If you ever talk to someone who is serious about watching birds, they’ll probably inform you that it’s really called “birding”, not “bird-watching”. This term, “birding”, may seem like a silly technicality, but it actually fits the activity much better. You see, birding is just as much about listening as it is watching. “Bird-watching” only describes a part of it. Whenever I go birding, I often only hear half of the birds that I record. Listening is a key component of birding, and, in many cases, it is crucial in distinguishing different bird species from one another.
People who aren’t into birds are often blown away about how well practiced birders can identify birds just by sound. I was recently up in Portland, OR visiting some relatives, and they wanted to test me. So, they pulled out a nature app they had downloaded for their kids and quizzed me on bird calls. They were really common birds, easy calls. But still, my cousins were blown away. How do you do that? It’s simple. Listen.
Now listening is much different than hearing. Husbands seem to have perfected the art of hearing enough without listening. “What did I just say? Are you listening?” “You said that you like the velvet green paint for the living room better than the apple green. Oh my gosh, what a great play!!” Wives have also perfected the art of knowing what their husbands are really thinking.
Jokes aside, the point is that listening requires intentionality, focus, and a purposeful connection and relationship with the subject matter. Everyone outside with me at a certain location hears the exact same bird songs and calls that I do, but, to their brain, that information is not relevant. So, it’s tuned out. They ask, “how do you hear of all these birds?” Same reason you can recognize the voice of a family member or friend. You can differentiate your mother and father’s voice because you know them. You know who they are, what phrases they use, the idiosyncratic reflections of their voice, their pitch, tone, and overall sound of their voice. I know the birds, so I recognize their sounds, even if I don’t see them.
Another thing about listening: it doesn’t work well while you’re talking. I usually like birding alone because it’s hard not to talk when there are two of you. And, when you’re talking, you miss the far off bird calls and the quiet, high-pitched calls coming from the bushes. It seems like an intuitive concept, one that elementary teachers teach our children at a young age. “If your mouth is open, I know your ears are closed.” But, how easy is it to forget? Especially, in a heated argument. You’re not listening to the other person if you’re talking over them, and they aren’t listening to you.
Sad as it is, I think that the above situation is the default state of many of our relationships, especially our relationship with God. The Book of Proverbs is predicated on this idea of listening with commands to “hear” and “listen” and “take heed” scattered throughout its passages. A few examples out of the hundreds possible: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” – 18:13, ESV. “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” – 25:12, ESV. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” -12:15, ESV. Another classic verses comes from James 1:19 “…let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
But, I think my favorite of all listening passages is a story about Elijah from the Book of I Kings. I encourage you to read the whole passage here, but here’s an excerpt from I Kings 19:11-12:
“And he said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
Sometimes, I think we may complain that we can’t hear God clearly when we may not have put ourselves in the proper position to hear Him. Elijah was secluded in a cave, and so, he heard the Lord as He whispered. In order to hear the Lord, we must listen. And, in order to listen, we must know Him. We must relentlessly pursue Him and to be in relationship with Him. It’s hard for me to listen to, know, understand, and love my wife if I never see her or speak to her. How much harder is it then to try and know God?
When I practice identifying birds by sound, I practice in a quiet place without many distractions. I usually select one or two bird calls I don’t know very well and listen to them over and over again through an app on my phone. Sometimes, I use my phone when I’m birding to confirm what I’ve heard. After continual practice, I am able to pick out the specific call amongst a bustle of avian and human noise. You’ll never be able to distinguish God’s voice in the cacophony of life if you don’t first learn to recognize in the still and the quiet. After that, if you listen, you will be able to hear Him guiding you amongst the multitude other distractions.
“To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
– Proverbs 1:2-7 (ESV)