During America’s Great Depression, when jobs were a rare commodity, the owner of a telegraph put out an advertisement for a telegraph operator. For those who aren’t familiar with a telegraph, it is a device used to communicate messages over long distances, generally in Morse Code (a language of letters formed by short and long signals of sound). Dozens arrived at the break of day with the hope of finding work. One interested gentleman came later than most and for a short time waited with the others. Then seemingly unprovoked, he proceeded to walk right through the door marked “Private” and into the owner’s presence. Moments later, the owner emerged with the applicant to announce that the job had been filled and the others could leave.
It is reported that near chaos ensued as the indignant applicants wondered why they had not even been considered. The employer explained that over the office loudspeaker, in Morse Code, the message “If you hear this, come in. The job is yours” had been playing over and over. The gentleman who was awarded the position was the only one to respond.
I first heard this story and its metaphorical application to our relationship with God many years ago at a summer youth camp. It impacted me greatly. And as we concluded our time at Swahili language school a few weeks ago, this historical incident resurfaced in my mind.
I didn’t get too far along the path of learning a new language before I realized that writing and speaking were considerably easier than listening. From the start, we were highly encouraged by our instructors to speak as much as possible to the nationals around us. In my perfectionistic fashion, I would rehearse a few phrases over and over, only to realize that as soon as I spoke with good pronunciation to Swahili speakers, they responded with a string of sentences that flew right past my ears at the speed of sound. In my defense, I really wanted to do things well, but the reality was that one-way communication was really no communication at all, at least in the relational sense.
It was certainly easier and more comfortable to keep my focus on the class notes, learning grammar rules and sticking with sentences such as “John bought bananas yesterday.” The textbook provided a safe place and it might have even brought some diluted sense of accomplishment. But I can tell you that I felt an unhealthy awkwardness from knowing the rules and being able to express myself while at the same time struggling to listen.
In my ongoing effort to be a better hearer of Swahili, I can’t help but consider what the Bible says about hearing the Lord (and it does have a great deal to say). Just a few verses:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. – John 10:27
… Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. – James 1:19
And Samuel said, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.” – 1 Samuel 3:9-10
She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. – Luke 10:39
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. – Revelation 3:22
Just like knowing the rules of Swahili and being able to express myself do not make me a great communicator, knowing and conveying the precepts of scripture without hearing from the Lord is not unlike the Pharisees. After all, they could regurgitate an abundance of scripture and knew a lot about Jesus, but unfortunately they didn’t know Him. Here are a few things the Bible has to say about those who choose not to hear the Lord:
Yet they did not listen or incline their ears, but stiffened their necks in order not to listen or take correction. – Jeremiah 17:23
Stephen, in his condemnation of the Pharisees just before his martyrdom, boldly proclaimed:
You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! (v 51) … At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. (v 57) – Acts 7
Jesus himself declared:
… You have never heard his [God’s] voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. – John 5:37-40
When I think about those dozens of applicants who’d hoped to secure the position that fateful day, I imagine there are numerous explanations for why no one else responded. Surely a number of the applicants simply did not understand Morse Code. Some might have understood the message had they heard it, but perhaps they’d fallen asleep as they waited or were too busy talking with others to take notice. A few may have even heard and interpreted the message but not had the courage or common sense to respond.
The Bible is clear that God speaks, not only in a general sense, but into the specific circumstances of our lives. All the time. In our study of His word, are we just reviewing rules or are we receiving revelation? Are our prayers religious voicemail offered to the Lord, or do we see our prayer time as an opportunity to converse with our Heavenly Father? To say that we can have an interactive relationship with the Creator of the universe is not irreverent, it’s miraculous. His messages are going out. Are we listening?