What You Say and What I Hear

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
There’s often a big difference between what other people say and what we hear.
Not to mention the difference between what we think we hear and what we actually understand.
Author and pastor Brian J. Dodd remembers the time a British church leader was asked to preach in the United States.  He had a great text:  Ephesians 2:4. After the apostle Paul documents the spiritual brokenness of humanity, he transitions to the incredible things God has done on our behalf.  Paul launches this good news with the words “but God…
The message itself was entitled But God.  So far so good.
What the guest preacher didn’t grasp is that the word “but” might sound somewhat different in America than in the U.K.
In England, one sits on one’s “bum.”  If you should say “but” in London, no one would think of a posterior.  But in the States, “but” and “butt” are homonyms:  They sound alike but have radically different meanings, depending on the context.
The preacher announced he would be making four points.  All of them featured the word “but.”  He, of course, intended “but” to mean “except” or “exception.”  But as the sermon progressed, his increasingly amused listeners heard the word that he would have used for “bum.”
Imagine hearing this four-point sermon this weekend:

  1. God has a but.
  2. We all have buts, too.
  3. Some of our buts are bigger than others’.
  4. The only problem with your but is that you’re the only one who can’t see it.

Who said church isn’t fun?

Hearing is fundamentally more challenging than listening. 

Listening requires attentiveness.  But hearing demands discernment.  And patience.  And grace.  And sufficient commitment to the integrity of our relationship – even if it’s a brief one – to ask, “I think I just heard you say this.  Did I get that right?”  After all, I may hear the words you’re saying.  But that’s not the same thing as grasping the intent of your heart or the emotions behind your message. 

It’s easy to see how this applies to every realm of human life.

Take biblical study, for instance.  At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus speaks these words: “The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15). 

This is a semantic minefield for 21st century disciples.  What exactly is the kingdom of God?  Does God’s kingdom have an address and a Main Street and a throne room like earthly kingdoms?  And what does it mean to “repent”?  When many of us hear that word we think of “doing penance” – taking specific steps to get our lives in order, only after which we can be acceptable to God.  But in its original first century use, metanoia (“repentance” in Greek) meant something much closer to, “In light of this important new opportunity – the Good News of God’s grace – change your mind and change the direction of your life.”

Most spouses know from experience how hard it can be to hear what their partner is really saying.

In the midst of an emotion-fueled shouting match, deep-seated fears may clog our ears.  One partner may hear, “She’s trying to diminish me by controlling me!”  But what she’s really thinking is, “He’s on the verge of abandoning me!”  Those ancient fears – abandonment and being controlled – can overwhelm our senses.  That’s why learning how not to push your partner’s Fear Buttons is one of the essential skills of marriage. 

The difference between what is said and what is heard is never more painfully on display these days than in the public square.  Just listen to any half-hour national news program. 

Those on one side of an issue are convinced they represent the only valid prescription to save our country.  But the other side hears little more than a formula to destroy everything we hold dear.  Even though it’s easy to demonstrate that almost everyone involved in such conflicts sincerely yearns for what is right and good, “debates” quickly become exercises in not-hearing.  And thus “no grace for you.”

We can do better.  We have to do better. 

May our listening become hearing.  And our hearing become understanding.

No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.