“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mark 4:9, ESV)
Hearing is a natural phenomenon. We don’t even have to try. It just – happens.
Yet, the physical act of hearing might as well be a miracle. There are so many things that have to be in place, so many things have to go right for it to happen, that it is a wonder we can hear anything at all. Think of how it works, and all of the things that can go wrong.
An object makes a movement. It could be a butterfly wing, a voice box, a falling tree branch, a doorbell. Air molecules are disturbed. These molecules then bump into billions of others. Whether or not the disturbance of those molecules ever reaches you is a matter of numerous factors, like: the mass of that object, the velocity with which it was moving, any other objects with which it might have collided, and our distance from it. That’s why the vibrations of an ant crawling on the floor next to us are essentially undetectable, while we hear the siren of a fire engine from across town. If we are close enough and the mass of the object is great enough, we will “hear” the sound. Well, maybe.
We must also be capable of detecting the frequency of vibrations that object has made. Frequency basically describes the distance between these ripples in air molecules, and is measured on a scale called Hertz (Hz). You might have seen it digitized in software in the form of waves. We hear it as pitch, like the varying notes on a scale. An “A” note – the standard musical tuning note – is 440 Hz. The extreme ends of human auditory range are between 20 and 20,000 Hz. Dog whistles begin around 20,000Hz. So only if the sound is more than 20 and less than 20,000 Hz humans can “hear” it. Maybe.
Even more can go wrong. These “waves” still must be physically captured (by our pinnae, the outer, visible flaps on the side of our heads) and drawn into a little funnel-shaped hole (ear canals) in either side of our heads. Any obstruction or malfunction of those physical capabilities will alter, dampen or obstruct hearing.
But, even if the waves reach this funnel-shaped hole our head, in order to experience all there is to experience, both of them must function properly. Our left and right ears function essentially the same, but because the vibrations they detect are processed by different hemispheres of the brain, the end product is different for each. Don’t believe it? Listen to your favorite song through only one ear bud or headphone, and then the other. If both ears aren’t functioning properly, or if only one is available to receive the particles smashing through the atmosphere, the result will be a distortion of sorts.
Yet, suppose that both ears and hemispheres of the brain are functioning properly. There are still things that can go wrong. There are numerous parts to the working of the inner ear, the ear drum, vestibule, and cochlea. Then there are the ossicles (commonly called the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup) – the three smallest bones in the human body. They work together to create an amplifier. They do this by increasing the pressure on the cochlear fluid to create a signal that is translated into nerve impulses that are then translated by the brain. Any interruption in this process means no signal gets to the brain via the auditory nerve. Or, it could be that the Eustachian tube is inflamed or clogged because of allergies, or a “head” cold, or a tumor could be compromising some aspect of these functions.
Even more things can go wrong. For example, other vibrations can be – in fact, always are – clashing through the air at the same time. What you thought you heard wasn’t one sound; maybe it was three or four sounds blended together.
If all that works, we’ve only begun to deal with the issues that inhibit hearing. There is the matter of the tricks our brains play on us. Brains are sophisticated things that, for reasons not completely known, and without the decent courtesy of asking our permission, tend to make a few things up as they go. Especially in the processes of sight and sound, our brains learn over time to recognize certain visual and auditory patterns and “block them out.” It keeps us from having to process every single thing as a new experience. Our brains label some patterns we see, and some noises we hear – however important they might have been – as irrelevant background stuff.
Of course, this all says nothing of emotional blockades. Perhaps someone is talking with whom you do not have a particular emotional connection, or they are talking about something you don’t like or care about (like, let’s say, pattern-making for dog garments). Or, perhaps grandma has told you this story before. This time, you consciously choose to ignore it, or at least relegate it to the “background noise” bin.
Hopefully, the spiritual parallels haven’t been lost on at this point. When it comes to physical hearing – with all of its nuance and complexity and moving (and non-moving) parts – so much can go wrong.
Should we be surprised if spiritual hearing – listening to God – would be equally, if not more precarious?
The creator of hearing and sound said:
“Pay attention to what you hear” (Mark 4:24, ESV), and
“Take care then how you hear” (Luke 8:18).
Indeed, friends, take good care, for so much can go wrong.