For the first fifteen hundred years of the church’s existence, the vast majority of Christians listened to Scripture instead of reading it. Even after the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, literacy rates did not reach a critical mass until well after the industrial revolution. Reading the Scriptures, then, didn’t go mainstream until the late 1800s. It sounds a bit shocking to twenty-first-century ears, but hearing has been the primary way Christians have taken in Scripture throughout the centuries.
We should all thank God for movable type, but I wonder if we’ve lost something over time as we stopped listening. No doubt, early Christians were missing something by not reading the text for themselves, but was there something the ancients knew about listening that we today have forgotten?
What Makes Listening Unique
Most of the time when we listen, we don’t immediately start analyzing. We don’t try to break down the text because we can’t see it! We simply take it in. Like the slow and steady marination of our favorite meat, we immerse ourselves in the speaker’s words, trusting that our heart will, in good time, absorb its full meaning. We don’t fuss over detail. We instead allow the speaker’s wide-sweeping themes to seep in.
Our tendency when we read is to study. We begin building our understanding word by word, sentence by sentence. We examine carefully, reread, and work out the context. We actively investigate the meaning, and this approach is good and right. To be sure, both acts change us, but they do so in different ways. You might say that reading helps us draw something out of the text, while listening helps us draw into it. This distinction may help us recall what the early followers of the Way already knew about listening: having the words of God spoken over you is a life-giving practice that can deepen your faith. I know it has deepened mine.
Why I Listen
I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of having God’s word spoken over me, whether through the public reading of Scripture at church, or listening to an audio recording of it. Here are a few reasons why I love to listen to the Bible.
To Redeem the Time
Faithfully fulfilling all my responsibilities as husband, father, co-worker, and friend in a given day doesn’t always leave a ton of excess time for reading. This is frustrating because I actually daydream about taking vacations with my favorite books! My engagement with the Bible, however, doesn’t have to end just because the demands of my day limit how much time I can devote to reading.
I have happily discovered lots of listening time in my schedule, such as my 45-minute commute, 20-minute bike ride, and hours of cleaning and errands. These are all autopilot moments for me, activities that have become so routine that I don’t need to engage my mind in order to accomplish them. Little pockets like these allow me to dive into God’s word, even when I can’t flip open its pages. In these moments, I feel like I’m following Paul’s command to redeem the time (Ephesians 5:16), making better use of my most precious resource.
I should mention, however, that although I may choose to listen to the Bible during these autopilot activities, it takes work to actively listen. As with any medium, whether auditory or visual, there is always a danger of vegging out, of wandering away from the content. We’ve all experienced it. One minute we’re there; the next minute we’re not. We’re still hearing, but we’re not actually listening. This phenomenon is best described as mind drift, and we must guard against it, especially when taking in Scripture.
To Complement My Reading
Truthfully, there are days when I feel like I don’t have the energy to sit down, pick up my Bible, and rigorously analyze the text. It’s not that I don’t love and treasure God’s word; I do. It’s just that in particular moments, I struggle. Perhaps I’m not alone. In moments like these, it’s a Godsend to be able to press a play button and hear another follower of Jesus read the refreshing words of Scripture to me and over me. Listening can be an incredibly rejuvenating experience and actually catapult me into a time of reading later in the day.
To be clear, audio Bibles, although an excellent complement to Scripture, should never replace reading the text. We should never forget how precious it is to slow down and chew over a sentence, phrase, or even word in a passage. John Piper writes, “Take two hours to ask ten questions of Galatians 2:20 and you will gain one hundred times the insight you would have attained by reading thirty pages of the New Testament or any other book. Slow down. Query. Ponder. Chew.” With thanksgiving in our hearts, we should make a lifelong commitment to reading and studying the depths of God’s word. When we flounder or fail for a season, we should reach for God’s grace and begin anew.
To Increase My Communion with God
I’ve found that listening to Scripture has the wonderful effect of breaking down my unhealthy inclination to compartmentalize God.
Maybe you’re like me. I have a tendency to pencil God in my schedule in the early morning and neglect him during the rest of the day. But I know better than that. God should saturate my whole life. When I fill the little pockets of my listening time with stories from the Gospels or prayers from the Psalms, I break the cycle of compartmentalization and open myself up to more experiences of his grace.
To Internalize More Scripture
In Matthew 4:4, Jesus declares, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” As disciples, we garner our nourishment from the words he has spoken in the pages of the Bible, and I want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to get fully fed.
Practically, listening to Scripture helps me internalize more of God’s word. Did you know you can listen to Romans in about an hour? With a commute like mine, I could listen to Paul’s most famous letter five times in a given workweek. By tuning in during the regular and random free moments of my week, I get the advantage of soaking in Scripture and committing more of it to heart.
Are We Listening?
Anyone who has spent a meaningful chunk of time with Scripture knows that the sentences that fill its pages are more than mere words. In the mouths of all the sacred writers, one Voice resounds, and whether we’re reading or listening, we should always be actively attentive to that Voice. It’s like Piper says, “Put your ear to the ground of God’s word, and listen to the rumble of his faithfulness coming.”
As disciples, we know that the words God speaks are spirit and life (John 6:63); they are living and active (Hebrews 4:12). So, however we approach the Bible, we draw near, as A.W. Tozer reminds us, “with the idea that it is not only a book which was once spoken, but a book which is now speaking.”