A God Who Listens and a God Who Speaks

Can Conversation Save Our Souls?

Sam Bush / 3.23.23

Conversation in America is running dry. At least, that’s a common motif making the rounds these days. Even though most of us have a great deal to say, we rarely say it to each other’s faces. After all, people can be exhausting to be around. For introverts, especially, being at the mercy of a chatty barber or seatmate on an airplane can feel like low-security prison time. Face-to-face interaction is far too disorderly, eye contact too intense, the pauses and interruptions requiring too much of our attention. When given the choice, we’d rather leave a negative Yelp review than speak to the manager.

In his recent New Yorker article, Good Talk: Can Conversation Save Our Souls?” Hua Hsu considers our colloquial landscape. He lists a litany of reasons why conversation is a lost art in America: “political polarization, a mediascape that profits from dissent, the conformity of groupthink, even campus drinking culture.” Rather than submitting ourselves to the intimate back-and-forth exchange of a tango, we either choose to dance on our own or conform to some kind of political line-dancing.

Whereas civilization once depended on social interplay, we no longer need to fully come to terms with other people’s humanity. Even families today require “an ever-expanding cheat sheet of inoffensive talking points for navigating Thanksgiving,” Hsu writes. Academia, once a safe space of dialogue, is now “dominated by ideological orthodoxy.” Now that we have nothing nice to say to those who disagree with us, we choose to not say anything at all.

While engaging with another person’s existence can often feel like a threat to our own, the opposite proves to be closer to the truth. Hsu lists plenty of reasons why having substantive conversation is vital to one’s health. It’s essentially been proven that interpersonal communication is the glue that holds a person’s well-being together. As human beings, we need to be heard, we need to speak, we need to listen. It makes me wonder what we’ve lost in an age where we are too busy, distracted and far too insular to greet someone walking in the opposite direction.

Hsu’s article brought to mind a passage in Daniel Nayeri’s autobiographical novel, Everything Sad is Untrue. At one point, Nayeri, who fled from Iran as a boy to escape persecution for his Christian faith, pauses to ask the reader a question:

“Would you rather have a God who listens or a god who speaks? Be careful of the answer … There are gods all over the world who just want you to express yourself. Look inside and find whatever you think you are and that’s all it takes to be good. And there are gods who are so alien to us with minds so clear the only thing to do would be to sit at their feet and wait for them to speak to tell us what is good … At their worst, the people who want a god who listens are self-centered. They just want to live in the land of “do as you please.” And the ones who want a god who speaks are cruel. They just want law and justice to crush everything. This is the kind of thing you live your whole life thinking about probably. Love is empty without justice. Justice is cruel without love. Oh and in case it wasn’t obvious the answer is both. God should be both. If a god isn’t, that is no god.”

Time and again, Jesus proves to be a god who listens. People seek him out by the thousands — throngs of Chatty Cathys and Gabby Garys — but he never refuses a conversation. The only time Jesus ever silences anyone, saying, quite literally, “Be quiet!,” it’s a demon (Lk 4:35). Other than that, he’s willing to give anyone the time of day. Blind Bartimaeus shouts to him on a crowded road like a heckler during a press conference. While others scold him to keep quiet, Jesus beckons him over and gives Bartimaeus the floor. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. To everyone there, the answer was more than obvious: um, the man would like to be able to see, Jesus …! But the crowd had no choice but to hold its peace for a moment in the space between Jesus’ question and Bartimaeus’ response. Whatever the blind man had to say, Jesus was all ears.

He’s not just a sounding board, though. More often than not, Jesus has something to say. Words, in fact, are the very tools Jesus uses to bring forth his plans. When the disciples are caught in a deadly storm and he wants to save them, he says, “Be still!” and the wind subsides. When he shows up at the bedside of a girl who has died and he wants to raise her, he says, “Little girl, get up!” and she does. When his friend is dead and lying in his tomb and Jesus wants to bring him back to life, he says, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man comes out. As a friend of mine once said, “Unlike human words which are full of hot air, God’s words are hot air.” In other words, when Jesus speaks things happen.

Jesus is a god who listens and a god who speaks, a god who simply enjoys talking with people. He doesn’t mind being inconvenienced. He’s willing to hear out his opponents, and seeks out those who differ with him. Skilled debater he may be, Jesus did not belittle his conversation partners into begrudging agreement. In fact, he often makes things more ambiguous, loosening people’s grip on whatever they had assumed to be true. He is willing to enter into an intimate back-and-forth with anyone because he is a god who knows, a god who has “never met a stranger,” a god to whom all hearts are open and no secrets hid.

The fact that Jesus is the kind of God who wants to be in a personal relationship with us is remarkable compared to the false gods who either speak from on high or listen to us with blank stares. And yet, even if Jesus is the world’s most gifted conversationalist, is a god who listens and speaks enough? Or, as Hua Hsu asks, can conversation really save our souls?

The one time Jesus falls silent — when not even a mumblin’ word falls from his lips — is the time that leads to our redemption. He only says the bare minimum to the High Priest in order to be condemned for blasphemy. From that point on, he doesn’t care too much for conversation. He gives no answer to Pilate’s charges, nor does he defend himself against the mocking soldiers or try to persuade those who jeer him at the foot of the Cross. Sometimes, one of the best things a person can say in the face of great pain is that “there are no words.” And yet, the Christian faith reveals that we have more than just words, but the Word made flesh. Maybe that, in turn, will give us all something to talk about.

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One response to “A God Who Listens and a God Who Speaks”

  1. Joey Goodall says:

    This is excellent. Thanks, Sam!

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