Of Tongues and Ears and the Traffic Between

listening

Early on in the creation story, the first thing God declared not good was loneliness. Adam was alone. So a helper as a partner was given to Adam.

That word “helper” occurs in Genesis 2:18 and 20 and again much later in the Hebrew Bible as a name for God in Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

Eve and God in the Hebrew text share a vocation: helper.

How? Presence is one way. With Eve, Adam now had an equal: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).

But there is more.

Adam had been naming the animals but none of them could name him. Although they too had tongue and ears, there was no reciprocal relationship. They had sounds but not words. Adam was still alone—he had the gifts of tongue and ear, but he did not have the joy of conversation. This helper, Eve, who is an equal presence, has a tongue that can speak words and an ear that can hear words. Although loneliness is not defeated, it now has a stubborn competitor.

In Isaiah 50:4-5 we read, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher [alternate translation: the tongue of those who are taught], that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.”

The ear often loses out to the tongue because it appears to be such a passive organ. It can’t extend itself. It can’t issue a command. It can’t engage in locomotion. But the ear claims a considerable vocation.

In the literature devoted to the care of those who have been silenced by abuse, there is an important phrase that deserves our attention: to hear someone into speech.

Listening gives the gift of speech to the silenced.

By listening, one provides an opportunity and a vehicle for the person who has been abused to tell their story. Like Eve, the listener becomes a helper. This is a godly activity. To quote Isaiah, the person who has begun to speak their story has acquired a tongue that has been taught.

In my work, I have heard women who have suffered sexual and physical abuse say, “No one will listen to me.” They are silenced because the ears of family, friends, and even church people are closed to them. They are convinced their tongues are worth nothing. When someone promises to listen, persuading the victim to speak her story, one has given her a voice—the gift of speech. She is no longer a prisoner of her own silence.

This applies to Christian discipleship. Often the church puts a premium on speaking and witnessing. We seldom stress the discipline of listening. But we cannot dismiss its importance. Listening gives the gift of speech to the silenced. It is the first step in giving them freedom from a bondage that has tyrannized them, in many cases for years.

Don’t underestimate the gift of your active listening and the gift of your presence. It is godly work.

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About the Author

C. John Weborg

C. John Weborg is professor emeritus of theology at North Park Theological Seminary. A longtime columnist for the Companion, he handwrites his columns and is a train enthusiast. He lives in Princeton, Illinois, where he attends the Covenant church there.

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