Communication in our twenty-first century digital world is dominated by the written word. Emails, texts, posts, tweets, and other messages fly between our digital devices, keeping us connected and helping us get things done. Unfortunately, we’ve also created an unhealthy attachment to these devices. As I drive down the road these days, I glance at other drivers, and I often see their eyes looking, not at the road, but down towards their lap.
Distracted driving aside, there are other risks when we use these short bursts of words to communicate. Even though these messages are convenient, it’s impossible for us to cram the richness of personal human interaction into them. A face-to-face conversation has body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, which can greatly modify the meaning of our words.
A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath. (Proverbs 15:1 CSB)
Tone of voice is particularly powerful in communicating emotional meaning, and in its absence, we tend to fill that gap with our own hopes, fears, or impressions about how the other person feels. We might guess right, especially if we know them well, but it’s also possible that our impressions could be far from reality.
Unfortunately, this same uncertainty can show up when we try to listen to God in Scripture. The Bible is full of stories in which God spoke, directly or indirectly, to specific people. But even though there are often clues in the text as to how God feels, it’s impossible for us actually hear the tone of God’s voice. Our impression of God’s words are too easily influenced by our experiences with parents, teachers, bosses, and religious leaders, all of which are (at best) imperfect models of God.
So when we read those Biblical stories, how do we hear God in our head? Do we hear compassion and caring, or coldness and condemnation? More importantly, how do we know that our impressions are correct?
For instance, take this lighthearted example from Jesus’s first miracle. Jesus, his disciples, and his mother are attending a wedding, and the hosts of the wedding run out of wine. Jesus’s mother approaches him with this dilemma:
When the wine ran out, Jesus’s mother told him, “They don’t have any wine.”
“What does that have to do with you and me, woman?” Jesus asked. “My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:3-4 CSB)
To my ears, Jesus’s words to his mother sound disrespectful, and my impression mostly hinges on the word woman. Growing up, when I heard someone–especially male–use woman to directly address a female, the tone was almost always derogatory, condescending, or frustrated.
So if I let my assumption provide Jesus’s tone, then I might conclude that either (a) Jesus was wrong to be disrespectful to his mother, or (b) being disrespectful to one’s mother isn’t wrong, because Jesus saw nothing wrong with it. (Mom, if you’re reading this, think of those times I was disrespectful to you growing up. Maybe I was just trying to act like Jesus.)
Of course, the correct answer is (c) Jesus wasn’t being disrespectful to his mother in the first place. Using the word woman in direct address in first-century Jewish culture was actually a term of respect and deference. So Jesus was still being respectful as he quipped with his mother, and in fact some English translations have him saying dear woman instead, to try to clear up any possible misunderstanding.
But even without commentary, I can figure out (c) as long as I’m familiar with the rest of the Bible. In Luke 2:51, Jesus grew up being obedient to his parents. In John 19:25-27, while he hung from the cross, Jesus made sure his mother would be provided for. And in many passages of Scripture, such as Hebrews 4:14-15, Jesus is affirmed as being sinless, so he would have perfectly obeyed God’s command in Exodus 20:12 to honor one’s mother. So after encountering passages like those, then (c) had to become the way I heard Jesus in John 2:4, even before I had any other evidence.
The Bible is crucial for us to learn how to listen to God, because God’s character never changes. But if we only read short passages of Scripture here and there, we’ll find it difficult to overcome our false impressions of God’s tone. The way to move past those impressions is to meditate on more of the Bible, seeing God’s responses and actions in many more contexts, and noticing how he consistently responds and emphasizes the same things. And eventually, if we open our heart to God as we read, our impressions of him will change and we’ll hear his tone much closer to the way God actually speaks.