We get a lot of questions about audiobooks. Here’s today’s question: “Pastor John, hello! My name is Robert, a transport truck driver in eastern Canada. I tend to get the majority of my Bible ‘reading’ done while listening to the Bible as an audiobook while I work and drive. That includes listening to many of the episodes of this podcast also, so thank you! But would you feel that listening to the Bible has the same intended effects as actually physically reading it with the eyes? Keep in mind I can tell my phone to rewind a chapter if I want to hear it over again (to keep things legal on the road). Thank you for any advice you can give!” Pastor John, what would you say to Robert?
I think what I would like to do in response to Robert’s question is to make ten really brief bullet observations about the great benefits of listening to the Bible and a few observations about the limitations of listening. And in the process, I think I will answer Robert’s question about whether listening has the same intended effects.
1. All desire for the Bible is glorious.
It is a beautiful, supernatural, miraculous gift from God that Robert desires to listen to the Bible at all while he drives his truck across eastern Canada. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind: that he has any desire at all for God’s word is a glorious thing because millions of people — millions — care nothing for the Bible. It’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking.
God has spoken — God, the Creator of the universe, has spoken — and millions and millions of people pay no attention. Now, here’s a man whose heart inclines to hear the word of God, and that’s glorious.
2. We all process hearing and reading differently.
People’s brains are very different in the way we process what is read and what is heard. My children were very different in this regard. Some people can hear and remember almost everything that they hear, but they don’t have anywhere near the same recall when they read, and vice versa.
So, for that reason alone, I would need to say to Robert that depending on the way God made you, listening might bear even more fruit than reading. I don’t know; it could. He asked if it’s the same, and I don’t know; it could be better.
3. Any reading of the Bible is an interpretation.
Every time we listen to the Bible being read, we are listening not only to the Bible, but to an interpretation of the Bible. To read aloud is to interpret: your pace, your cadence, your emphasis, your pauses, your emotional tone, your softness, your loudness, your pronunciation — all of these things communicate part of the author’s intention in a way that the reader understands it and experiences it.
I say this as something that may be really good, or a real problem. If the interpretation is perceptive and penetrating and true and powerful, that’s a benefit to the hearing listener. If the interpretation is contrary to the author’s intention in meaning or tone, it can be a great hindrance from profiting the way God intended us to profit when we read or hear the word. We simply should be aware that, when we listen, we are listening to an interpretation, and we should be discerning about that. It may be right; it may be wrong.
4. We must be willing to stop and deal with God.
Are you willing, Robert, or any of us, to pull over and stop driving in order to bring your full heart focus to bear on some word or thought or feeling that God has just used to deeply move you?
I ask this because of how many people — just the other day, another one — have told me over the years, that at certain points in a sermon, they’re driving, they were listening, and they were so moved that they had to pull over and deal with God and handle the emotions without the distraction of driving. I think everybody who listens to the Bible while driving or doing anything else should be willing to do that.
5. Listening while driving allows only partial focus.
We should recognize that listening while driving necessarily means that the Bible is getting a partial focus of our fullest attention. We must think about driving. We would be disobedient to God if we were to put ourselves or others at risk by not paying any attention to the road or the cars or the signs.
So, this is a significant downside to absorbing all that God may have for us, since the Bible is competing with the attention we must pay to the road. This is not an evil. It’s not evil. It’s just a limitation of all that the word might accomplish if it had our full and complete attention.
6. You can’t cross-reference while driving.
Another limitation is that, if we are reading, not driving, with the fullest attention, we can pause and look up a cross-reference that illuminates the word or phrase or idea that we are pondering. I do that almost all the time when I’m reading the Bible.
We did an APJ recently in which we compared the new birth in Peter and the new birth in James, and I wouldn’t have stumbled across that and taken the time to meditate on it if I had been driving a car when I heard that.
7. Driving inhibits note-taking.
Another thing we can’t do while driving is preserve something that we just thought or saw in the text. Now, not everybody does this anyway, but for me, I love — either electronically, say in Evernote or by jotting down with my pen — marking an insight or a text, a thought that I got while reading, some new light that I had. And you can’t do that very easily while you’re driving.
8. Don’t listen exclusively.
Because of everything I’ve said so far, I would suggest that listening to the Bible not be the only way we fellowship with God in the word. Listening is a great way to meet God. It has its own advantages and benefits, but it also has limitations. So, why not both?
9. Try listening while reading.
In fact, here’s something that I do that is a combination of reading and listening, doing both at the same time. Sometimes if I’m especially tired, and I still want to read several chapters of the Bible, yet my eyes and my brain are objecting, “We can’t do this now; we’re too tired,” I open my iPad to my Bible, and I tell it to read to me. I use the ESV audio Bible. I follow along with my own eyes, and I listen while another person reads to me.
The reason I don’t think I should do this all the time is because it does not take as much engagement with my mind when I let somebody else read the words to me, and I think that greater engagement when I read it myself, even perhaps out loud, is more fruitful than when somebody else reads it to me. Nevertheless, there are times when it seems to me really helpful to have some other person, this audiobook, read to me.
10. Press on to know God in his word.
Finally, Robert, press on with your listening, by all means, in the truck. May God fill you with a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, like Paul prays, as you listen and drive (Ephesians 1:17), and may he open the eyes of your heart to see glorious things in his word (Psalm 119:18). That’s our goal, whether we’re reading or listening to the Bible. We want to see him more clearly and love him more dearly and follow him more nearly as the song says. The way he has appointed for that to happen is by the word of God.