are two ways he does this: the rough and involuntary, and the gentle and voluntary.
The rough way is through the proverbial “fall” that goeth after the “pride.” “A haughty spirit before destruction.” It is easy to think of examples of this, whether from our lives or those of others. These are the humbling experiences that are too big, too drastic to forget.
The bent soul, so obsessed over itself, whether in a secret sin or some other manifestation of the root pride, is suddenly cracked the other direction. Humility comes. But it breaks us, at least for a while, from the suddenness of our correction.
But there is an alternative to this. It is the gentle way of correction. In the same way that Superbia forms a slow drip to misshape and bend our souls, there is a way to counteract it, to cut pride off at its source in our hearts. To reverse, as it were, the course of the creek that seeks to erode us, and instead let it wash and nourish us.
The way? It is called listening.
The posture of listening is itself the perfect antidote to our sin of pride. It is categorically impossible to truly listen to another person while Superbia rules you. You will hear them, yes, but only through the lens of your insecurity, your demands, your self-obsession. You will not see them or hear them upon their own terms, as a person worthy of attentiveness and love simply because they have been made in the image of the Father.
Pride makes true attentiveness impossible. And in the reverse, true attentiveness sends pride fleeing like shadows before a floodlight.
As I look around our world, and indeed within my own often-dark heart, I am convinced that listening is the needed thing. Nothing can replace it, nothing can give a short cut to it.
And this is good news. It means that to combat our day’s most deadly error does not require some Herculean effort. A child could do it. But that does not mean it is easy. To listen requires us to set aside our view of ourselves as the unrecognized expert or the one of right opinion. To listen requires a measure of personal security that few of us have. To listen, in short, requires love, and love must be learned from the Great Lover.
My latest book, The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Zeal Books) is an extended experiment in that kind of listening. Grounded in the three ways we hear God’s voice—the bible, the Spirit, and others—the book is a daily deep-dive of 90 devotional readings that focused on being in the presence of God here and now. True attentiveness, with reaches toward his promise to speak, is how I am learning to cultivate this practice in my own life.
Why? Because as deeply as I believe anything, I believe this: if we cannot listen to God, we cannot know him. Know about him? Sure! But know him? Never without presence, never without quieting out hearts and turning to him in humility. It is in listening to God that we learn the skill that can be salt and light to our world. God himself models listening to his people, and asks us, in waiting on him, to learn to listen as well.
Listening was, you remember, the one command given to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration:
A voice came from the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him." (Luke 9:35 (NIV)
Think of the simple logic of that divine command—in the place of clearest earthly exaltation, as the Son of Man is seen for a moment as the Son of God, the one given homage by Moses and Elijah (representing the totality of the revelation of God),the followers of Jesus are instructed not to worship, praise, preach, conquer, or proclaim.
They are told to listen.
It does not take many more words to bring this truth home to us: if we do not heed that voice, we can never heed another, and the ruin brought on us by our own Superbia may be complete, leading us, each and all, to the fearsome fall.
Lord, have mercy. Teach me to listen.
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