Why is it so hard to listen to what I need to hear?

A while back, I had a very strange experience. I was teaching an adult Sunday School class to a group of about twenty-five people. As I was speaking, I noticed that very abruptly, I lost the hearing in my right ear. I paused for a moment because it was a very strange sensation, told the class what was happening, tried to wiggle my ear to see if the problem would go away, and when it didn't correct itself, I just continued to teach the class.

I visited my doctor the next day. He explained to me the nature of the problem, and walked me through the process of correcting it. It took about a week, but by the end of the week, after one more visit to the doctor, my hearing was restored. I'll spare you the details of what was wrong, but I was quite relieved to have my hearing again after losing it for several days.

Ironically, sometimes when our hearing is in perfectly good order, we still struggle to listen. That's what this passage of Scripture is speaking about. The Lord's people were struggling to listen to the instructions, directions, and counsel He graciously offered them, and they were paying a price for their willful ignorance.

In our context, why is it so difficult for us to listen to what we really need to hear? This portion of Scripture helps us understand why.


1. Ignorance can persist for generations

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Hear the words of this covenant, and speak to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant that I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace,
— Jeremiah 11:1-4a, ESV

At the time of the writing of this chapter of Scripture, the nation of Judah was about to be invaded by the kingdom of Babylon, led by Nebuchadnezzar. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already experienced invasion by the Assyrians, but the power of Assyria was waning. Babylon was becoming the major power to contend with. Egypt noticed this taking place and even attempted to destroy the Babylonians before their power would grow too great to do so.

Josiah, the godly king of Judah, was told by the Lord not to intervene when this conflict between Egypt and Babylon took place. Egypt was going to march their soldiers through Josiah's territory as they made their attempt to attack Babylon, but instead of listening to the Lord's direction not to get involved, Josiah did his own thing. He attempted to fight against Egypt and lost his life in the battle. Even though Josiah was known for being a godly man, he serves as a great example of the consequences of ignoring the Lord's voice.

Ignoring the Lord's voice wasn't merely a recent issue for the people of Judah. It was a problem that had been persisting for generations. The Lord had made a covenant with them that He would bless them with the privilege to live in the Promised Land as they willingly obeyed the Law He had given them. The land the Lord had given them was beautiful. It was described as a land flowing with milk and honey. The kind of place they would be grateful to live in. A pleasant and bountiful land. But instead of keeping the covenant the Lord had made with them, the people broke it repeatedly. They broke it in every way. Every single direction the Lord gave to them, they ignored and trampled on. So as a result, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom was taken into captivity by the Babylonians.

Ignorance toward the Law of God was a problem that was prevalent for generations. Disregarding His covenant and His word was taught and modeled generation after generation. And ironically, this is our struggle as well. We instinctively rebel against the Lord and then in our words and actions, we model that rebellion to our children.

For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.
— James 2:10, NLT

Then we complain against the Lord when we don't feel like He's blessed us enough and we complain against Him when we feel like we're lacking the kind of peace we desire.

So if we, like the people of Judah, have been guilty for generations of breaking the law of God, what hope is there for us? Do we not also deserve the same kind of discipline they received? What hope is there for the person or the family who has lived in rebellion toward God for generations? The truth is, our only hope is Jesus Christ.

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
— Galatians 3:23-24, ESV

Jesus has perfectly kept the Law for us. Now, as we listen to His voice calling out to us, and trust in Him by faith, we are declared righteous (justified), as if we too have kept the Law of God.


2. We've settled for lesser things and lost sight of what's best

saying, Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God, that I may confirm the oath that I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day.” Then I answered, “So be it, Lord.”
— Jeremiah 4b-5, ESV

Have you ever observed how your taste buds seem to change over the course of your life and how you can notice the way different foods make you feel better than you used to notice when you were a child? When I was a young teenager I remember becoming so hungry during school that I would daydream about the food I wanted to eat. I still have a distinct memory of daydreaming about an unlimited supply of Big Mac's being supplied to me while I was languishing in Algebra class. Now when I try to eat a Big Mac I feel like I enjoy the taste for about half a second, then spend the rest of the day regretting my decision. I'm old enough now to notice the differences between good food and not so good food, but that doesn't mean that I don't test that knowledge from time to time by settling for lesser things instead of striving for what's best.

That's a genuine issue for us, just like it was for the people of Judah that the Lord was speaking to through Jeremiah. In their context, the Lord was imploring them to finally and joyfully listen to His voice. His calling on their lives was that they would trust Him enough to do what He called them to do. And He assured them that they would enjoy and experience the blessings that came along with obedience, but of course this remained a struggle.

This back and forth issue of trust and obedience reminds me of a story that I read from two different sources not that long ago. Apparently there had been a house fire and the majority of the family was able to get out of the house right away, with the exception of a young son who was able to climb through a window and possibly onto the roof, but wasn't sure what to do from there because he couldn't see beyond the smoke. Then he heard his father's voice calling out to him to jump, but he protested and said, "I hear your voice Dad, but I can't see you!" His father replied, "Trust me because I can see you!" The boy jumped toward his father's voice and was safely caught and rescued.

When I look at a portion of Scripture like this, that's exactly what I see God doing for us. Isn't He essentially saying the same thing? We get all caught up in what we can see and what's already familiar to us, but He tells us to trust Him, obey Him, and stop running from His voice because He can see the things that we're struggling to see.

God's love and concern for His children is genuine and true. When His word tells us to love our neighbor, forgive as we've been forgiven, remain faithful to our spouse, speak with honest lips, and train our children to do the same, He isn't trying to burden us. Rather, He's offering us the privilege to begin to see things the way He sees things. He's giving us a glimpse of everything that's beyond the smoke that clouds our natural vision. He invites us, through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, to live as His people, content to trust the protective presence of our generous and caring God. He doesn't want us to settle for anything less than Him. Nothing can satisfy us like He alone has the power to do.


3. It takes humility to accept counsel

And the Lord said to me, “Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem: Hear the words of this covenant and do them.  For I solemnly warned your fathers when I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, warning them persistently, even to this day, saying, Obey my voice. Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart. Therefore I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not.”
— Jeremiah 11:6-8, ESV

Isn't it tragic to see the way the Lord describes the people of Judah in this passage. We're told here that even after experiencing the blessings of being brought out of their captivity in Egypt generations before, they refused to listen to the voice of their Redeemer. They didn't obey. They didn't incline their ear. They continued to walk in the stubbornness of their own evil hearts. Why is that so often the case? The truth is, it takes humility to accept counsel.

I had a funny experience the other day that illustrated this to me. Matthew Thomas is the Technology Director of our church and we were having a problem with the church email. It wasn't working properly and he helped me trouble shoot what was wrong. We got it fixed, but along the way I made sure to jokingly tell him that I thought it was his fault. He knew I was joking, but also made sure to point out that I wouldn't have been able to fix it without his help. Just for fun, I sent him a text to show him my outline for this post, including this particular point. We both got a kick out of it. It really does take humility to accept counsel, even in small and seemingly insignificant areas of life.

Is there an area of your life right now where you feel like the Lord has been trying to get your attention, but you're still blocking your ears to His voice? Is there a way that He's been speaking to your conscience that you're growing weary with ignoring?

  • Is He calling you to receive the gift of salvation through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ?
  • Is He calling you to repent of some form of sin you've welcomed into your life and tried to hide from others?
  • Is He calling you to forgive and reconcile with someone you've been at odds with?
  • Can you sense Him calling you to become more acquainted with His word?

It takes humility to listen. It takes humility to be willing to accept counsel. This is true in all areas of life, but particularly in regard to our walk with the Lord. 

And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” 
— 1 Samuel 3:8-10, ESV

This Scripture shows us that ignorance can persist for generations. It can even impact people who are generally faithful to the Lord. It's easy to settle for lesser things and lose sight of what is best. It's common to react to the Lord's voice with an attitude of pride, and less common to receive His word with humility.

But we need to hear what the Lord has to say. It is a privilege to hear His voice. It is a gift to be the recipients of His teaching. Throughout the course of our lives, He has called us to be men and women who submit our hearts over to Him and joyfully listen to what we need to hear from Him. Would we too say to Him, "Speak Lord, for your servant hears!"

© John Stange, 2018